Chronoi Talks “Measuring the Pulse in Ancient Greece and Rome: The Case of Full and Empty Pulses”

December 2, 2019

10-12 am

Dr. Orly Lewis


Einstein Center Chronoi
Otto-von-Simson-Straße 7
14195 Berlin

From the third century BCE onwards, the feeling of patients’ pulse and the assessment of its particular characteristics was one of the main methods which Greek and Roman physicians used in order to diagnose their patients. The spread of the clinical use of this method was accompanied by heated debates concerning the physiology of the pulse as well as the types of pulse, their names and the diagnostic significance of each type. In the absence of equipment such as blood pressure metres or ECG machines physicians developed refined haptic abilities by which they distinguished the different pulses they sensed in their patients. There were very limited means for quantifying these sensory distinctions and often no appropriate measuring units and values to do so. To overcome these challenges, physicians developed a rich technical vocabulary to express the minute qualitative distinctions and convey them to students. Our sources speak of fast and slow pulses, of six and more degrees of large pulses, of vehement and faint pulses, of relaxed, hard, well-rhythmed, frequent and countless other kinds of pulse. As is often the case in Greco-Roman medicine, competing terminologies were put forward and these often reflected different physiological and pathological theories concerning the workings of the body and how diseases affect it.

I will begin my talk with an introduction to Greco-Roman understanding of the pulse, the methods doctors used in order to assess it and the different qualitative distinctions they describe. I will then turn to the concept of ‘the fullness’ (ἡ πληρότης) of the pulse and the related concepts of ‘the full pulse’ (ὁπλήρης σφυγμός) and ‘the empty pulse’ (ὁ κενὸςσφυγμός). The questions of what such qualifications mean and whether it is ‘correct’ to use such terms to describe the pulse were much debated in antiquity. Some believed the degree of fullness in the pulse indicates the quantity or quality of the substance flowing through the arteries, others thought it indicates the quality of the arterial walls.

I will focus on the meaning assigned to these terms by the physician Archigenes of Apamea, who practiced in Rome during the late first and early second centuries CE. Archigenes argued that the fullness of the pulse can tell us something about the condition of the pneuma, the airy substance which, according to him, held the body together and facilitated a variety of bodily and mental functions. In my talk I will try to understand how he thought one can determine whether a given pulse is full and empty and what exactly this would indicate regarding the patient’s condition.

Those who are interested to receiving relevant texts in advance can write to with a request for the PDF documents.