Constantine the African played a vital part in introducing Graeco-Arabic medical learning in medieval Italy, and subsequently throughout Latin-speaking Europe.

Constantine the African

Constantine the African was probably born in Carthage. Legend has it that he was a spice merchant with knowledge of Arabic pharmacology and medicine. Some time in the 1070s he visited Salerno, in the south of Italy, at that time the main centre of medical learning, only to find that there were no medical textbooks in Latin. So he returned to Africa to study medicine. In about 1077 he made his way back to Salerno and set about learning Latin, so as to translate medical literature from the Arabic. At the same time he converted to Catholicism and entered the monastery of Monte Cassino. He was supported in his translation work by Archbishop Alfanus of Salerno (1058-85), and, from 1058 onwards, Abbot Desiderius of Monte Cassino. Constantine died at Monte Cassino, probably in 1087.

Three major works of his are known: Liber Pantegni, Viaticum and Megatechne, as well as a number of minor ones. All of these were adaptations of Arabic writings, which, in turn, were often based on classical texts by Hippocrates (c. 460-370 BC), the father of Greek medicine, or by Galen, a renowned Greek physician from Pergamum.

Liber Pantegni (from the Greek pantechne, ‘The whole art’) was divided into a theoretical section, Theorica, and a practical one, Practica, each comprising ten books. Pantegni is an adaptation of an Arabic treatise, Kitab-al-Maliki, dealing with the whole art of medicine. Kitab-al-Malik (also known as the Liber Regalis in the Latin manuscript tradition) was the most important Arabic medical textbook before Avicenna (980-1037). Its author was a famous Persian physician known in Europe as Haly Abbas (d. 994).

Viaticum was a medical handbook for travellers, freely adapted from an Arabic original by Zad al-musafir, Ibn al-Ğazzar (d. 1004) and Megatechne (Gr. ‘The Big art’) was a compendium of Greco-Arabic medicine.

The role played by Constantine the African as a translator of Graeco-Arabic medical literature was very significant. He played a vital part in introducing Graeco-Arabic medical learning in medieval Italy, and subsequently throughout Latin-speaking Europe, and he is also notable for his achievements in pharmacology, a special interest of his. The tenth book of his Practica, for example, dealing with pharmacology, was a substantially enlarged version of the Arabic original.

Ars medicinae

The School of Salerno became increasingly prominent during the eleventh century as a centre of medical education. It is not known whether Constantine taught there, but we do know that his writings were used and commented on there. In the first half of the twelfth century, by which time the School of Salerno was firmly established, a collection of treatises entitled Ars medicinae (‘The Art of medicine’) was being used as a textbook. It was made up of five texts, namely a general introduction to medical theory and four texts on practical diagnosis. The core of the collection consisted of the Aphorisms of Hippocrates, beginning with the well-known adage: ‘Life is short and the Art long; the occasion fleeting; experience fallacious, and judgment difficult’.

The Latin translation of the Aphorisms in the Ars medicinae is directly from the Greek and is dated to the beginning of the twelfth century. The Aphorisms were followed by Hippocrates’ The Prognostics, dealing with acute diseases. This was several times translated into Latin. Two of the later translations achieved particularly widespread circulation. One was the translation which Constantine the African made directly from the Greek at the end of the eleventh century. Another one was made in the mid-twelfth century from the Arabic.

The Ars medicinae also included two short treatises of Byzantine origin, both of which were translated into Latin soon after 1100. One of them, De pulsibus, dealing with the pulse as a means of diagnosis, has been ascribed to one Philaretus, but was in fact the work of an unknown author or else of Galen, while the other, De urinis, dealing with urinary diagnosis, was by a Byzantine physician called Theophilus Protospatharios (6th or 7th century).


The Ars medicinae opens with a general introduction Isagoge by Hunayn ibn Isha´q (808-73), known in the Latin world as Johannitius. Born near Hira in what is now Iraq, Hunain ibn Ishaq came from a Nestorian Christian family. He practised medicine in Baghdad, but also became a famous philosopher and theologian. First and foremost, though, he was a very distinguished translator of the medical writings of Galen. Mostly he translated from Greek into Syrian, and then from Syrian into Arabic, usually abridging, enlarging and amending the original texts in the process.

Isagoge (from the Greek eisagoge, introduction) was a brief compendium of medical theory intended as an introduction to Galen’s Tegni, a manual of general medical principles, and a summary of the author’s medical teachings.

Three Arabic versions of the Isagoge were in circulation. One of them, in question-and-answer form, was very popular and was translated into Latin in the thirteenth century. The greatly abridged Latin translation of the second was known as the Isagoge of Johannitius. The third consisted of diagrams and tables and was never translated into Latin at all.

The two earliest dated manuscripts of Johannitius’ Isagoge were made in southern Italy at the end of the eleventh century, and one of them probably comes from the monastery of Monte Cassino. Given the dating and provenance of these manuscripts, Constantine the African seems the likeliest translator. (Marcus of Toledo, another Latin translator of Arab medical texts, who could have translated the Isagoge, is ruled out here because he was not active until after 1190.) The Isagoge encompasses the full content of both manuscripts.

The first known manuscript containing the whole of the Ars medicinae dates from the beginning of the twelfth century and originated in the south of Italy. The collection was enlarged in the second half of the twelfth century by the addition of Galen’s Tegni, and in the thirteenth century by the Hippocratic De regimine acutorum (‘On Regimen in Acute Diseases’). It became the fundamental textbook on the medical curriculum throughout the Middle Ages, and went through several printed editions in the sixteenth century under the title of Articella (‘The little art’), but then with still further writings added to it.

Codex Gigas

Codex Gigas contains the early version of Ars medicinae, comprising five writings [240ra-243vb].  The manuscript also includes the Practica of Constantine [243vb-248vb] and two shorter works of his, namely Liber graduum [248vb-249ra], a treatise on pharmacology, and Liber de oculis [249ra-252ra], which deals with eye diseases and is a translation of a lost work by Hunayn ibn Isha´q, based on writings by Galen.