The Trial of Agnodice

The Trial of Agnodice

By J. L. Thurston

The dry summer heat did not deter the masses from gathering that day in the court of the Acropolis. Three large buildings were erected in such a way they formed a triangle of open space between them, used to try criminals of the highest degree in open court. On that sweltering summer afternoon observers were pressed shoulder to shoulder, despite their radiating body heat. Their murmurs and musty sweat wafted through the yard, though it barely registered in the minds of those who had gathered for the matter at hand. The Council of five-hundred elders moved around almost casually on their platform, wearing dark robes and wide-brimmed petasos. Surrounding them in clusters was the jury of seven-hundred and one men. If one did not know what reason the trial was organized, one might assume a murder had occurred, such was the grandeur of the event.

Centered within it all awaited the accused. Agnodice was a man well-known to Athens. A man of medicine, of hope, of understanding. His body was as slight as a leaf, delicate for a man. His soft features gave him a boyish charm far younger than his age should allow. Even his voice was more akin to youth than to a physician of middle age. He was as still as a statue, with eyes that shimmered with intelligence that surpassed his peers. Behind him were his supporters. Though, against the thousands who protested him, they were a weak crowd. Agnodice was backed by his orator and fifty of the women whose lives he’d saved. Some on more than one occasion.

The plaintiffs were his fellow colleagues in medicine, including his own teacher, Herophilus of Chalcedon. After all the harsh words and pointed fingers, Herophilus’ statements had wounded the deepest. Agnodice would freely admit, even on the day of his trial, that Herophilus was a man worthy of the gods. A great teacher, to be sure, but a better gynecologist there would never be. It was Herophilus who had extracted the secret of life from the sacrum hold of a woman’s body. He had found the organ of the gods, the fruit in which a man’s seed would endeavor to seek out. The ovary; the key to the continuation of humanity.

Yes, Herophilus was a great man. Countless babes were brought into the world by passing through his hands. But from his lips, he cursed Agnodice. He lamented the teachings to his former pupil, and turned his back forever upon him. Agnodice publicly wept from the overwhelming sense of abandonment. Losing the love of his teacher caused him far more anguish than the punishment of death that certainly awaited him.

A voice would whisper every hour or so, meant only for the ears of Agnodice. The voice was strong, belonging to a woman who had survived two near-fatal deliveries. Ianthe whispered to her physician, the savior of not only her life but of her first two children, to be brave. It was like the thunder soothing the sky after a sharp crack of lightning.

Ianthe had struggled most severely in childbirth, her life nearly forfeit, she breathed her dying breaths in refusal of a man’s aid. Her husband had called upon four physicians in his desperation to save her during labor, but she had turned them all away. Agnodice had learned of her plight through the disgruntled report of a colleague. By the time he had made it to Ianthe’s abode, she was not far from death, and he was not certain the babe was still living. Alone, together in her birthing room, Agnodice revealed to Ianthe his greatest secret, and in return she trusted him with the delivery of her child. She brushed death a second time with her second childbirth, but managed two more perfectly healthy births thereafter. She insisted all her babes be brought forth through Agnodice’s assistance, and therefore many more women called upon him for their delivery.

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It took less than a year after Ianthe’s first birth for Agnodice’s fame and success to outshine the Athenian physicians. It was not long after that, their jealousy surpassed their admiration. Thus began the accusations and the fall of Agnodice into the hands of this very court.

His orator spoke well, defending him with great skill. It had caused the Council and the jury a tremendous debate, but it seemed their minds were in unity. The decision was soon to be made. Agnodice knew he was to be found guilty, and he prayed to the gods to be exiled, rather than executed. He stood with his back straight, his hands folded behind him, and watched the dark-clothed figures of the Council deliver their sentence.

His face obscured in darkness by the shade of his petasos, the oldest and most trusted of the Council spoke, “Agnodice of Athens, you stand accused of seducing your patients and undertaking acts indecent of your profession. We, the Council of Athens, and the jury, judge you to be guilty of these accusations. You shall be executed by stone at dusk.”

Sweating fingers wrapped around one of the hands at Agnodice’s back. Ianthe sobbed into her free hand, and gripped tight with the other, unwilling to let him go to his death. Many observers gasped at the open display of affection. It surely proved that Agnodice had taken Ianthe to bed with him, ensuring his popularity with his female patients.

Rage unlike any he had ever felt bubbled in his belly. It was death they wanted, so death would find him. Nothing could be done to make matters better or worse, so Agnodice strode forward with the confidence earned through years of toil and education. Standing free of supporters and accusers, he lifted the stifling robe draped across his body. In the blaring sunlight, none could mistake his nude form. Soft, sweat-glistened curves and a body as stunning as Aphrodite’s was exposed for all. A collective gasp flooded the court from all who could see the undeniable shape of round breasts. As Agnodice walked in full nude, eyes were uncontrollably drawn downwards, and indeed the physician was revealed to be a woman.

She spread her arms wide, offering the vision of her body to the court and to the gods. “Here, I am!” she boasted. “Accused of bedding the women whom I’ve cared for. Execute me, an innocent woman, as abstinent from intimate touch as a child. My blood shall rest upon your souls and you will carry your crimson sin to the gods.”

The stunned silence that followed echoed throughout all the Areopagus. There was no time for hope; Agnodice knew that the revelation of her sex would only insight rage at her true crime. Within minutes, new exclamations reached her ears. “A woman, practicing medicine!”

“A woman!” the words were spat.

Even in the brutal heat of the summer afternoon, Agnodice felt cold. She retreated to her robe, bent just enough to pluck it from the dirt, and covered herself. She had given them the perfect reason to execute her; she had broken a law as old and iron-clad as the will of the gods. She had disguised herself as a man to practice medicine. It was the very secret that she revealed to Ianthe to earn her trust and save her life, as well as so many other women in need who shied from the inspection of a man. Ianthe’s argument, as was the argument of countless other women; a man did not understand a woman’s needs. But Agnodice did. Even the patients who did not know she was a woman had praised her methods.

Now the Council and the jury began a new debate against Agnodice’s shocked orator. There were many shouts and angry gestures aimed at Agnodice. Their voices carried throughout the triangle court yard for two hours. Slowly, they began to settle and grow quiet in their debating. A vote was called with level tones. It seemed the Council and jury were in agreement. Even the audience had been all but silenced over time, unified in their own judgement. Agnodice had gone to her knees in deep prayer to the gods, forcing her mind to retreat to a calm place. She drew strength from the nearness of her supporters; the fifty patients who had stood behind her during the grueling trial. They now surrounded her like a herd of cattle protecting a newborn calf from a flock of hungry vultures.

Agnodice did not stand when the Council called for attention.

 Elizabeth Blackwell, the first female physician in America, and the first woman to graduate from med school.

Elizabeth Blackwell, the first female physician in America, and the first woman to graduate from med school.

 Catherine Hamlin, Australian OBGYN; gives free medical care to poor, abandoned Ethiopian women.

Catherine Hamlin, Australian OBGYN; gives free medical care to poor, abandoned Ethiopian women.

“Agnodice,” came the cracked voice of the eldest Councilor. “A law has been broken. It is a law set in place to protect women from the misguided logic only a woman can have. It is a law that elders have defended to the point of death. Death calls for the breaking of this law, and so it would call you, Agnodice.”

Her execution was inescapable.

“If you put Agnodice to death, you shall have to put us all to death,” came Ianthe’s voice in such defiance as never uttered toward the elders. “And you must put to death all of the children she has saved.”

Agnodice gasped and jumped to her feet, gripping Ianthe by the shoulders. “Silence!”

Ianthe’s jaw was set, her eyes never removed from the five hundred men of the Council. “Agnodice is the one who saved our lives, and our children’s lives by the breaking of this law. If you claim that the actions were wrong, then you also must claim the consequences were wrong. This must be so, if spoken by the great Council of Athens, and thus the fifty women who stand before you today must be put to death as well as the children we have born safely into the world with the medical care given by Agnodice.”

Husbands, brothers, fathers, children, and mothers alike, all began to shout. “I won’t stand for it!” “Not my wife!” “Mommy, no!” Cries of alarm, sobs, and outrage filled the air. The massive crowd shifted and buzzed like a hive of angry bees, their unity now forgotten.

The Councilor who spoke raised his hand to silence the eruption of chatter. His weathered lips curved where the shadow of a smile played. “We predicted this may be the case. In our debating, we came to the conclusion that this law was put in place long ago to protect our women from the problems of that ancient time. This is a new age, and new women live within it. Therefore, we have moved to strike against the law prohibiting women to practice medicine. Agnodice, you are found innocent of all accusations which have brought you forward today. My fellows and I, in the Council of Athens, have daughters and granddaughters who are alive today because of your skill, and we owe you nothing but our admiration and gratitude.”

A cheer burst forth from every mouth in the court. In years to follow, if one were to ask Agnodice what was the greatest achievement of her career, she would not say that it was being found innocent of false accusations, she would not even say it was the many lives she’d spared, she would claim that it was to help the Council correct a heinous mistake and enable others like her to follow their passion for helping people.

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