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> Medicine in ancient Greece Issue: 2006-1 Section: Science


The confused opinion of the world concerning the ancient Greeks’ knowledge of medicine has been changing into admiration over the years, since scholars realized that most of the basic theoretical knowledge and the traditional, practical medicine was established in that era.



The transition from sorcery to science has been achieved gradually. Asklepioswas the main god of medicine in ancient times and was worshipped in many temples. Asclepiads was taught by centaur Hiron how to cure people either by using words which caused miracles, or drugs, or by surgery. It seems true that real medicine was early connected with the worship of Asclepiads in the island of Kos. There, ever since the 5th centurythe doctors achieved an advanced level of medical competence. They got together to organize the group of Asclepiads.

In Asklepieia miraculous treatment was performed. This method was known as animisms, i.e. people lay down in the holy temple and followed a typical rite of sacrifices waiting eagerly for the appearance of the god in their sleep. The god could suggest a way for the therapy or he could cure the patient during his visit. He might disguise himself as a snake, dog or another animal. The patient who was cured would leave the temple after either writing a report about his cure on a column or setting on it a model of the cured part of his body. Through these columns and the offerings we can learn details about the miracle-working treatment. On one of these columns a patient wrote that he had been suffering from an injury on his toe. He had gone to the temple, and after falling asleep and a snake had come out of the Abaton and cured him by licking it. When the patient woke up, he said that he had seen a handsome man in his sleep who put some medicine on his foot.

The promotion of these miracles (maybe for propaganda reasons) in the remedial procedure of Asklepieia proves, nevertheless, a valuable experience of the personnel of the sanctuaries in the remedy of various diseases. This experience led them to use practical methods on the patients congregated in the holy site. This is undoubtedly proved by the several medical tools, which have been revealed during the archaeological excavations in the sanctuaries.

Later, during the 4th century B.C., the combination of the remedy through miracles and the practical measures becomes obvious. This was due to the fact that people ceased to believe in the almightiness of the gods. Now the priests or the patients see in their dreams the god who shows them the way to be cured. So in Asklepieia ofPergamos the neurotic orator Aristidis was cured thanks to the suggestions of the gods for cold baths, vein puncture, enemas, horse riding. According to the legend, Asclepiads was wearing a woolen, white gown and a garment and holding a sceptre.



There were many distinguished personalities in the Greek-Roman times when the evolution of medicine was notable. The most eminent among them was Hippocrates. Maybe the most glorious inheritance that he left us is the code of medical behavior, the famous oath of Hippocrates. Through his work Hippocrates expressed some theories which many doctors share nowadays. The main characteristics of Hippocrates’s medicine are:


·For the first time the diseases are attributed to physicalcauses.

·For the first time the observation has a specific meaning as a diagnostic method.

·For the first time diet has a meaning.


Below there are some of the elements which Hippocrates’ theory was based on

1. He expressed that the main characteristics of the human body is the blood, the phlegm, the yellow and the black bile. All these must be in the right proportion so as not to cause a disease

2. He declared that the morbiferous causes are outside the human body but it depends on the idiosyncrasy of each person. But heredity has a special impact too.

3. Diseases go through three stages. In the first stage an upset in the balance of the elements of the body is noticed. In the second one the human organism reacts with high temperature and at the end in the third stage people die.

4. The main curing factor is nature. The doctor must fortify the physical defense of the organism.

All of his theories and instructions, written in his books, established a great medical school which resulted in the development of three medical fields: the diet, the pharmacy and the surgery.


The Other Doctors

A doctor’s life in ancient Greece was spent in the simple environment of the operating theatre. The immediate treatment of the diseases required the application of different tools and medicines. A typical example is the depiction of an open case at the base of a moment in the Asklepieio of Athens which contained several tools (see figure in the middle of page 36). In the picture we can recognize knives for bloodletting, nippers for cauterisms, cupping-glasses and needles for cataracts.

In the field of orthopedics the knowledge was limited. We just know from some books that they used to fit artificial limbs like wooden legs. In the field of dentistry we have indications that in the 6th centuryB.C. they used foils of gold, animals’ bones or teeth to fix people’s teeth.



In ancient times there were possibilities for narcosis. Since the second half of the millennium the juice of the poppy has been known as opium and for its ecstatic effect. Patients drank opium diluted in wine or they smoked it. Few years later, however, the doctors began to use the juice of mandrake, a plant with narcotic attributes (see the upper figure of page 37). But in a time when the science of chemistry did not exist, doctors did not know how to create curative combinations. So, when they found a formula for a medicinethey wrote it on papyrus. Doctors in ancient times made pills from the tallow but also collyriumsfor the eyes from wax.

At least with all this knowledge on many medical fields no one can dispute the contribution of ancient doctors in medical function and ideology.


Bibliography & Iconography

  • American School of Classical Studies in Athens: Cure and Cult in Ancient Corinth. Guide. 1977
  • Λυπουρλής Δ.: Ιπποκρατική Ιατρική. Εκδόσεις Παρατηρητής. 1983
  • Μαντάς Κ.: Ασθένειες και Ιατρική στην Αρχαία Ελλάδα και τη Ρώμη. Περιοδικό Corpus, τεύχος 37, 2002
  • Νάνου Χ.: Στο χειρουργείο του 7ου αιώνα πΧ. Εφημερίδα Αγγελιοφόρος. 2006
  • Πάπυρος Λαρούς Μπριτάνικα: Ιατρική. Eγκυκλοπαίδεια.
  • Σαλμανίδης Α.: Ιατρική στην Ιπποκρατική περίοδο και η εξέλιξή της παγκοσμίως ως σήμερα. Eφημερίδα Αγγελιοχώρος. 2006