Ancient Greek medicine

Ancient Greek medicine was a compilation of theories and practices that were constantly expanding through new ideologies and trials. Many components were considered in ancient Greek medicine, intertwining the spiritual with the physical. Specifically, the ancient Greeks believed health was affected by the humors, geographic location, social class, diet, trauma, beliefs, and mindset. Early on the ancient Greeks believed that illnesses were "divine punishments" and that healing was a "gift from the Gods".[1] As trials continued wherein theories were tested against symptoms and results, the pure spiritual beliefs regarding "punishments" and "gifts" were replaced with a foundation based in the physical, i.e., cause and effect.[1]

Humorism (or the four humors) refers to blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile. It was also theorized that sex played a role in medicine because some diseases and treatments were different for females than for males. Moreover, geographic location and social class affected the living conditions of the people and might subject them to different environmental issues such as mosquitoes, rats, and availability of clean drinking water. Diet was thought to be an issue as well and might be affected by a lack of access to adequate nourishment. Trauma, such as that suffered by gladiators, from dog bites or other injuries, played a role in theories relating to understanding anatomy and infections. Additionally, there was significant focus on the beliefs and mindset of the patient in the diagnosis and treatment theories. It was recognized that the mind played a role in healing, or that it might also be the sole basis for the illness.[2]

Ancient Greek medicine began to revolve around the theory of humors.The humoral theory states that good health comes from a perfect balance of the four humors: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. Consequently, poor health resulted from improper balance of the four humors. Hippocrates, known as the "Father of Modern Medicine", established a medical school at Cos and is the most important figure in ancient Greek medicine.[3] Hippocrates and his students documented numerous illnesses in the Hippocratic Corpus, and developed the Hippocratic Oath for physicians, which is still in use today. The contributions to ancient Greek medicine of Hippocrates, Socrates and others had a lasting influence on Islamic medicine and medieval European medicine until many of their findings eventually became obsolete in the 14th century.

The earliest known Greek medical school opened in Cnidus in 700 BC. Alcmaeon, author of the first anatomical compilation, worked at this school, and it was here that the practice of observing patients was established. Despite their known respect for Egyptian medicine, attempts to discern any particular influence on Greek practice at this early time have not been dramatically successful because of the lack of sources and the challenge of understanding ancient medical terminology. It is clear, however, that the Greeks imported Egyptian substances into their pharmacopoeia, and the influence became more pronounced after the establishment of a school of Greek medicine in Alexandria.[4]

Medicine aryballos Louvre CA1989-2183 n2
Physician treating a patient (Attic red-figure aryballos, 480–470 BC)


Kos Asklepeion
View of the Asklepieion of Kos, the best preserved instance of an Asclepieion.

Asclepius was espoused as the first physician, and myth placed him as the son of Apollo. Temples dedicated to the healer-god Asclepius, known as Asclepieia (Greek: Ἀσκληπιεῖα; sing. Ἀσκληπιεῖον Asclepieion), functioned as centers of medical advice, prognosis, and healing.[5] At these shrines, patients would enter a dream-like state of induced sleep known as "enkoimesis" (Greek: ἐγκοίμησις) not unlike anesthesia, in which they either received guidance from the deity in a dream or were cured by surgery.[6] Asclepeia provided carefully controlled spaces conducive to healing and fulfilled several of the requirements of institutions created for healing.[5] The Temple of Asclepius in Pergamum had a spring that flowed down into an underground room in the Temple. People would come to drink the waters and to bathe in them because they were believed to have medicinal properties. Mud baths and hot teas such as chamomile were used to calm them or peppermint tea to soothe their headaches, which is still a home remedy used by many today. The patients were encouraged to sleep in the facilities too. Their dreams were interpreted by the doctors and their symptoms were then reviewed. Dogs would occasionally be brought in to lick open wounds for assistance in their healing. In the Asclepieion of Epidaurus, three large marble boards dated to 350 BC preserve the names, case histories, complaints, and cures of about 70 patients who came to the temple with a problem and shed it there. Some of the surgical cures listed, such as the opening of an abdominal abscess or the removal of traumatic foreign material, are realistic enough to have taken place, but with the patient in a state of enkoimesis induced with the help of soporific substances such as opium.[6]

The Rod of Asclepius is a universal symbol for medicine to this day. However, it is frequently confused with Caduceus, which was a staff wielded by the god Hermes. The Rod of Asclepius embodies one snake with no wings whereas Caduceus is represented by two snakes and a pair of wings depicting the swiftness of Hermes.

Ancient Greek physicians

Ancient Greek physicians regarded disease as being of supernatural origin, brought about from the dissatisfaction of the gods or from demonic possession.[7] The fault of the ailment was placed on the patient and the role of the physician was to conciliate with the gods or exorcise the demon with prayers, spells, and sacrifices.

The Hippocratic Corpus and Humorism

Surgical tools, 5th century BC, Greece (reconstruction)
Surgical tools, 5th century BC. Reconstructions based on descriptions within the Hippocratic corpus. Thessaloniki Technology Museum

The Hippocratic Corpus opposes ancient beliefs, offering biologically based approaches to disease instead of magical intervention. The Hippocratic Corpus is a collection of about seventy early medical works from ancient Greece that are associated with Hippocrates and his students. Although once thought to have been written by Hippocrates himself, many scholars today believe that these texts were written by a series of authors over several decades.[8] The Corpus contains the treatise, the Sacred Disease, which argues that if all diseases were derived from supernatural sources, biological medicines would not work. The establishment of the humoral theory of medicine focused on the balance between blood, yellow and black bile, and phlegm in the human body. Being too hot, cold, dry or wet disturbed the balance between the humors, resulting in disease and illness. Gods and demons were not believed to punish the patient, but attributed to bad air (miasma theory). Physicians who practiced humoral medicine focused on reestablishing balance between the humors. The shift from supernatural disease to biological disease did not completely abolish Greek religion, but offered a new method of how physicians interacted with patients.

Ancient Greek physicians who followed humorism emphasized the importance of environment. Physicians believed patients would be subjected to various diseases based on the environment they resided. The local water supply and the direction the wind blew influenced the health of the local populace. Patients played an important role in their treatment. Stated in the treatise "Aphorisms", "[i]t is not enough for the physician to do what is necessary, but the patient and the attendant must do their part as well".[9] Patient compliance was rooted in their respect for the physician. According to the treatise "Prognostic", a physician was able to increase their reputation and respect through "prognosis", knowing the outcome of the disease. Physicians had an active role in the lives of patients, taking into consideration their residence. Distinguishing between fatal diseases and recoverable disease was important for patient trust and respect, positively influencing patient compliance.

HSAsclepiusKos retouched
Asclepius (center) arrives in Kos and is greeted by Hippocrates (left) and a citizen (right), mosaic from the Asclepieion of Kos, 2nd-3rd century AD

With the growth of patient compliance in Greek medicine, consent became an important factor between the doctor and patient relationship. Presented with all the information concerning the patient's health, the patient makes the decision to accept treatment. Physician and patient responsibility is mentioned in the treatise "Epidemics", where it states, "there are three factors in the practice of medicine: the disease, the patient and the physician. The physician is the servant of science, and the patient must do what he can to fight the disease with the assistance of the physician".[10]

Aristotle's influence on Greek perception

Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle was the most influential scholar of the living world from antiquity. Aristotle's biological writings demonstrate great concern for empiricism, biological causation, and the diversity of life.[11] Aristotle did not experiment, however, holding that items display their real natures in their own environments, rather than controlled artificial ones. While in modern-day physics and chemistry this assumption has been found unhelpful, in zoology and ethology it remains the dominant practice, and Aristotle's work "retains real interest".[12] He made countless observations of nature, especially the habits and attributes of plants and animals in the world around him, which he devoted considerable attention to categorizing. In all, Aristotle classified 540 animal species, and dissected at least 50.

Aristotle believed that formal causes guided all natural processes.[13] Such a teleological view gave Aristotle cause to justify his observed data as an expression of formal design; for example suggesting that Nature, giving no animal both horns and tusks, was staving off vanity, and generally giving creatures faculties only to such a degree as they are necessary. In a similar fashion, Aristotle believed that creatures were arranged in a graded scale of perfection rising from plants on up to man—the scala naturae or Great Chain of Being.[14]

He held that the level of a creature's perfection was reflected in its form, but not foreordained by that form. Yet another aspect of his biology divided souls into three groups: a vegetative soul, responsible for reproduction and growth; a sensitive soul, responsible for mobility and sensation; and a rational soul, capable of thought and reflection. He attributed only the first to plants, the first two to animals, and all three to humans.[15] Aristotle, in contrast to earlier philosophers, and like the Egyptians, placed the rational soul in the heart, rather than the brain.[16] Notable is Aristotle's division of sensation and thought, which generally went against previous philosophers, with the exception of Alcmaeon.[17]

Aristotle's successor at the Lyceum, Theophrastus, wrote a series of books on botany—the History of Plants—which survived as the most important contribution of antiquity to botany, even into the Middle Ages. Many of Theophrastus' names survive into modern times, such as carpos for fruit, and pericarpion for seed vessel. Rather than focus on formal causes, as Aristotle did, Theophrastus suggested a mechanistic scheme, drawing analogies between natural and artificial processes, and relying on Aristotle's concept of the efficient cause. Theophrastus also recognized the role of sex in the reproduction of some higher plants, though this last discovery was lost in later ages.[18] The biological/teleological ideas of Aristotle and Theophrastus, as well as their emphasis on a series of axioms rather than on empirical observation, cannot be easily separated from their consequent impact on Western medicine.

Herophilus and Erasistratus

161Theophrastus 161 frontespizio
Frontispiece to a 1644 version of the expanded and illustrated edition of Theophrastus's Historia Plantarum (c. 1200), which was originally written around 200 BC

Following Theophrastus (d. 286 BC), the Lyceum failed to produce any original work. Though interest in Aristotle's ideas survived, they were generally taken unquestioningly.[19] It is not until the age of Alexandria under the Ptolemies that advances in biology can be again found. The first medical teacher at Alexandria was Herophilus of Chalcedon, who differed from Aristotle, placing intelligence in the brain, and connected the nervous system to motion and sensation. Herophilus also distinguished between veins and arteries, noting that the latter pulse while the former do not. He did this using an experiment involving cutting certain veins and arteries in a pig's neck until the squealing stopped.[20] In the same vein, he developed a diagnostic technique which relied upon distinguishing different types of pulse.[21] He, and his contemporary, Erasistratus of Chios, researched the role of veins and nerves, mapping their courses across the body.

Erasistratus connected the increased complexity of the surface of the human brain compared to other animals to its superior intelligence. He sometimes employed experiments to further his research, at one time repeatedly weighing a caged bird and noting its weight loss between feeding times. Following his teacher's researches into pneumatics, he claimed that the human system of blood vessels was controlled by vacuums, drawing blood across the body. In Erasistratus' physiology, air enters the body, is then drawn by the lungs into the heart, where it is transformed into vital spirit, and is then pumped by the arteries throughout the body. Some of this vital spirit reaches the brain, where it is transformed into animal spirit, which is then distributed by the nerves.[22] Herophilus and Erasistratus performed their experiments upon criminals given to them by their Ptolemaic kings. They dissected these criminals alive, and "while they were still breathing they observed parts which nature had formerly concealed, and examined their position, colour, shape, size, arrangement, hardness, softness, smoothness, connection."[23]

Though a few ancient atomists such as Lucretius challenged the teleological viewpoint of Aristotelian ideas about life, teleology (and after the rise of Christianity, natural theology) would remain central to biological thought essentially until the 18th and 19th centuries. In the words of Ernst Mayr, "Nothing of any real consequence in biology after Lucretius and Galen until the Renaissance."[24] Aristotle's ideas of natural history and medicine survived, but they were generally taken unquestioningly.[25]


Aelius Galenus was a prominent Greek physician, surgeon and philosopher in the Roman Empire.[26][27][28] Arguably the most accomplished of all medical researchers of antiquity, Galen influenced the development of various scientific disciplines, including anatomy,[29] physiology, pathology,[30] pharmacology,[31] and neurology, as well as philosophy[32] and logic.

The son of Aelius Nicon, a wealthy architect with scholarly interests, Galen received a comprehensive education that prepared him for a successful career as a physician and philosopher. Born in Pergamon (present-day Bergama, Turkey), Galen traveled extensively, exposing himself to a wide variety of medical theories and discoveries before settling in Rome, where he served prominent members of Roman society and eventually was given the position of personal physician to several emperors.

Galen's understanding of anatomy and medicine was principally influenced by the then-current theory of humorism, as advanced by ancient Greek physicians such as Hippocrates. His theories dominated and influenced Western medical science for more than 1,300 years. His anatomical reports, based mainly on dissection of monkeys, especially the Barbary macaque, and pigs, remained uncontested until 1543, when printed descriptions and illustrations of human dissections were published in the seminal work De humani corporis fabrica by Andreas Vesalius[33][34] where Galen's physiological theory was accommodated to these new observations.[35] Galen's theory of the physiology of the circulatory system endured until 1628, when William Harvey published his treatise entitled De motu cordis, in which he established that blood circulates, with the heart acting as a pump.[36][37] Medical students continued to study Galen's writings until well into the 19th century. Galen conducted many nerve ligation experiments that supported the theory, which is still accepted today, that the brain controls all the motions of the muscles by means of the cranial and peripheral nervous systems.[38]

Galen saw himself as both a physician and a philosopher, as he wrote in his treatise entitled That the Best Physician is also a Philosopher.[39][40][41] Galen was very interested in the debate between the rationalist and empiricist medical sects,[42] and his use of direct observation, dissection and vivisection represents a complex middle ground between the extremes of those two viewpoints.[43][44][45]


The first century AD Greek physician, pharmacologist, botanist, and Roman army surgeon Pedanius Dioscorides authored an encyclopedia of medicinal substances commonly known as De Materia Medica. This work did not delve into medical theory or explanation of pathogenesis, but described the uses and actions of some 600 substances, based on empirical observation. Unlike other works of Classical antiquity, Dioscorides' manuscript was never out of publication; it formed the basis for the Western pharmacopeia through the 19th century, a true testament to the efficacy of the medicines described; moreover, the influence of work on European herbal medicine eclipsed that of the Hippocratic Corpes.[46]

Historical legacy

Through long contact with Greek culture, and their eventual conquest of Greece, the Romans adopted a favorable view of Hippocratic medicine.[47]

This acceptance led to the spread of Greek medical theories throughout the Roman Empire, and thus a large portion of the West. The most influential Roman scholar to continue and expand on the Hippocratic tradition was Galen (d. c. 207). Study of Hippocratic and Galenic texts, however, all but disappeared in the Latin West in the Early Middle Ages, following the collapse of the Western Empire, although the Hippocratic-Galenic tradition of Greek medicine continued to be studied and practiced in the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium). After AD 750, Arab, Persian and Andalusi scholars translated Galen's and Dioscorides' works in particular. Thereafter the Hippocratic-Galenic medical tradition was assimilated and eventually expanded, with the most influential Muslim doctor-scholar being (Ibn Sina). Beginning in the late eleventh century, the Hippocratic-Galenic tradition returned to the Latin West with a series of translations of the Classical texts, mainly from Arabic translations but occasionally from the original Greek. In the Renaissance, more translations of Galen and Hippocrates directly from the Greek were made from newly available Byzantine manuscripts.

Galen's influence was so great that even after Western Europeans started making dissections in the thirteenth century, scholars often assimilated findings into the Galenic model that otherwise might have thrown Galen's accuracy into doubt. Over time, however, Classical medical theory came to be superseded by increasing emphasis on scientific experimental methods in the 16th and 17th centuries. Nevertheless, the Hippocratic-Galenic practice of bloodletting was practiced into the 19th century, despite its empirical ineffectiveness and riskiness.

See also


  1. ^ a b Cartwright, Mark (2013). "Greek Medicine". Ancient History Encyclopedia Limited. UK. Retrieved November 9, 2013.
  2. ^ Bendick, Jeanne. "Galen – And the Gateway to Medicine." Ignatius Press, San Francisco, CA, 2002. ISBN 1-883937-75-2.
  3. ^ Atlas of Anatomy, ed. Giunti Editorial Group, Taj Books LTD 2002, p. 9
  4. ^ Heinrich von Staden, Herophilus: The Art of Medicine in Early Alexandria (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), pp. 1-26.
  5. ^ a b Risse, G. B. Mending bodies, saving souls: a history of hospitals. Oxford University Press, 1990. p. 56 [1]
  6. ^ a b Askitopoulou, H., Konsolaki, E., Ramoutsaki, I., Anastassaki, E. Surgical cures by sleep induction as the Asclepieion of Epidaurus. The mistory of anesthesia: proceedings of the Fifth International Symposium, by José Carlos Diz, Avelino Franco, Douglas R. Bacon, J. Rupreht, Julián Alvarez. Elsevier Science B.V., International Congress Series 1242(2002), p.11-17. [2]
  7. ^ Kaba, R.; Sooriakumaran, P. (2007). "The evolution of the doctor-patient relationship". International Journal of Surgery. 5 (1): 57–65. doi:10.1016/j.ijsu.2006.01.005.
  8. ^ Vivian Nutton'Ancient Medicine'(Routledge 2004)
  9. ^ Chadwick, edited with an introduction by G.E.R. Lloyd; translated [from the Greek] by J.; al.], W.N. Mann ... [et (1983). Hippocratic writings ([New] ed., with additional material, Repr. in Penguin classics. ed.). Harmondsworth: Penguin. p. 206. ISBN 0140444513.CS1 maint: Extra text: authors list (link)
  10. ^ Chadwick. Hippocratic Writings. p. 94. ISBN 0140444513.
  11. ^ Mason, A History of the Sciences pp 41
  12. ^ Annas, Classical Greek Philosophy pp 247
  13. ^ Mayr, The Growth of Biological Thought, pp 84-90, 135; Mason, A History of the Sciences, p 41-44
  14. ^ Mayr, The Growth of Biological Thought, pp 201-202; see also: Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being
  15. ^ Aristotle, De Anima II 3
  16. ^ Mason, A History of the Sciences pp 45
  17. ^ Guthrie, A History of Greek Philosophy Vol. 1 pp. 348
  18. ^ Mayr, The Growth of Biological Thought, pp 90-91; Mason, A History of the Sciences, p 46
  19. ^ Annas, Classical Greek Philosophy pp 252
  20. ^ Mason, A History of the Sciences pp 56
  21. ^ Barnes, Hellenistic Philosophy and Science pp 383
  22. ^ Mason, A History of the Sciences, p 57
  23. ^ Barnes, Hellenistic Philosophy and Science, pp 383-384
  24. ^ Mayr, The Growth of Biological Thought, pp 90-94; quotation from p 91
  25. ^ Annas, Classical Greek Philosophy, p 252
  26. ^ "Life, death, and entertainment in the Roman Empire". David Stone Potter, D. J. Mattingly (1999). University of Michigan Press. p. 63. ISBN 0-472-08568-9
  27. ^ "Galen on bloodletting: a study of the origins, development, and validity of his opinions, with a translation of the three works". Peter Brain, Galen (1986). Cambridge University Press. p.1. ISBN 0-521-32085-2
  28. ^ Nutton Vivian (1973). "The Chronology of Galen's Early Career". Classical Quarterly. 23 (1): 158–171. doi:10.1017/S0009838800036600. PMID 11624046.
  29. ^ "Galen on the affected parts. Translation from the Greek text with explanatory notes". Med Hist. 21 (2): 212. doi:10.1017/s0025727300037935. PMC 1081972.
  30. ^ Arthur John Brock (translator), Introduction. Galen. On the Natural Faculties. Edinburgh 1916
  31. ^ Galen on pharmacology
  32. ^ Galen on the brain
  33. ^ Andreas Vesalius (1543). De humani corporis fabrica, Libri VII (in Latin). Basel, Switzerland: Johannes Oporinus. Retrieved 7 August 2010.
  34. ^ O'Malley, C., Andreas Vesalius of Brussels, 1514–1564, Berkeley: University of California Press
  35. ^ Siraisi, Nancy G., (1991) Girolamo Cardano and the Art of Medical Narrative, Journal of the History of Ideas. pp. 587–88.
  36. ^ William Harvey (1628). Exercitatio Anatomica de Motu Cordis et Sanguinis in Animalibus (in Latin). Frankfurt am Main, Germany: Sumptibus Guilielmi Fitzeri. p. 72. ISBN 0-398-00793-4. Retrieved 7 August 2010.
  37. ^ Furley, D, and J. Wilkie, 1984, Galen On Respiration and the Arteries, Princeton University Press, and Bylebyl, J (ed), 1979, William Harvey and His Age, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press
  38. ^ Frampton, M., 2008, Embodiments of Will: Anatomical and Physiological Theories of Voluntary Animal Motion from Greek Antiquity to the Latin Middle Ages, 400 B.C.–A.D. 1300, Saarbrücken: VDM Verlag. pp. 180 – 323
  39. ^ Claudii Galeni Pergameni (1992). Odysseas Hatzopoulos (ed.). "That the best physician is also a philosopher" with a Modern Greek Translation. Athens, Greece: Odysseas Hatzopoulos & Company: Kaktos Editions.
  40. ^ Theodore J. Drizis (Fall 2008). "Medical ethics in a writing of Galen". Acta Med Hist Adriat. 6 (2): 333–336. PMID 20102254.
  41. ^ Brian, P., 1977, "Galen on the ideal of the physician", South Africa Medical Journal, 52: 936–938 pdf
  42. ^ Frede, M. and R. Walzer, 1985, Three Treatises on the Nature of Science, Indianapolis: Hacket.
  43. ^ De Lacy P (1972). "Galen's Platonism". American Journal of Philosophy. 1972: 27–39. doi:10.2307/292898.
  44. ^ Cosans C (1997). "Galen's Critique of Rationalist and Empiricist Anatomy". Journal of the History of Biology. 30: 35–54. doi:10.1023/a:1004266427468. PMID 11618979.
  45. ^ Cosans C (1998). "The Experimental Foundations of Galen's Teleology". Studies in History and Philosophy of Science. 29: 63–80. doi:10.1016/s0039-3681(96)00005-2.
  46. ^ De Vos (2010). "European Materia Medica in Historical Texts: Longevity of a Tradition and Implications for Future Use". Journal of Ethnopharmacology. 132 (1): 28–47. doi:10.1016/j.jep.2010.05.035. PMC 2956839.
  47. ^ Heinrich von Staden, "Liminal Perils: Early Roman Receptions of Greek Medicine", in Tradition, Transmission, Transformation, ed. F. Jamil Ragep and Sally P. Ragep with Steven Livesey (Leiden: Brill, 1996), pp. 369-418.


Further reading

  • Annas, Julia. Classical Greek Philosophy. In Boardman, John; Griffin, Jasper; Murray, Oswyn (ed.) The Oxford History of the Classical World. Oxford University Press: New York, 1986. ISBN 0-19-872112-9
  • Barnes, Jonathan. Hellenistic Philosophy and Science. In Boardman, John; Griffin, Jasper; Murray, Oswyn (ed.) The Oxford History of the Classical World. Oxford University Press: New York, 1986. ISBN 0-19-872112-9
  • Cohn-Haft, Louis. The Public Physicians of Ancient Greece, Northampton, Massachusetts, 1956.
  • Guido, Majno. The Healing Hand: Man and Wound in the Ancient World, Harvard University Press, 1975.
  • Guthrie, W. K. C. A History of Greek Philosophy. Volume I: The earlier Presocratics and the Pythagoreans. Cambridge University Press: New York, 1962. ISBN 0-521-29420-7
  • Jones, W. H. S. Philosophy and Medicine in Ancient Greece, Johns Hopkins Press, Baltimore, 1946.
  • Lennox, James (2006-02-15). Aristotle's Biology. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  • Longrigg, James. Greek Rational Medicine: Philosophy and Medicine from Alcmæon to the Alexandrians, Routledge, 1993.
  • Lovejoy, Arthur O. The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea. Harvard University Press, 1936. Reprinted by Harper & Row, ISBN 0-674-36150-4, 2005 paperback: ISBN 0-674-36153-9
  • Mason, Stephen F. A History of the Sciences. Collier Books: New York, 1956.
  • Mayr, Ernst. The Growth of Biological Thought: Diversity, Evolution, and Inheritance. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1982. ISBN 0-674-36445-7
  • Nutton, Vivian. The Healing Hand: Man and Wound in the Ancient World. Routledge, 2004
  • Heinrich von Staden (ed. trans.). Herophilus: The Art of Medicine in Early Alexandria. Cambridge University Press, 1989. ISBN 0-521-23646-0, ISBN 978-0-521-23646-1]
  • Longrigg, James. Greek Medicine From the Heroic to the Hellenistic Age. New York, NY, 1998. ISBN 0-415-92087-6

External links

Ars longa, vita brevis

Ars longa, vita brevis is a Latin translation of an aphorism coming originally from Greek. The Latin quote is often rendered in English as Art is long, life is short.

The aphorism quotes the first two lines of the Aphorismi by the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates. The familiar Latin translation Ars longa, vita brevis reverses the order of the original lines.


Asclepeions (Ancient Greek: Ἀσκληπιεῖον Asklepieion; Ἀσκλαπιεῖον in Doric dialect; Latin aesculapīum) were healing temples located in ancient Greece (and Rome), dedicated to Asclepius, the first doctor-demigod in Greek mythology. Asclepius was said to have been such a skilled doctor that he could even raise people from the dead. So stemming from the myth of his great healing powers, pilgrims would flock to temples built in his honor in order to seek spiritual and physical healing.

Asclepeion included carefully controlled spaces conducive to healing and fulfilled several of the requirements of institutions created for healing. In addition to these spaces, excavated remains show that sanctuaries included a stadium, gymnasium, library, and theatre; access to these amenities promoted self-therapy through rest, relaxation, and exercise. Treatment at these temples largely centered around promoting healthy lifestyles, with a particular emphasis on a person’s spiritual needs. Signature to Asclepeion was the practice of incubatio, also known as 'temple sleep.' This was a process by which patients would go to sleep in the temple with the expectation that they would be visited by Asclepius himself or one of his healing children in their dream. During this time, they would be told what it is that they needed to do in order to cure their ailment. At the very least, they would wake up having not been directly visited by a deity and instead report their dream to a priest. The priest would then interpret the dream and prescribe a cure, often a visit to the baths or a gymnasium.

Despite these methods being regarded as ‘faith healing,’ they were highly effective, as is evident by the numerous written accounts by patients attesting to their healing and providing detailed accounts of their cure. In the Asclepeion of Epidaurus, three large marble boards dated to 350 BC preserve the names, case histories, complaints, and cures of about 70 patients who came to the temple with a problem and shed it there. Some of the surgical cures listed, such as the opening of an abdominal abscess or the removal of traumatic foreign material, are realistic enough to have taken place, with the patient in a dream-like state of induced sleep known as "enkoimesis" (Greek: ἐγκοίμησις), not unlike anesthesia, induced with the help of soporific substances such as opium.Asclepeions also became home to future physicians as well. Hippocrates is said to have received his medical training at an asclepeion on the isle of Kos. Prior to becoming the personal physician to the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, Galen treated and studied at the famed asclepeion at Pergamon.


Asclepius (; Greek: Ἀσκληπιός Asklēpiós [asklɛːpiós]; Latin: Aesculapius) or Hepius is a hero and god of medicine in ancient Greek religion and mythology. He is the son of Apollo. Asclepius represents the healing aspect of the medical arts; his daughters are Hygieia ("Hygiene", the goddess/personification of health, cleanliness, and sanitation), Iaso (the goddess of recuperation from illness), Aceso (the goddess of the healing process), Aegle (the goddess of the glow of good health), and Panacea (the goddess of universal remedy). He was associated with the Roman/Etruscan god Vediovis and the Egyptian Imhotep. He was one of Apollo's sons, sharing with Apollo the epithet Paean ("the Healer"). The rod of Asclepius, a snake-entwined staff, remains a symbol of medicine today. Those physicians and attendants who served this god were known as the Therapeutae of Asclepius.

Climacteric year

In Ancient Greek philosophy and astrology, the climacterics (Latin, annus climactericus, from the Greek κλιμακτηρικός, klimaktērikós) were certain purportedly critical years in a person's life, marking turning points.

Dogmatic school

The Dogmatic school of medicine (Dogmatics, or Dogmatici, Greek: Δογματικοί) was a school of medicine in ancient Greece and Rome. They were the oldest of the medical sects of antiquity. They derived their name from dogma, a philosophical tenet or opinion, because they professed to follow the opinions of Hippocrates, hence they were sometimes called Hippocratici. Thessalus, the son, and Polybus, the son-in-law of Hippocrates, were the founders of this sect, c. 400 BC, which enjoyed great reputation, and held undisputed sway over the whole medical profession, until the establishment of the Alexandrian school known as the Empiric school. After the rise of Empiric school, for some centuries, every physician counted himself under either one or the other of the two parties. The most distinguished among this school were Diocles of Carystus, Praxagoras of Cos, and Plistonicus. The doctrines of this school are described by Aulus Cornelius Celsus in the introduction to his De Medicina.


Dyscrasia a concept from ancient Spanish medicine, meaning bad mixture.The concept of dyscrasia was developed by the Greek physician Galen (129–216 AD), who elaborated a model of health and disease as a structure of elements, qualities, humors, organs, and temperaments. Health was understood in this perspective to be a condition of harmony or balance among these basic components, called eucrasia. Disease was interpreted as the disproportion of bodily fluids or four humours: phlegm, blood, and yellow and black bile. The imbalance was called dyscrasia.

Eclectic school

The Eclectic school of medicine (Eclectics, or Eclectici, Greek: Ἐκλεκτικοί) was an ancient school of medicine in ancient Greece and Rome. They were so-called because they selected from each sect the opinions which seemed to them most probable. They seemed to have been a branch of the Methodic school. They were founded, it would seem by Archigenes. Some of the opinions of these physicians are found in the fragments preserved by Galen, Oribasius, Aëtius, etc.; but the doctrines they adopted remain unknown.

A closely related school was the Episynthetic school (Episynthetici), so called because they heaped up in a manner (episyntithêmi), and adopted for their own opinions different, and even opposite, schools. It seems to have been founded by Agathinus of Sparta, the pupil of Athenaeus, and the master of Archigenes, towards the end of the 1st century AD. The only other ancient physician who is mention as having belonged to this sect is Leonides of Alexandria, who may have lived in the 3rd century. Little is known of the opinions of these physicians, or their tenets.

In modern Tibetan Buddhism, the Eclectic school (Ris-med) referred to a movement that seeks to combine the religious and philosophical systems of different lineages in order to develop the best teachings of the whole tradition. It has a syncretic character, open to syntheses with classical greek and Western thought.

Empiric school

The Empiric school of medicine (Empirics, Empiricists, or Empirici, Greek: Ἐμπειρικοί) was an ancient school of medicine in ancient Greece and Rome. They were so called from the word empeiria (ἐμπειρία "experience") because they professed to derive their knowledge from experiences only, and in doing so set themselves in opposition to the Dogmatic school. Serapion of Alexandria, and Philinus of Cos, are regarded as the founders of this school in the 3rd century BC. Other physicians who belonged to this sect were: Apollonius of Citium, Glaucias, Heraclides, Bacchius, Zeuxis, Menodotus, Theodas, Herodotus of Tarsus, Aeschrion, Sextus Empiricus, and Marcellus Empiricus. The sect survived a long time, as Marcellus lived in the 4th century. The doctrines of this school are described by Aulus Cornelius Celsus in the introduction to his De Medicina.


Epilogism is a style of Inference invented by the ancient Empiric school of medicine. It is a theory-free method of looking at history by accumulating fact with minimal generalization and being conscious of the side effects of making causal claims. Epilogism is an inference which moves entirely within the domain of visible and evident things, it tries not to invoke unobservables. It is tightly knit to the famous "tripos of medicine".

See also Doctrines of the Empiric school.

See also Causal inference.

Hans Diller

Hans Diller (September 8, 1905 in Worms - December 15, 1977 in Kiel) was a German classical scholar and historian of ancient Greek medicine.

Hippocratic Oath

The Hippocratic Oath is an oath of ethics historically taken by physicians. It is one of the most widely known of Greek medical texts. In its original form, it requires a new physician to swear, by a number of healing gods, to uphold specific ethical standards. The oath is the earliest expression of medical ethics in the Western world, establishing several principles of medical ethics which remain of paramount significance today. These include the principles of medical confidentiality and non-maleficence. As the seminal articulation of certain principles that continue to guide and inform medical practice, the ancient text is of more than historic and symbolic value. Swearing a modified form of the oath remains a rite of passage for medical graduates in many countries.

Hippocrates is often called the father of medicine in Western culture. The original oath was written in Ionic Greek, between the fifth and third centuries BC. It is usually included in the Hippocratic Corpus.

Hippocratic bench

The Hippocratic bench or scamnum was a device invented by Hippocrates (c. 460 BC–380 BC) which used tension to aid in setting bones. It is a forerunner of the traction devices used in modern orthopedics, as well as of the rack, an instrument of torture.

The patient would lie on a bench, at an adjustable angle, and ropes would be tied around his arms, waist, legs or feet, depending on the treatment needed. Winches would then be used to pull the ropes apart, correcting curvature in the spine or separating an overlapping fracture.

In recent years, a similar non-surgical procedure known as VAX-D (short for Vertebral Axial Decompression) has been developed for treating certain patients with lower back pain. Patients undergoing VAX-D are fitted with a special pelvic harness and then placed on the VAX-D table. The device then applies controlled tension along the axis of the spinal column, while the harness assists in providing decompression of the lumbar spine. The decompression process is controlled by computer program with supervision by a human technician. The VAX-D process is claimed to be useful in treating cases of sciatica, degenerative disc disease, and herniated discs.


Humorism, or humoralism, was a system of medicine detailing the makeup and workings of the human body, adopted by Ancient Greek and Roman physicians and philosophers.

Learned medicine

Learned medicine is a term applied to the European medical tradition in the Early Modern period, when it experienced the tension between the texts derived from ancient Greek medicine, particularly by followers of the teachings attributed to Hippocrates and those of Galen vs. the newer theories of natural philosophy spurred on by Renaissance humanistic studies, the religious Reformation and the establishment of scientific societies. The Renaissance principle of "ad fontes" as applied to Galen sought to establish better texts of his writings, free from later accretions from Arabic-derived texts and texts of medieval Latin. This search for better texts was influential in the early 16th century. Historians use the term medical humanism to define this textual activity, pursued for its own sake.

Learned medicine centred on the practica, a genre of Latin texts based on description of diseases and their treatment (nosology). Its interests were less in the abstract reasoning of medieval medicine and in the tradition of Avicenna, on which it was built, and instead it was based more on the diagnosis and treatment of particular diseases. Practica, covering diagnosis and therapies, was contrasted with theorica, which dealt with physiology and abstract thought on health and illness. The tradition from Galen valued practica less than theoretical concepts, but from the 15th century the status of practica in learned medicine rose."Learned medicine" in this sense was also an academic discipline. It was taught in European universities, and its faculty had the same status as those of theology and law. Learned medicine is typically contrasted with the folk medicine of the period, but it has been argued that the distinction is not rigorous. Its Galenic teachings were challenged successively by Paracelsianism and Helmontianism.

Methodic school

The Methodic school of medicine (Methodics, Methodists, or Methodici, Greek: Μεθοδικοί) was an ancient school of medicine in ancient Greece and Rome. The Methodic school arose in reaction to both the Empiric school and the Dogmatic school (sometimes referred to as the Rationalist school). While the exact origins of the Methodic school are shrouded in some controversy, its doctrines are fairly well documented. Sextus Empiricus points to the school's common ground with Pyrrhonism, in that it “follow[s] the appearances and take[s] from these whatever seems expedient.”

Pneumatic school

The Pneumatic school of medicine (Pneumatics, or Pneumatici, Greek: Πνευματικοί) was an ancient school of medicine in ancient Greece and Rome. They were founded in Rome by Athenaeus of Cilicia, in the 1st century AD.

The Roman era was a time when the Methodic school had enjoyed its greatest reputation, from which the Pneumatic school differed principally in that, instead of the mixture of primitive atoms, they adopted an active principle of immaterial nature, pneuma, or spirit. This principle was the cause of health and disease. It is from Galen that we learn the doctrines of the founder of the Pneumatic school.


Theriac or theriaca is a medical concoction originally formulated by the Greeks in the 1st century AD and widely adopted in the ancient world as far away as Persia, China and India via the trading links of the Silk Route. It was an alexipharmic, or antidote, considered a panacea, for which it could serve as a synonym: in the 16th century Adam Lonicer wrote that garlic was the rustic's theriac or Heal-All.The word theriac comes from the Greek term θηριακή (thēriakē), a feminine adjective signifying "pertaining to animals", from θηρίον (thērion), "wild animal, beast". The ancient bestiaries included information—often fanciful—about dangerous beasts and their bites. When cane sugar was an exotic Eastern commodity, the English recommended the sugar-based treacle as an antidote against poison, originally applied as a salve. By extension, treacle could be applied to any healing property: in the Middle Ages the treacle (i.e. healing) well at Binsey was a place of pilgrimage.

Norman Cantor observes that the remedy was homeopathic in its supposed effect, following the principle of "the hair of the dog," in which a concoction containing some of the poisonous (it was thought) flesh of the serpent would be a sovereign remedy against the creature's venom: in his book on medicine, Henry of Grosmont, 1st Duke of Lancaster wrote that "the treacle is made of poison so that it can destroy other poisons". Thinking by analogy, Henry Grosmont also thought of theriac as a moral curative, the medicine "to make a man reject the poisonous sin which has entered into his soul." Since the plague, and notably the Black Death, was believed to have been sent by God as a punishment for sin and had its origins in pestilential serpents that poisoned the rivers, theriac was a particularly appropriate remedy or therapeutic. By contrast, Christiane Fabbri argues that theriac, which very frequently contained opium, actually did have palliative effect against pain and reduced coughing and diarrhea.

Vis medicatrix naturae

Vis medicatrix naturae (literally "the healing power of nature", and also known as natura medica) is the Latin rendering of the Greek Νόσων φύσεις ἰητροί ("Nature is the physician(s) of diseases"), a phrase attributed to Hippocrates. While the phrase is not actually attested in his corpus, it nevertheless sums up one of the guiding principles of Hippocratic medicine, which is that organisms left alone can often heal themselves (cf. the Hippocratic primum non nocere).

Wandering womb

Wandering womb was the belief that a displaced uterus was the cause of many medical pathologies in women. The belief originates in the medical texts of ancient Greece, although it persisted in European academic medicine and popular thought for centuries. The wandering womb as a concept was popularized by doctor Edward Jorden, who published The Suffocation of the Mother in 1603. Suffocation of the Mother was the first text on the subjects of the wandering womb and hysteria that was written in English.

East Asian
and Southeast Asian
Middle Eastern

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