Early Greek Medicine
AEsculapius--Methods of Treatment--Gymnasia--Classification of
The history of healing begins in the Hellenic mythology with Apollo, the
god of light and the promoter of health. In the "Iliad" he is hailed as
of epidemics, and, in this respect, the ancients were well
informed in attributing destruction of infection to the sun's rays.
Chiron, the Centaur, it was believed, was taught by Apollo and Artemis,
and was the teacher, in turn, of AEsculapius, who probably lived in the
thirteenth century before Christ and was ultimately deified as the Greek
god of medicine. Pindar relates of him:--
"On some the force of charmed strains he tried,
To some the medicated draught applied;
Some limbs he placed the amulets around,
Some from the trunk he cut, and made the patient sound."
AEsculapius was too successful in his art, for his death was attributed
to Zeus, who killed him by a flash of lightning, or to Pluto, both of
whom were thought to have feared that AEsculapius might by his skill gain
the mastery over death.
Amid much that is mythological in the history of AEsculapius, there is a
groundwork of facts. Splendid temples were built to him in lovely and
healthy places, usually on a hill or near a spring; they were visited by
the sick, and the priests of the temples not only attended to the
worship of AEsculapius, but took pains to acquire knowledge of the
healing art. The chief temple was at Epidaurus, and here the patients
were well provided with amusements, for close to the temple was a
theatre capable of seating 12,000 people, and a stadium built to
accommodate 20,000 spectators.
A serpent entwined round a knotted staff is the symbol of AEsculapius. A
humorist of the present day has suggested that the knots on the staff
indicate the numerous "knotty" questions which a doctor is asked to
solve! Tradition states that when AEsculapius was in the house of his
patient, Glaucus, and deep in thought, a serpent coiled itself around
his staff. AEsculapius killed it, and then another serpent appeared with
a herb leaf in its mouth, and restored the dead reptile to life. It
seems probable that disease was looked upon as a poison. Serpents
produced poison, and had a reputation in the most ancient times for
wisdom, and for the power of renovation, and it was thought that a
creature which could produce poison and disease might probably be
capable of curing as well as killing. Serpents were kept in the Temples
of AEsculapius, and were non-poisonous and harmless. They were given
their liberty in the precincts of the temple, but were provided with a
serpent-house or den near to the altar. They were worshipped as the
incarnation of the god, and were fed by the sick at the altar with
"popana," or sacrificial cakes.
Many of the Greek gods and goddesses were held to have power over
disease. Hygeia, known as Salus to the Romans, was said to have been the
daughter of AEsculapius, and to have taken care of the sacred serpents
Melampus was considered by the Greeks the first mortal to practise
healing. In one case he prescribed rust, probably the earliest use of
iron as a drug, and he also used hellebore root as a purgative. He
married a princess and was given part of a kingdom as a reward for his
services. After his death he was awarded divine honours, and temples
were erected for his worship. The deification of AEsculapius and of
Melampus added much to the prestige of doctors in Greece, where they
were always held in honour; but in Rome the practice of medicine was not
considered a highly honourable calling.
Something can be learned from the writings of Homer of the state of
medicine in his time, although we need hardly expect to find in an epic
poem many references to diseases and their cure. As dissection was
considered a profanation of the body, anatomical knowledge was
exceedingly meagre. Machaon was surgeon to Menelaus and Podalarius was
the pioneer of phlebotomy. Both were regarded as the sons of AEsculapius;
they were soldiers as well as doctors, and fought before the walls of
Troy. The surgery required by Homer's heroes was chiefly that of the
battlefield. Unguents and astringents were in use in the physician's
art, and there is reference to "nepenthe," a narcotic drug, and also to
the use of sulphur as a disinfectant. Doctors, according to Homer, were
held in high esteem, and Arctinus relates that two divisions were
recognized, surgeons and physicians, the former held in less honour than
the latter--"Then Asclepius (AEsculapius) bestowed the power of healing
upon his two sons; nevertheless, he made one of the two more celebrated
than the other; on one did he bestow the lighter hand that he might draw
missiles from the flesh, and sew up and heal all wounds; but the other
he endowed with great precision of mind, so as to understand what cannot
be seen, and to heal seemingly incurable diseases."
Machaon fought in the army of Nestor. Fearing for his safety, King
Idomeneus placed him under the charge of Nestor, who was instructed to
take the doctor into his chariot, for "a doctor is worth many men." When
Menelaus was wounded, a messenger was sent for Machaon, who extracted
the barbed arrow, sucked the wound and applied a secret ointment made
known to AEsculapius by Chiron the Centaur, according to tradition.
The practice of Greek medicine became almost entirely restricted to the
temples of AEsculapius, the most important of which were situated at
Rhodes, Cnidus and Cos. The priests were known as Asclepiadae, but the
name was applied in time to the healers of the temple who were not
priests. Tablets were affixed to the walls of these temples recording
the name of the patient, the disease and the cure prescribed. There is
evidence that diseases were closely observed. The patients brought gifts
to the temples, and underwent a preliminary purification by ablutions,
fasting, prayer and sacrifice. A cock was a common sacrifice to the god.
No doubt many wonderful cures were effected. Mental suggestion was used
greatly, and the patient was put to sleep, his cure being often revealed
to him in a dream which was interpreted by the priests. The expectancy
of his mind, and the reduced state of his body as the result of
abstinence conduced to a cure, and trickery also played a minor part.
Albeit, much of the treatment prescribed was commendable. Pure air,
cheerful surroundings, proper diet and temperate habits were advocated,
and, among other methods of treatment, exercise, massage, sea-bathing,
the use of mineral waters, purgatives and emetics, and hemlock as a
sedative, were in use. If a cure was not effected, the faith of the
patient was impugned, and not the power of the god or the skill of the
Asclepiades, so that neither religion nor the practice of physic was
exposed to discredit. Great was the wisdom of the Greeks! These temples
were the famous medical schools of ancient Greece. A spirit of
emulation prevailed, and a high ethical standard was attained, as is
shown by the oath prescribed for students when they completed their
course of study. The form of oath will be found in a succeeding chapter
in connection with an account of the life of Hippocrates.
The remains of the Health Temple, or Asklepieion, of Cos were brought to
light in 1904 and 1905, by the work of Dr. Rudolf Herzog, of Tuebingen.
Dr. Richard Caton, of Liverpool, has been able to reconstruct
pictorially the beautiful buildings that existed two thousand years ago.
They were situated among the hills. The sacred groves of cypresses were
on three sides of the temple, and "to the north the verdant plain of
Cos, with the white houses and trees of the town to the right, and the
wide expanse of turquoise sea dotted by the purple islands of the AEgean,
and the dim mountains about Halicarnassus, to the north-east."
The ancient Greek Gymnasia were in use long before the Asclepiades began
to practise in the temples. The Greeks were a healthy and strong race,
mainly because they attended to physical culture as a national duty. The
attendants who massaged the bodies of the athletes were called aliptae,
and they also taught physical exercises, and practised minor surgery and
medicine. Massage was used before and after exercises in the gymnasium,
and was performed by anointing the body with a mixture of oil and sand
which was well rubbed into the skin. There were three classes of
officials in the gymnasia; the director or magistrate called the
gymnasiarch, the sub-director or gymnast, and the subordinates. The
directors regulated the diet of the young men, the sub-directors,
besides other duties, prescribed for the sick, and the attendants
massaged, bled, dressed wounds, gave clysters, and treated abscesses,
There is no doubt that the Greeks, in insisting upon the physical
training of the young, were wiser in their generation than the people of
the present day; and not only the young, but people of mature age, took
exercises suited to their physical requirements. The transgression of
some of Solon's laws in reference to the gymnasia was punishable by
The third stage in the history of Greek medicine has now been reached.
The first stage was primitive, the second associated with religion, and
the third connected with philosophy. The classification of Renouard is
accurate and convenient. In the "Age of Foundation," he recognizes four
(1) The Primitive Period, or that of Instinct, beginning with myth, and
ending with the destruction of Troy, 1184 years before Christ.
(2) The Sacred or Mystic Period, ending with the dispersion of the
Pythagorean Society, 500 years before Christ.
(3) The Philosophic Period, ending with the foundation of the
Alexandrian library, 320 years before Christ. This period is made
illustrious by Hippocrates.
(4) The Anatomic Period, ending with the death of Galen, about 200 years
The earliest Greek medical philosopher was Pythagoras (about 580 B.C.).
He was born at Samos, and began life as an athlete, but a lecture which
he heard on the subject of the immortality of the soul kindled
enthusiasm for philosophical study, the pursuit of which led him to
visit Egypt, Phoenicia, Chaldea, and perhaps also India. He was imbued
with Eastern mysticism, and held that the air is full of spiritual
beings who send dreams to men, and health or disease to mankind and to
the lower animals. He did not remain long in Greece, but travelled much,
and settled for a considerable time in Crotona, in the South of Italy,
where he taught pupils, their course of study extending over five or six
years. The Pythagorean Society founded by him did much good at first,
but its members ultimately became greedy of gain and dishonest, and the
Society in the lifetime of its founder was subjected to persecution and
dispersed by angry mobs. Pythagoras possessed a prodigious mind. He is
best known for his teaching in reference to the transmigration of
souls, but he was also a great mathematician and astronomer. He taught
that "number is the essence of everything," and his philosophy
recognized that the universe is governed by law. God he represented by
the figure 1, matter by the figure 2, and the universe by the
combination 12, all of which, though fanciful, was an improvement upon
mythology, and a recognition of system.
In the practice of medicine he promoted health mainly by diet and
gymnastics, advised music for depression of spirits, and had in use
various vegetable drugs. He introduced oxymel of squills from Egypt into
Greece, and was a strong believer in the medicinal properties of onions.
He viewed surgery with disfavour, and used only salves and poultices.
The Asclepiades treated patients in the temples, but the Pythagoreans
visited from house to house, and from city to city, and were known as
the ambulant or periodic physicians.
Herodotus gives an account of another eminent physician of Crotona,
Democedes by name, who succeeded Pythagoras. At this time, it is
recorded that the various cities had public medical officers. Democedes
gained his freedom from slavery as a reward for curing the wife of
Darius of an abscess in the breast.
The dispersal of the Pythagoreans led to the settlement of many of them,
and of their imitators, in Rome and various parts of Italy. Although
Pythagoras was a philosopher, he belongs to the Mystic Period, while
Hippocrates is the great central figure of the Philosophic Period.
Before studying the work of Hippocrates, it is necessary to consider the
distinguishing features of the various schools of Greek philosophy.
Renouard shows that the principles of the various schools of medical
belief depended upon the three great Greek schools of Cosmogony.
Pythagoras believed in a Supreme Ruler of the Universe, and that spirits
animated all life, and existed even in minerals; he also believed in
preconceived purpose. With these views were associated the Dogmatic
School of Medicine, and the name of Hippocrates, and this belief
corresponds to modern vitalism.
Leucippus and Democritus, rejecting theology, considered vital action
secondary to the operation of the laws of matter, and believed that
atoms moved through pores in the body in such a way as to determine a
state of health or disease. With this philosophy was associated the
Medical School of Methodism, a system said to have been founded by
Asclepiades of Prusa (who lived in Rome in the first century before
Christ), and by his pupil Themison (B.C. 50). The third school of
medical thought, that of Empiricism, taught that experience was the only
teacher, and that it was idle to speculate upon remote causes. The
Empirics based these views upon the teaching of philosophers known as
Sceptics or Zetetics, followers of Parmenides and Pyrrho, who taught
that it was useless to fatigue the mind in endeavouring to comprehend
what is beyond its range. They were the precursors of modern
The Eclectics, in a later age, formed another medical sect, and had no
definite system except that they made a selection of the views and
methods of Dogmatists, Methodists and Empirics.
The Greek philosophers as a class believed in a primary form of matter
out of which elements were formed, and the view held in regard to the
elements is expressed in Ovid's "Metamorphoses."
"Nor those which elements we call abide,
Nor to this figure nor to that are ty'd:
For this eternal world is said of old
But four prolific principles to hold,
Four different bodies; two to heaven ascend,
And other two down to the centre tend.
Fire first, with wings expanded, mounts on high,
Pure, void of weight, and dwells in upper sky;
Then air, because unclogged, in empty space
Flies after fire, and claims the second place;
But weighty water, as her nature guides,
Lies on the lap of earth; and Mother Earth subsides.
All things are mixed of these, which all contain,
And into these are all resolved again."
Fire was considered to be matter in a very refined form, and to closely
resemble life or even soul.