Exploring Illness
Time and Place

c u l t u r e s


s y m p t o m s

Fevers and Chills

An Injured Limb

Swollen Sores

The Classical Greek Medical Worldview

Classical Greek healing practices were diverse. Philosophically learned doctors practiced "rational" medicine; midwives and root cutters provided services and curatives; sacrifices to prescribed gods or other religious devotions were another path away from illness. Many people engaged in combinations of all these activities when they felt sick. Out of this heterogeneity, a particularly influential set of medical texts, the Hippocratic corpus, emerged during the late 5th century B.C.E. These texts, previously ascribed to a single person, Hippocrates, as now believed to have been amalgamations of many doctors' attitudes and healing practices. They are sometimes repetitive; other times, one writing in the corpus will contradict another. These texts generally challenge the religious explanations of illness. Taken together, the Hippocratic corpus offers insight into how classical Greek society conceptualized illness.

The understanding of illness in Greek society derived from its larger conception of the world. Central to this worldview was the notion of constitutive elements. Greek philosophy often divided the world into four elements: earth, air, fire and water. These elements each had unique qualities and proper places in the world. Likewise, the human body was regulated by elements, called "humors," usually black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood. When these humors were in balance, a person was healthy. During illness, a doctor might be called upon to restore the humoral balance. These humors were often believed to correspond to qualities of hot and cold, wet and dry. Thus if a patient had insufficient heat in the body, they might be encouraged to eat foods that were considered to be hot. Hot and cold, wet and dry were not interpreted as direct descriptions of an object's physical character, but rather were qualities that inhered within the nature of an object. Bathing and exercise were activities that helped to maintain the balance of fluids in the body. Women had different constitutions from men, and were generally considered to be less perfect. Women were wetter than men, and menstruation served to release this extra fluid. Organs were differentiated and believed to play different roles in maintaining the balance of humors.

Like the division of the world into elements, and the attribution of inherent characteristics to those elements, Greek medicine named and distinguished between particular diseases. People might be ill with phthisis, suffer from a bilious distemper, or be sick with pleurisies, perineumonies, dysentery or diarrhea. Diseases often resulted from the environment that surrounded people. The corpus contains a text "On Airs, Waters, and Places." Generally termed "miasma," unwholesome climates could cause humoral imbalances resulting in sickness. Particular diseases were associated with different climates, and some diseases predominated in the fall, others in the spring. People could remedy these dangers by burning fires to thin the air, draining water away from lands, or avoiding particular places.

Doctors in ancient Greece inhabited all social strata. Some physicians began their careers as free men and later became slaves, having fallen upon hard times after war or in the course of their practice. Even as slaves, they continued to practice medicine, and were salable for higher prices. Some doctors made a living off of treatment and apprenticeship fees, while other, wealthier doctors might practice occasionally to supplement their incomes. A few doctors made large amounts of money and became famous, traveling from island to island, or by treating the aristocracy and tyrants. Perhaps most importantly, as Geoffrey Lloyd and Nathan Sivin write, any free man "could set up as a doctor, although it helped to be able to say who had taught you. More easily still, anyone who could muster an audience could lecture. To succeed there depended on the particular personal qualities, often rhetorical ability, you displayed, not on wealth or social status" (1). The Hippocratic Oath provides additional insight into the activities and social structures of physicians.

Beyond doctors, other types of people were involved in providing medical treatment. These people included root cutters, drug sellers and midwives. Like doctoring, these activities were not regulated, and there were few barriers to beginning a practice. On the whole, medicine was a practical craft; the Hippocratic corpus uses the word techne, "suggesting a skill which can be learned, with both a theoretical element--the 'why'--and a practical element--the 'how'" (2). New generations of healers emerged by observing older healers, learning from them, and gaining practical experience.

Most healing practices took place in the buildings were the patient lived. There were also important temples where healing rituals and sacrifices took place, and sick people could come to be treated. The image at right, depicts a physician and priestess engaged in treating a patient at one of these temples. Most truly serious illnesses tended to render patients immobile however, or experienced relatively short courses.

Other important aspects of Greek medicine included the relationship to religion and the role of prognosis. Asclepius, the god of healing was often appealed to in cases where the physician could no longer assist. Doctors were expected to provide reliable information about the course and likely effects of the disease a patient suffered from. The Hippocratic corpus emphasizes careful observation of the patient, so that correct classification and prognosis can be made.


1. Lloyd, Geoffrey and Nathan Sivin, The Way and the Word: Science and Medicine in Early China and Greece. New Haven. Yale University Press, 2002. p. 95.

2. King, Helen, Greek and Roman Medicine. London: Bristol Classical Press, 2001. p 8.


Brief Bibliography for Further Reading

King, Helen, Greek and Roman Medicine. London: Bristol Classical Press, 2001.
This book provides an eminently readable and tantalizingly brief introduction to the beliefs, practices and people of classical medicine in Greece and Rome.

Temkin, Oswei. "Greek Medicine as Science and Craft," in his The Double Face of Janus, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977.
A scholarly essay that explores the relationship between Greek medicines philosophical orientations, as recorded in the Hippocratic corpus, and the application of that knowledge in the healing arts as actually practiced in the classical Mediterranean world.

Longrigg, James. Greek Medicine from the Heroic to the Hellenistic Age: A Source Book. New York: Routledge, 1998.
A well-edited, annotated collection of excerpts from primary texts, the book extracts what ancient Greeks believed about anatomy, disease, treatment, and other medical topics.

Lloyd, Geoffrey and Nathan Sivin, The Way and the Word: Science and Medicine in Early China and Greece. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002.
This book puts early Chinese and Greek knowledge into comparative context. Explores the similarities and differences between the systematic investigations of the world made by two of the most literately productive ancient societies.

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