A review of the history and stages of development of Greek medicine.
You can talk about as many medicines as there have been cultures and historical periods. The way in which human diseases have been treated and approached are very varied and have depended on the historical context in which the doctor lived.
Greek medicine is no exception. The way that the ancient Greeks looked at disease is quite different from how we do it today, although it has influenced and laid the foundations of current medical practice.
Still, it cannot be said that Greek civilization was something static and culturally monolithic. In fact, there were great changes, which have caused Hellenistic historians to divide Greek civilization into two great periods.
That is why when it comes to talking about Greek medicine, the great differences that existed between the oldest times compared to the most classical cannot be ignored, and in this article we are going to see them in greater depth.
Ancient Greek Medicine
Within the great periods of the history of Western civilization, Ancient Greece is called the period that goes from the XI-XII century BC. C. until V a. C. In these centuries, the Hellenic culture was incorporating elements of other ethnic groups, coming from Mesopotamia, the Middle East and Africa. At this time, Greek medicine was characterized by not being refined or sophisticated.
Great historical events of the time give clues to what the medical task was like in ancient Greek culture. One of them was the Battle of Troy, one of the great armed conflicts experienced in the early days of young Europe. It was during the war that several questions were raised about how the wounds of badly injured soldiers should be treated. Medical practices, judging by epic poems such as The Iliad and Homer’s Odyssey, were interspersed with religious rites and superstitions. In fact, the first of the commented works refers to those who, according to Homer, were the first practitioners of medicine: Polydirio and Macaón.
According to legend, Machaon put his healing knowledge into practice with a king, the Spartan Menelaus, who had been wounded by an arrow. The story goes that Machaon first treated the monarch by exploring the wound and what state his patient was in, then sucking the blood from the injury and finally administering the treatment.
Worship of the god Asclepiades
As we were already commenting, in the early days of Greek culture, the vision that was held about the therapeutic process was very marked by the belief that one’s health depended on the wishes and wills of the Olympian gods. Most Hellenic temples were built near water sources, since it was believed that if someone became ill, they could be cured by water, which, when arising near a temple, would acquire regenerative powers.
Among the many deities that make up the Greek pantheon, one stands out above the others in terms of its role in the therapeutic process: Asclepiades. This deity was the god of medicine, being the son of the former god with that same function, Apollo, and a beautiful but mortal virgin named Coronis.
Legend has it that Apollo fell madly in love with the virgin watching her bathe in the forest and left her pregnant, however, her father wanted her to marry his cousin, Ischion. Upon learning of this, Apollo cursed his fate, and decided to kill both his beloved and his fiancé, however, after taking their lives, he felt sorry for his unborn son and decided to extract him from the dead womb of Coronis, giving birth to Asclepiades.
The newborn was taken to Mount Pelion and raised by the centaur Chiron, who taught him multiple knowledge, including medicine. Asclepiades, once he had grown up, went to practice his knowledge in the big cities, developing as a prestigious doctor. As time went by, his father, Apollo, who until then had been the god of medicine, abdicated this title, giving it to his son.
Understanding the myth behind this god, it is logical to think that the doctors of Ancient Greece worshiped him, considering his designs something fundamental so that the patient could be cured. The sick came to him to overcome their illness or to wonder why he had punished them with it.
Some temples erected to Asclepiades functioned in a similar way as modern hospitals do today. For example, in Pergamum and in other temples the sick went there and undressed to put on white robes. Once this was done, they went to another precinct of the temple, similar to a hotel, with care to treat patients and host them for a time.
In the origins of the cult of this god there were beliefs that today would be unthinkable, and even the Greeks of several centuries later would flatly refuse to use them as an effective treatment. Cures and incantations were made, and certain practices considered ‘natural’ were followed, such as the ulcers being licked by dogs blessed by the god.
The priest who was in charge of ensuring that the rites to the god Asclepiades were carried out according to tradition, in addition to collecting the offerings destined for him and ensuring that patients received the proper religious treatments, was called iatros and, in fact, this word has survived to our days, meaning ‘the medical, the surgical’. This iatros had a similar function to the vision we have today of shamans and witches.
Classical Greek Medicine
From the V century a. C. there are a series of socio-political and cultural changes that make Greece become the great power of the moment and this is also reflected in its knowledge, especially in the field of biology, astronomy and, very notably, in medicine. It could be said that it is at this time, although very far from how it is understood today, scientific medicine appears.
At this time, one of the great thinkers in the history of Western civilization, Aristotle, appears, who carried out an extensive study of life forms, beginning with animals. This philosopher, from the city of Estagira, studied and classified about 500 animals with the intention of understanding not only the natural world, but also human nature itself.
But while the work of Aristotle and other great classical Greek thinkers is undoubtedly something that deserves attention and a greater degree of depth, the one who should have an authentic prominent role in this article is undoubtedly Hippocrates of Cos.
Hippocrates: disease is a natural phenomenon
Hippocrates de Cos is, both for doctors and for those who are not, a figure who has had an important role and fame within the field of health sciences. His name is associated with one of the great discoveries in history, assuming a great change in the conception of the origin of diseases in pre-Christian Greece: all disease is a natural phenomenon.
Hippocrates was against thinking that the disease was the result of demonic possession, divine punishment or sorcery. Thus, within the Hippocratic vision of medicine, it was considered that one could become ill due to causes that were in the environment, such as the weather, food, water in poor condition … It is not surprising that Hippocrates is known as the father of medicine as it is understood today.
Among the great contributions of Hippocratic theory and practice, the following three can be mentioned:
1. Observation and reasoning
As was already commented, the religious vision of the disease was overcome and the medical condition of the patient was observed and explored in detail.
Diseases have symptoms, which give clues as to what medical condition the patient is suffering from and how it can be managed.
In fact, Hippocrates was one of the first to establish the differential diagnosis, specifically between the diseases of malaria and fever.
2. Organic cause of diseases
The main idea of Hippocrates and that today is the foundation behind modern medicine is that all physiological disease has a biological cause.
In the Hippocratic theory of the four humors, they talk about how diseases arise, defending the idea that they are the consequence of an imbalance between four substances: bile, phlegm, blood and water.
He defended the idea that the doctor should work in the most ethical and moral way possible with the patient, ensuring benefit and without discriminating between social group, ethnic group, sex or race.
Until then, those who had the right to be treated by a doctor were usually the men who were among the highest elites of their city-state. Hippocrates changed this, causing women, poor and foreigners to receive, in some way, medical care.
Influence of Greek medicine today
Despite the fact that more than twenty centuries have passed since the time in which Hippocrates lived, there are many great contributions from this Greek that have had an impact on the vision that we have today of medicine and its field of application.
It should not be overlooked that, thanks to great scientific advances, in addition to the foundation of disciplines such as microbiology, oncology and genetics, the causes of diseases are known more clearly. However, these could hardly have arisen if disease were still believed to be the result of invisible heavenly curses today.
The contribution that is perhaps the best known is that of the Hippocratic Oath. As already mentioned, Hippocrates defended the idea that every sick person had the right to be cared for, regardless of their status or social condition. Today, this oath is fundamental in medical practice and, in fact, those who have just finished their medical studies must recite it during the graduation ceremony.
Another of the great contributions of Greek medicine, in this case at the hand of Aristotle, is the study of animal and human anatomy. Thanks to this, and despite the rudimentary technique, it was possible to perform the first surgical interventions with truly therapeutic results.
Finally, the idea that emerges from Greek medicine of the 5th century BC is very important. Every disease has a biological origin and, therefore, in one way or another it is possible to prevent what causes the disease from causing it. That is, thanks to the medicine of the time, better treatments could be developed, not only with the intention of curing patients, but also to prevent them from suffering from the disease. Prevention and care significantly improved people’s well-being.
- Cohn-Haft, L. (1956), The Public Physicians of Ancient Greece, Northampton, Massachusetts.
- Jones, WHS (1946). Philosophy and Medicine in Ancient Greece, Johns Hopkins Press, Baltimore.
- Mason, SF (1956) A History of the Sciences. Collier Books: New York.