You can talk about as many medicines as there have been cultures and historical periods. The ways in which human diseases have been treated and dealt with are very varied and have depended on the historical context in which the physician lived.

Greek medicine is no exception . The way the ancient Greeks viewed illness is quite different from the way we do it today, although it has influenced and laid the foundations of current medical practice.

Even so, 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 talking about Greek medicine we cannot ignore the great differences between the most ancient times compared to the most classical ones, 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, the period from the 11th-12th century BC to the 5th century BC is called Ancient Greece . During these centuries, Hellenic culture gradually incorporated elements from other ethnic groups, from Mesopotamia, the Middle East and Africa. At this time, Greek medicine was characterized by its lack of refinement and sophistication.

Major 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 the badly wounded soldiers should be treated .
Medical practices, judging by epic poems such as The Iliad and Homer’s Odyssey, were intermingled with religious rites and superstitions. In fact, in the first of the works mentioned, reference is made to those who, according to Homer, were the first practitioners of medicine: Polydirio and Macaón.

According to the legend, Macaón put his healing knowledge into practice with a king, the Spartan Menelaus , who had been wounded by an arrow. The story goes that Macaón treated the monarch first by exploring the wound and what state his patient was in, then he sucked the blood from the wound and finally he administered the treatment.

Worship of the god Asclepiades

As we have already mentioned, in the early days of Greek culture, the vision of the therapeutic process was very much marked by the belief that one’s health depended on the desires and wills of the gods of Olympus . Most of the Hellenic temples were built near water sources, since it was believed that if someone got sick, he could be cured by the water that, when it emerged 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 the same function, Apollo, and a beautiful virgin but mortal called Coronis.

Legend has it that Apollo fell hopelessly in love with the virgin while watching her bathe in the forest and left her pregnant, but her father wanted her to marry his cousin, Ischion. On learning this, Apollo cursed his fate and decided to kill both his beloved and her fiancé, but after taking their lives, he felt sorry for his unborn child and decided to remove it 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 many skills, 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 that moment had been the god of medicine, abdicated this title, handing it over to his son.

Understanding the myth behind this god, it is logical to think that the doctors of Ancient Greece revered him, considering his designs something fundamental for the patient to be able to get cured. The sick came to him to overcome their illness or to ask themselves why he had punished them with it.

Some temples erected to Asclepiades worked in a similar way as modern hospitals do today. For example, in Pergamum and other temples the sick went there and undressed to put on white robes. After that they would go to another temple enclosure, similar to a hotel, and they would be attentive to the treatment of the patients and put them up for a time.

In the origins of the cult of this god there were beliefs that today would be unthinkable , and even the Greeks several centuries later would flatly refuse to use them as effective treatment. Cures and incantations were made, and certain practices considered “natural” were followed, such as having ulcers licked by dogs blessed by the god.

The priest who was in charge of making sure that the rites to the god Asclepiades were carried out according to tradition, as well as collecting the offerings intended for him and making sure that the patients received the proper religious treatment, was called iatros and, in fact, this word has survived to our days , meaning ‘the medical, the surgical’. This iatros had a function similar to the vision we have today of shamans and witches.

Classical Greek Medicine

From the 5th century BC onwards, a series of socio-political and cultural changes made Greece the great power of the time, and this is also reflected in its knowledge, especially in the fields of biology, astronomy and, most notably, medicine. It could be said that it is at this time, although very far from how it is understood today, that scientific medicine appears.

At this time appears one of the great thinkers of the history of Western civilization, Aristotle, who made an extensive study of life forms, starting with animals . This philosopher, from the city of Stagira, studied and classified nearly 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 play a truly prominent role in this article is undoubtedly Hippocrates of Cos.

Hippocrates: disease is a natural phenomenon

Hippocrates of Cos is, for doctors and non-doctors alike, a figure who has had an important role and fame within the field of health sciences. His name is associated with one of the greatest discoveries in history, representing a great change in the conception that was held about the origin of diseases in pre-Christian Greece: every disease is a natural phenomenon.

Hippocrates was against thinking that the illness 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 from causes that were in the environment, such as the climate, food, bad water … No wonder that Hippocrates is known as the father of medicine as it is understood today.

Among the great contributions of Hippocratic practice and theory, the following three can be mentioned:

1. Observation and reasoning

As mentioned earlier, the religious view of the disease was overcome and the patient’s medical condition was closely observed and explored.

Diseases have symptoms, which give clues as to what medical condition the patient is suffering from and how it can be dealt with.

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

Hippocrates’ main idea, and one that is now the foundation behind modern medicine, is that every physiological disease has a biological cause.

In the Hippocratic theory of the four humours talks about how diseases arise, defending the idea that they are the consequence of an imbalance between four substances: bile, phlegm, blood and water.

3. Deontology

He defended the idea that the doctor should work in the most ethical and moral way possible towards the patient, ensuring benefit to the patient and without discriminating between social group, ethnicity, sex or race.

Up to that time, 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 by making women, poor people and foreigners receive medical care in some way.

Influence of Greek Medicine Today

Despite the fact that more than twenty centuries have passed since the time Hippocrates lived, there are many great contributions by this Greek that have had an impact on the vision that is held today of medicine and its field of application.

It should not be forgotten that, thanks to the great scientific advances, in addition to the foundation of disciplines such as microbiology, oncology and genetics , the causes of diseases are more clearly known. However, these could hardly have arisen if it were still believed today that diseases are the result of invisible heavenly curses.

The contribution that is perhaps the best known is that of the Hippocratic Oath . As has already been said, 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 by Aristotle, is the study of animal and human anatomy . Thanks to this, and despite the rudimentary nature of the technique, it was possible to perform the first surgical interventions with genuinely therapeutic results.

Finally, it is very important the idea that comes from the Greek medicine of the 5th century BC. Every disease has a biological origin and therefore, in one way or another, it is possible to avoid that what causes the disease comes to cause it. That is to say, thanks to the medicine of the time, better treatments could be developed , not only with the intention of curing the patients, but also to prevent them from suffering the disease. Prevention and care significantly improved people’s well-being.

Bibliographic references:

  • Cohn-Haft, L. (1956), The Public Physicians of Ancient Greece, Northampton, Massachusetts.
  • Jones, W. H. S. (1946). Philosophy and Medicine in Ancient Greece, Johns Hopkins Press, Baltimore.
  • Mason, S. F. (1956) A History of the Sciences. Collier Books: New York.