Physician treating a patient (Attic red-figure aryballos, 480–470 BC)
Physician treating a patient (Attic red-figure aryballos, 480–470 BC)

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. Each of the four humors were linked to an organ, temper, season and element.[2] 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.[3]

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",[4] established a medical school at Cos and is the most important figure in ancient Greek medicine.[5] Hippocrates and his students documented numerous illnesses in the Hippocratic Corpus, and developed the Hippocratic Oath for physicians, which is still in use today. His students and him also created medical terminology that is part of our vocabulary today. Medical words included acute, chronic, epidemic, exacerbation, relapse, and others.[2] 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.[dubious ] Alcmaeon, author of the first anatomical compilation,[6] worked at this school, and it was here that the practice of observing patients was established. Despite their known respect for ancient 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.[7]


Rod of Asclepius
View of the Asklepieion of Kos, the best preserved instance of an Asclepieion.
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.[8] 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.[9] Asclepeia provided carefully controlled spaces conducive to healing and fulfilled several of the requirements of institutions created for healing.[8] 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.[9]

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 did not regard disease as being of supernatural origin, i.e., brought about from the dissatisfaction of the gods or from demonic possession. 'The Greeks developed a system of medicine based on an empirico-rational approach, such that they relied ever more on naturalistic observation, enhanced by practical trial and error experience, abandoning magical and religious justifications of human bodily dysfunction.'[10] However, in some instances, the fault of the ailment was still 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

Main articles: Hippocratic Corpus and Humorism

Surgical tools, 5th century BC. Reconstructions based on descriptions within the Hippocratic corpus. Thessaloniki Technology Museum
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.[11] 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".[12] 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.

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
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".[13]

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.[14] 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".[15] 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.[16] 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.[17]

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.[18] Aristotle, in contrast to earlier philosophers, and like the Egyptians, placed the rational soul in the heart, rather than the brain.[19] Notable is Aristotle's division of sensation and thought, which generally went against previous philosophers, with the exception of Alcmaeon.[20]

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 pericarpium 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.[21] 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, Erasistratus and ancient Greek anatomy

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
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

Nomenclature, methods and applications for the study of anatomy all date back to the Greeks.[22] After Theophrastus (d. 286 BC), the extent of original work produced was diminished. Though interest in Aristotle's ideas survived, they were generally taken unquestioningly.[23] 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 (the father of anatomy),[24] 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 had a 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.[25] In the same vein, he developed a diagnostic technique which relied upon distinguishing different types of pulse.[26] 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.[27] 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."[28]

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."[29] Aristotle's ideas of natural history and medicine survived, but they were generally taken unquestioningly.[30]


Main article: Galen

Aelius Galenus was a prominent Greek physician, surgeon and philosopher in the Roman Empire.[31][32][33] Arguably the most accomplished of all medical researchers of antiquity, Galen influenced the development of various scientific disciplines, including anatomy,[34] physiology, pathology,[35] pharmacology,[36] and neurology, as well as philosophy[37] 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[38][39] where Galen's physiological theory was accommodated to these new observations.[40] 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.[41][42] 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.[43]

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.[44][45][46] Galen was very interested in the debate between the rationalist and empiricist medical sects,[47] and his use of direct observation, dissection and vivisection represents a complex middle ground between the extremes of those two viewpoints.[48][49][50]


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.[51]


Herodicus (Greek: Ἡρóδιĸος) was a Greek physician of the 5th century BC, who is considered to be the father of sports medicine. The first use of therapeutic exercise for the treatment of disease and maintenance of health is credited to him, and he is believed to have been one of the tutors of Hippocrates. He also recommended good diet and massage using beneficial herbs and oils, and his theories are considered the foundation of sports medicine. He was specific in the manner that a massage should be given. He recommended that rubbing be initially slow and gentle, then subsequently faster, with the application of more pressure, which was to be followed by more gentle friction.[52]

Historical legacy

Through long contact with Greek culture, and their eventual conquest of Greece, the Romans adopted a favorable view of Hippocratic medicine.[53]

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 Avicenna. 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". World History Encyclopedia. UK. Retrieved November 9, 2013.
  2. ^ a b "Ancient Greek medicine: Influences and practice". 2018-11-09. Retrieved 2021-04-08.
  3. ^ Bendick, Jeanne. "Galen – And the Gateway to Medicine." Ignatius Press, San Francisco, CA, 2002. ISBN 1-883937-75-2.
  4. ^
  5. ^ Atlas of Anatomy, ed. Giunti Editorial Group, Taj Books LTD 2002, p. 9
  6. ^ "Alcmaeon". Britannica.
  7. ^ Heinrich von Staden, Herophilus: The Art of Medicine in Early Alexandria (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), pp. 1-26.
  8. ^ a b Risse, G. B. Mending bodies, saving souls: a history of hospitals. Oxford University Press, 1990. p. 56 [1]
  9. ^ 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]
  10. ^ 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. PMID 17386916.
  11. ^ Vivian Nutton'Ancient Medicine'(Routledge 2004)
  12. ^ 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. ((cite book)): |first1= has generic name (help)
  13. ^ Chadwick (1983). Hippocratic Writings. p. 94. ISBN 0140444513.
  14. ^ Mason, A History of the Sciences pp 41
  15. ^ Annas, Classical Greek Philosophy pp 247
  16. ^ Mayr, The Growth of Biological Thought, pp 84-90, 135; Mason, A History of the Sciences, p 41-44
  17. ^ Mayr, The Growth of Biological Thought, pp 201-202; see also: Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being
  18. ^ Aristotle, De Anima II 3
  19. ^ Mason, A History of the Sciences pp 45
  20. ^ Guthrie, A History of Greek Philosophy Vol. 1 pp. 348
  21. ^ Mayr, The Growth of Biological Thought, pp 90-91; Mason, A History of the Sciences, p 46
  22. ^ Singer, Charles (1957). A Short History of Anatomy & Physiology from Greeks to Harvey. NEw York: Dover Publications Inc. p. 5.
  23. ^ Annas, Classical Greek Philosophy pp 252
  24. ^ Elizabeth H. Oakes, Encyclopedia of World Scientists, p 321
  25. ^ Mason, A History of the Sciences pp 56
  26. ^ Barnes, Hellenistic Philosophy and Science pp 383
  27. ^ Mason, A History of the Sciences, p 57
  28. ^ Barnes, Hellenistic Philosophy and Science, pp 383-384
  29. ^ Mayr, The Growth of Biological Thought, pp 90-94; quotation from p 91
  30. ^ Annas, Classical Greek Philosophy, p 252
  31. ^ "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
  32. ^ "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
  33. ^ Nutton Vivian (1973). "The Chronology of Galen's Early Career". Classical Quarterly. 23 (1): 158–171. doi:10.1017/S0009838800036600. PMID 11624046. S2CID 35645790.
  34. ^ "Galen on the affected parts. Translation from the Greek text with explanatory notes". Med Hist. 21 (2): 212. 1977. doi:10.1017/s0025727300037935. PMC 1081972.
  35. ^ Arthur John Brock (translator), Introduction. Galen. On the Natural Faculties. Edinburgh 1916
  36. ^ Galen on pharmacology
  37. ^ Galen on the brain
  38. ^ Andreas Vesalius (1543). De humani corporis fabrica, Libri VII (in Latin). Basel, Switzerland: Johannes Oporinus. Retrieved 7 August 2010.
  39. ^ O'Malley, C., Andreas Vesalius of Brussels, 1514–1564, Berkeley: University of California Press
  40. ^ Siraisi, Nancy G., (1991) Girolamo Cardano and the Art of Medical Narrative, Journal of the History of Ideas. pp. 587–88.
  41. ^ 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.
  42. ^ 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
  43. ^ 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
  44. ^ 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.
  45. ^ Theodore J. Drizis (Fall 2008). "Medical ethics in a writing of Galen". Acta Med Hist Adriat. 6 (2): 333–336. PMID 20102254.
  46. ^ Brian, P., 1977, "Galen on the ideal of the physician", South Africa Medical Journal, 52: 936–938 pdf
  47. ^ Frede, M. and R. Walzer, 1985, Three Treatises on the Nature of Science, Indianapolis: Hacket.
  48. ^ De Lacy P (1972). "Galen's Platonism". American Journal of Philosophy. 1972 (1): 27–39. doi:10.2307/292898. JSTOR 292898.
  49. ^ Cosans C (1997). "Galen's Critique of Rationalist and Empiricist Anatomy". Journal of the History of Biology. 30 (1): 35–54. doi:10.1023/a:1004266427468. PMID 11618979. S2CID 35323972.
  50. ^ Cosans C (1998). "The Experimental Foundations of Galen's Teleology". Studies in History and Philosophy of Science. 29 (1): 63–80. Bibcode:1998SHPSA..29...63C. doi:10.1016/s0039-3681(96)00005-2.
  51. ^ 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. PMID 20561577.
  52. ^ Early American Manual Therapy (Version 5.0) - Chapter 1 History and Development of Mechanical Vibration Therapy Archived 2005-03-09 at the Wayback Machine, Accessed: October 6, 2008. "In the 5th century Herodicus advocated exercise the treatment of disease and compelled his patients to have their bodies rubbed, he being a firm believer in the efficacy of massage. Joseph Schreiber, M. D., author of "Treatment of Massage and Exercise," translated by Walter Mendelson, M. D., of New York, claims that Herodicus first laid down principles for rational, mechanical methods of treatment. HERODICUS, 484 B. C., was one of the first to refer to the manner of giving massage. He said friction should be gentle and slow at first, then rapid in combination with pressure, which was to be followed by gentle friction. Other advocates were Plato, Socrates, and Hippocrates, who said "rubbing can bind a joint that is too loose, and loosen a joint that is too rigid. Hard rubbing binds, soft rubbing loosens, much rubbing causes parts to waste, moderate rubbing makes them grow." This is the earliest definite information relative to the effect of variations in the application of massage. These maxims should be remembered by those who use mechanical vibration for they well define its general therapeutic application. Hipppocrates also suggested the direction in which to apply massage the art of rubbing up, thereby assisting mechanical and physical processes, aiding circulation, relieving stasis and consequently quickening metabolic processes."
  53. ^ 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

Our lives are influenced by the Greeks in a multitude of ways. Even in the ancient times of Greece, the y made advancements in areas such as science, mathematics, philosophy, literature, theatre, science, and medicine. Archaic, or Ancient Greece, refers to the period of 700BCE-480BCE. For such primitive years, it is incredible to see the advancements that they made in science and medicine, which directly correlates to the questions they asked themselves about the human body. Then, in turn, strategically finding logical answers to those questions. The Greeks overcame scientifical ailments or illnesses by way of medical treatment/surgeries. They incorporated their belief system, such as the Four Humors, in their medicinal revolutions. Hippocrates, a Greek doctor, was also crucial to the change in medicinal customs in Greek practices.

The Four Humors Akhlat Arba, or the four humors, originated as a concept in Egyptian culture, but it wasn’t until the Greeks, specifically from Hippocrates, that it was synthesized into medical ideas and practices. Essentially, the four humors were thought to be the four bodily fluids that corelated to environmental aspects that worked together in harmony to keep the body in good health. The four bodily fluids are known to be the “dietary sources” to nourish the human body’s organs and keep us well. The four humors are black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood. The theory developed that when all four of these were balanced harmoniously, the individual would be in perfect health. Opposingly, if someone had too much or too little of one or more of the humors, they would become ill. As described by Unani philosophers, disharmony in quantity of these humors is called as Imtala Ba Hasbul Auhia while disharmony of quality is known as Imtala Ba Hasbul. The Greeks also linked each Akhlat (humor) to a season, an organ, a temper, and an element.

16th century illustration of the four humors: Flegmat (phlegm), Sanguin (blood), Coleric (yellow bile) and Melanc (black bile). (n.d.)

Surgeries/Medical Practices The first surgical techniques were developed to treat injuries and trauma wounds. Over time, the Greeks became increasingly more aware of human anatomy because of the wounded soldiers that required attention. Greenhill(n.d) explains “the word chirurgia is derived from χείρ the hand, and ἔργον a work, and is explained by Celsus (De Med. lib. VII. Praefat.) to mean that part of medicine quae manu curat, ‘which cures diseases by means of the hand;’ in Diogenes Laërtius (III.85) it is said to cure διὰ τοῦ τέμνειν καὶ καίειν, ‘by cutting and burning’”. In addition to the development of medical practices performed on humans, the Greeks also manufactured the first editions of many of the medical tools that we continue to use to this day. For example, there is record of probes made of iron, lancets made of copper, different kinds of forceps, and the very first male catheters (William, n.d.).

Hippocrates Contributions During this period in history, there was no actual certification or license for doctors to perform treatments or procedures on their patients, but Hippocrates set the gold standard for what being a doctor meant. Not just in Ancient Greece, but for many years to come. There was still so much unknown about human anatomy and lots to learn, but the main idea that he addressed is: doctors should be very careful with human lives and the techniques that they used on patients need to be diligent. He wrote many arguments and reports about diseases and the recommended treatments he made have formed the foundation of medical practices today. In On Ancient Medicine, a book by Hippocrates, he stresses that doctors’ duty is to help alleviate the suffering of the people (Tsiompanou, Marketos, 2013).

Conclusion Greek medicine was the predecessor and set the framework by which we were able to build on and improve throughout history. There were several factors that contributed to the changes that occurred in Ancient Greek medicine. Doctors, like Hippocrates, started questioning the previous theories on medicine and the human body. Curiosity is proven time and time again to be the precursor for interventions and discoveries in all aspects of humanity – it is human nature. Philosophy and religion were very prominent in ancient times, so they played a key role in the way that the Ancient Greeks viewed medicine and the human body. This is evident from their interpretations of the Four Humors. Wars and violence were very much a part of Ancient Greece, so trauma to the human body and illnesses were something that was necessary to take seriously which blossomed the into surgeries and new medical practices. Throughout the years, medical procedures and surgeries have become more advanced, but Ancient Greek doctors and healers were some of the first to introduce these acts. I cannot imagine where we would even be without the introduction of medicine and medical thoughts based out of Ancient Greece.


Fornaro, M., Clementi, N., & Fornaro, P. (2009, October 7). Medicine and Psychiatry in Western Culture: Ancient Greek Myths and Modern Prejudices. SpringerLink.

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