Greek History

During the ancient Greek and Roman periods, huge advances were made in medicine and surgery. The early Greek period was known as the Golden Age of Medicine as it was at this time that medicine was at last, separated from religion.

Achilles And Hector
Achilles and Hector
It was during this period that they recognised that not all diseases were due to evil spirits. However, at this time the patients that were ill with a seriously contagious disease, were not isolated from the rest of the patients at the facility, this because the Greeks were completely ignorant of the nature of these infective diseases. It was hundreds of years later during the plague outbreaks in the Dark Ages that convinced people of the strong likelihood that some diseases were contagious.

The Greeks were also becoming very good at treating the war injured, this because they were always seemingly at War, either between themselves or against the Persians; they also had a culture of science and learning, and this did include the art of medicine.

The great Greek Authors were publishing articles and books that included great healers and skilled physicians that were to become legends. Some mythical doctors even obtained God status and were worshipped by the general populous.


Greece held their Medical professionals in high esteem. Aesculapius historically and mythically was one of the most successful physicians of all time.
It has even been suggested that Aesculapius was looked upon with the same respect as they looked upon their Gods; Aesculapius was supposed to have been the son of the God Apollo and born by what we know today as post mortem caesarean section. He had an uncanny success rate.


Plato was to comment on this by stating, “Hades was losing all of its recruits.”
It was generally thought that to maintain his success rate his laymen used to take the terminally ill to a nearby wood to die. The patients that die would not be recorded as his patient.

Aesculapius had two sons Podalarius and Macheon who followed his profession, and both were said to have followed Agamemnon with the legendary Achilles, Ajax and Ulysses to tend the wounded in the 10-year battle with Hector and Paris to repatriate Helen at the siege of Troy in 1192bc.1

The plant Helenium is said to be derived from tears of Helen of Troy.

Mosses and the fiery serpent
The story of Asclepius is most probably a plagiarised version of the Numbers description thus: Numbers 21:8-9. Then the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and it shall be that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, shall live."
So, Moses made a bronze serpent, and put it on a pole; and so, it was, if a serpent had bitten anyone, when he looked at the bronze serpent, he lived.
So as the story of Moses is older than that of Aesculapius, it would seem that the biblical account is a more valid origin of this medical symbol.

"What medicines do not heal, the lance will; what the lance does not heal, fire will."2 Many modern physicians today have adopted the "Caduceus" as the symbol of their profession, with its two intertwined snakes grasping a staff.
In the ancient world however, the caduceus was a symbol of Hermes, the Roman Mercury, who was primarily a messenger God linked with commerce.

Aesculapius symbol was a single snake entwined around his staff, the Asclepian staff. The snake symbolised rejuvenation and healing to many ancient Mediterranean cultures. This is the basic design of the badge of the Royal Army Medical Corps.
Aesculapius was killed it is said from a thunderbolt from Zeus after attempting to resurrect a dead body.
As mentioned, Aesculapius sons joined the combined Greek forces against King Priam, Hector and Paris at the 10-year siege of Troy.

Macheon was a surgeon and some writers say he was a victim of the 10-year war and was killed by the Amazon Queen Penthesileia, but most agree it was more likely Eurypylus the son of Telephus.
There is a writing that tells of Macheon cutting away the dead flesh from a wound and pouring in wine and applied healing herbs and a serpentine stone.

-----The early Greeks and Romans used vegetable and mineral styptics on wounds received in battle, it was with these that Macheon ministered to Menelaus before the walls of Troy.
It was however his brother Podalarius who was in charge of the case. The physician was the superior partner.3
The Greek Physicians were like their Egyptian predecessors, held in high esteem.
A reference from Homer states that: One surgeon is worth an army of men".

The Roman Empire recognized the worth of Greek physicians by granting them the freedom of the eternal city (Rome) initially by Julius Caesar "He who suffers much will know much".4


When we think of Greek medicine and its notable physicians, you cannot go any further without mentioning Hippocrates. Hippocrates today as well as then, held the respect of surgeons and physicians alike; commonly referred to as the father of medicine.

He established that the greatest of all healing forces was nature itself. Hippocrates is believed by some to be the descendant of Aesculapius. Hippocrates advised his students to trephine all cases of contusion, this concerned a lot of physicians at the time that he should suggest this for all cases, but it was his own practice. Hippocrates who is best remembered by doctors for the theory of the Four Humors.5

Humour Season Element Organ Qualities Charactaristics
Blood Spring Air Liver Hopeful Amorous
Yellow Bile Summer Fire Gall Bladder Warm and Dry Easily Angered
Black Bile Autumn Earth Spleen Cold and Dry Sleepless Irritable
Phlegm Winter Water Brain/Lungs Cold & Moist Calm Unemotional

Hippocrates summed up the standard of professional ethics with what is still used today, the Hippocratic Oath.

"I swear by Apollo the physician, by Aesculapius, Hygeia, and Panacea, and I take to witness all the gods, all the goddesses, to keep according to my ability and my judgement, the following Oath. To consider dear to me as my parents him who taught me this art; to live in common with him and if necessary to share my goods with him; to look upon his children as my own brothers, to teach them this art if they so desire without fee or written promise; to impart to my sons and the sons of the master who taught me and the disciples who have enrolled themselves and have agreed to the rules of the profession, but to these alone the precepts and the instruction. I will prescribe regimen for the good of my patients according to my ability and my judgment and never do harm to anyone. To please no one will I prescribe a deadly drug nor give advice which may cause his death. Nor will I give a woman a pessary to procure abortion. But I will preserve the purity of my life and my art. I will not cut for stone, even for patients in whom the disease is manifest; I will leave this operation to be performed by practitioners, specialists in this art. In every house where I come I will enter only for the good of my patients, keeping myself far from all intentional ill-doing and all seduction and especially from the pleasures of love with women or with men, be they free or slaves. All that may come to my knowledge in the exercise of my profession or in daily commerce with men, which ought not to be spread abroad, I will keep secret and will never reveal. If I keep this oath faithfully, may I enjoy my life and practice my art, respected by all men and in all times; but if I swerve from it or violate it, may the reverse be my lot."6
Hippocrates believed that the sufferers were ritually unclean, the victims of divine vengeance.


Almost everybody is familiar with the name of Plato, schooled by Socrates, he is one of the most famous philosophers in history. His student Aristotle was known to contribute to medicine through his scientific ideas, but it was Plato who was the first to describe anaesthesia, calling it, "anaisthētos" which means without sensation.

I cannot believe that the ancient Greeks would write extensively about surgical procedures without having the ability to carry them out. It might be that at that time the herbal analgesic drugs that they used did provide a form of sufficient anaesthesia, so that the patient did not suffer or die in agonizing pain, whilst being treated. Plato makes use of medical analogies, such as comparing justice and injustice to health and illness, respectively, while physical health without justice (i.e., a well-ordered soul) is not good. Plato also draws analogies between body and soul, as well as between soul and city, in such a way as to reflect somewhat ancient medical theories. Politics, e.g., is described as the craft of tending the soul, while the craft of tending the body has two parts: gymnastics and medicine.7

Socrates the great Greek philosopher was executed by being forced to consume hemlock. The great names of philosophy were born during these time.
Aristotle was the teacher of the legendary King Alexander the Great who conquered half of the known world. After his death, Ptolemy ruled Egypt and set his capital at Alexandria. It was there that he built the great library which was said to contain at its height, over 700,000 scrolls from throughout the civilised world.

"I am dying from the treatment of too many physicians."8

The likes of Archimedes and the astronomer Ptolemy were later to lecture there.
It was burned to the ground by Julius Caesars Army in 48 BC.
“How DARE you and the rest of your barbarians set fire to my library? Play conqueror all you want, Mighty Caesar! Rape, murder, pillage thousands, even millions of human beings! But neither you nor any other barbarian has the right to destroy one human thought!9

"He who is of a calm and happy nature will hardly feel the pressure of age, but to him who is of an opposite disposition youth and age are equally a burden." 10


Herophilus who was born in Chalcedon, was a student of Praxagoras of Cos who in turn, was believed to be the first to tell the difference between arteries and veins. Prior to this the arteries were thought to carry air around the body, similar to their function in carrying oxygen enriched red cells around the body except even Praxagoras thought the air was delivered directly to the heart and brain via these vessels.


Herophilus was another who studied and practised his trade in Alexander at the time of Ptolemy. His initial suggestion that the arteries contained blood as opposed to air was widely disregard as even years before Aristotle believed that they contained air. His biggest claim to fame was his dissection of cadavers (sometimes in public) to prove his theories. Together with Erasistratus he is regarded as a founder of the great medical school of Alexandria.11

After the early Ptolemy period the philosophy that guided medicine was torn between different camps, you followed either Hippocrates methods Herophilus or Erasistratus methods, however a movement led by the physician Heraclides of Tarentum based all their knowledge on that gained through experience, spurning the use of dissection to gain anatomical knowledge.

The post Hippocratic schools of medicine, which were four in number:

1. Dogmatists
2. Empirics....
3. Methodists.
4. Pneumatists

These occupy perhaps a somewhat unimportant sphere in the history of medicine, but the great Philosophic schools of the Stoics, Epicureans, Sceptics, and Eclectics which influenced them, and of which, in a sense, they were the practical outcome, are famous through all time. No attempt will be named to describe them or try to explain their points of contact with medicine.

The school of the Dogmatists in its prime, synchronized with the decline of Hellenic freedom, and with the rise of the Macedonian hegemony. This school received its name from Galen, and, though not very happily chosen, it was retained for convenience.

"If we were to call them theorists we should come nearer to the essential idea which they represented in the ancient world."12

To the modern mind, dogmatism is suggestive of a certain degree of intellectual rigidity and aridity which were certainly not characteristics of this ancient medical school. But they suffered from what Bacon called: “That first distemper of learning, when men study words and not matter.”13


1 Robert Graves The Greek Myths
2  Hippocrates
3  Gore The Story of our Services under the Crown Balliere Tindall & Cox (1879) p3
4  Greek Proverb
7  Plato The Republic, Greek author and philosopher (427 BC - 347 BC)
8  Alexander III, 352-323 BC, Ancient Macedonian King (Alexander the Great)
9  William Shakespeare
10  Plato The Republic, Greek author and philosopher (427 BC - 347 BC)
11  The Greatest Benefit to Mankind Roy Porter p67
13  On the vanity of words without matter. Francis Bacon

Ken True ODP

Copyright © 2001 Ken True. All Rights