Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Medicine in Classical Antiquity

Thematic Essays

By Category

By Geographical Region & Time Period
By Department

Medicine in classical antiquity was a collection of beliefs, knowledge, and experience. What we know of early medical practice is based upon archaeological evidence, especially from Roman sites—medical instruments (17.230.110), votive objects, prescription stamps, etc.—and from ancient literary sources. Most of the literary evidence is preserved in treatises attributed to the Greek physician Hippocrates (ca. 460–370 B.C.) and the Roman physician Galen (129–199/216) (74.51.5491).

From the earliest times, treatments involved incantations, invoking the gods, and the use of magical herbs, amulets, and charms. Drug sellers, root cutters, midwives, gymnastic trainers, and surgeons all offered medical treatment and advice. In the absence of formal qualifications, any individual could offer medical services, and literary evidence for early medical practice shows doctors working hard to distinguish their own ideas and treatments from those of their competitors. The roots of Greek medicine were many and included ideas assimilated from Egypt and the Near East, particularly Babylonia.

Medical practitioners frequently traveled from town to town, but there is little evidence to suggest that they were hired to provide free care for the general population. In Rome, for instance, where traditional Italian medicine competed with foreign imports, many doctors were Greek. Anyone could practice medicine, although most were free citizens. Medical training in ancient Greece and Rome might take the form of an apprenticeship to another doctor, attendance at medical lectures, or even at public anatomical demonstrations.

In ancient Greece and Rome, Asklepios was revered as the patron god of medicine (81.6.94). Two of the most famous healing sanctuaries sacred to the god were at Epidauros and on the island of Kos. The success of the cult of Asklepios in antiquity was due to his accessibility—although the son of Apollo, he was still human enough to attempt to cancel death. Those who sought a cure in the temples erected to him were subjected to ritual purifications, fasts, prayers, and sacrifices. A central feature of the cult and the process of healing was known as incubation, during which the god appeared to the afflicted one in a dream and prescribed a treatment.

Colette Hemingway
Independent Scholar