The Classical Era
Greek Medicine was codified, systematized, and put into its classical form by Hippocrates, who is best remembered for the theory of the Four Humors. The basic principles of natural healing in Greek Medicine given in the introduction to this website are the key tenets upon which Hippocrates based his medical philosophy.
Anatomical knowledge wasn't the strong point of Hippocratic medicine. Anatomy literally means, "cutting up", or the dissecting of bodies to reveal their various parts and structures. In ancient Greece, there was a religious ban on the dissecting of cadavers.
Rather, the forte of classical Greek Medicine was its understanding of physiology, or how the living, breathing human organism as a whole relates and responds to its environment, and how it functions to ensure its health, survival and wellbeing. This gave Greek Medicine a holistic orientation.
Hippocrates laid the theoretical foundation for Greek Medicine, which was further elaborated, expanded and added to by other physicians and philosophers. These included Plato, Aristotle and Galen.
Plato was a spiritually oriented philosopher who was vitally interested in the relationship between soul, mind and body. His ideas on anatomy and physiology were basically teleological - that the human body and all its constituent parts were fashioned by their Creator to serve as a vehicle for the indwelling soul, or psyche, with the lower functions serving the higher in a hierarchy of form following function. Plato believed that all physical forms and entities were reflections of pure forms or ideas called archetypes which existed in the eternal, spiritual realm. The physical world of becoming was but a transitory and imperfect reflection of the spiritual world of being.
Aristotle was much more materialistic than his teacher Plato, and injected a spirit of rationalism, empiricism and healthy skepticism into Greek science and medicine. Ever the curious student and observer of Nature, Aristotle wrote voluminously on all the sciences, and could be called the Father of Modern Science.
Through the conquests of his pupil, Alexander the Great, Greek Medicine spread far and wide, throughout the entire Mediterranean world and beyond. An important medical school was established in Alexandria in Egypt, which served to transmit Greek Medicine to the Romans after they conquered Egypt in 33 B.C.E. The Alexandrian school called itself the Empirical School, and everything was open to testing and experimentation. For a brief period, the religious ban on dissecting cadavers was lifted, and Herophilus performed the first postmortem examination on a dead body in public around 300 B.C.E.
The famous library in Alexandria housed the collection of writings attributed to Hippocrates, or the Hippocratic Corpus. Not all the writings in the Corpus were genuinely written by Hippocrates; many were written by his students. Within the Hippocratic Corpus are many original, pioneering works, such as Airs, Waters and Places, which is probably the the first known treatise on medical geography and climatology. Other works, such as Hippocrates' Aphorisms and The Nature of Man, are perennial favorites.
The early Romans were a simple, stoic lot who didn't like to rely on doctors; rather, their prescription for a healthy life was a simple diet of good, wholesome food, personal cleanliness and hygiene, and plenty of hard work and exercise.
But as the Roman empire grew and life became more complex, the demand for doctors and their services increased. Ambitious physicians from all over the empire, eager for fame and fortune, poured in to Rome. The most famous and highly reputed physicians were Greek, many of whom had been trained in Alexandria. However, a few of them, like Celsus, were Roman by birth.
The Romans, with their genius for governing an empire, were masters of public health. They installed long aqueducts and sophisticated plumbing systems in Rome and other major cities throughout the empire, and drained swamps and marshlands near crowded urban areas to prevent the germination and spread of pestilential diseases like malaria. Public healthcare was offered at low cost or free of charge, since the ancient Romans realized the benefits that would accrue to the empire by keeping all its citizens healthy.
The Romans were also great devotees of the bath. Roman emperors vied with each other to see who could build the most luxurious, splendid public baths, which were also a pleasant way to relax after a hard day's work. Everywhere they went, the Romans took their baths with them, even to the farthest outposts of the empire. The Roman baths in Bath, England are still popular tourist attractions, and Baile Herculane (the Bath of Hercules) in Dacia (present day Romania) is a popular spa resort to this day.
The two brightest stars in the Roman medical firmament were Galen and Dioscorides, both of whom were Greeks. They were both pioneering innovators who made major contributions to the theory and practice of Greek Medicine. Galen was the greatest physician of the Roman empire, and Dioscorides was a master herbalist and Father of Pharmacy.
Although the Western Roman Empire fell to barbarian invasions in 476 A.D., the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire endured for another thousand years, finally falling to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. Although the Byzantine Empire produced its share of fine physicians, they were not quite the equal of Galen or Dioscorides. The Byzantines kept classical Greek Medicine alive long enough to pass it on to the Muslim Arabs, who kept the spirit of science and learning alive while Western Europe was in the Dark Ages.
Traditional Greco-Arabic and Modern Western Medicine: Conflict or Symbiosis?
by Hakim Mohammed Said Copyright 1975 by Hamdard Academy - Karachi, Pakistan
pp. 17 - 21
Encyclopedia of Islamic Medicine With a Greco-Roman Background
by Dr. Hassan Kamal Copyright 1975 by General Egyptian Book Organization
pp. 12 - 15
Ancient Healing: Unlocking the Mysteries of Health and Healing Through the Ages
by Kevin V. Ergil et al Copyright 1997 by Publications International Ltd.
Chapter on Greek and Roman Medicine - pp. 68 - 98