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Classical Studies: Ancient Medicine

Ancient Medicine Introduction from Oxford Bibliographies Online

The experience of injury, illness, and disease unites human beings across time and place. Life in the ancient world was perilous. Disease, childbirth, food shortage, and war rendered it both short and brutish. Ancient medicine, like its modern counterpart, seeks to treat ailments and remedy pain. Homer’s Iliad begins with the god Apollo, an agent of both destruction and healing, spreading plague among the ranks of the Greek army (1.8–52). The same work presents Machaon, a physician from a long line of physicians, attending to wounds and employing pharmaceuticals without direct recourse to divine intervention (11.520–550). Injuries, illness, and disease admit different ascribed causes and prescribed therapeutic responses. Ancient medicinal thought varies considerably across cultures. Thus, for example, the famous humoral system of body fluids affirmed in the Hippocratic Corpus and subsequent medical thought does not easily map, despite some similarities, onto Ayurvedic medicine in ancient India. Physicians competed in a complex marketplace of medical ideas and practices. They plied their trade with insufficient, often erroneous, information about the body and the functions of its parts. It is difficult to fairly assess the efficacy of many treatments. Current knowledge of ancient medicine comes from a variety of different sources. These include a papyrus on gynecology from ancient Egypt; Neolithic skulls with trepanation holes; surgical instruments from the ruins of Pompeii (e.g., bone drills, catheters, spatula, lancet, scissors, vaginal specula, and cautery iron); terracotta votives of anatomical parts in Greek temples; a tombstone of an unnamed female physician in Gallo-Roman France; and a recently discovered moral-philosophical work, De indolentia, in which Galen records the loss of irreplaceable pharmaceutical recipes and one-off medical instruments in the fire that ravaged Rome in 192 CE. Lines between the practice of medicine and traditional cult or religion are blurry at best. Despite the ascendency of “rational” medicine in classical Greece, “irrational” medicine continued to exist. The former did not push out the latter. The ancients did not have a health-care system in the modern sense. Ancient healers comprise a diverse group of practitioners that include, among others, root-cutters, midwives, diviners, and surgeons. The threat of anachronism in recounting ancient medicine is ever-present. In fact, the use of “doctor” or “physician” to describe ancient therapists is seen by some to be anachronistic, as is the use of “medicine.” Precious little remains of a patient’s perspective. Despite the obstacles, the study of ancient medicine offers an invaluable glimpse into the thought, culture, and experience of ancient peoples.

Consult Ancient Medicine for an exhaustive list of annotated books and other resources.   Attached is the table of contents:

Table of contents for Ancient Medicine from Oxford Bibliographies Online


An Egyptian Healer


Egyptian Healer

Egyptian Healer

A Greek Physician

Red figure, Attic Cup

A Greek physician
Red figure, Attic Cup, c. 490 BCE


Aeneas receiving medical attention from Iapyx (1st Century BCE Mosaic)

Wall painting from Casa di Sirico, Pompeii, 1st Century BCE: Aeneas receiving medical attention from Iapyx

Source:Wall painting from Casa di Sirico, Pompeii, 1st Century BCE: Aeneas receiving medical attention (removing arrow from leg) from Iapyx.

Asclepius and Hygeia

Two icons of health in the ancient world, Asclepius god of medicine and healing and his daughter Hygeia personification of health depicted as household gods. Roman 100-150 CE Bronze. Photographed at The Getty Villa Pacific Palisades, CA by Mary Harrsch, 2006.

Reference Resources

Antiqua Medicina (University of Virginia Claude Moore Health Sciences Library)

Asclepion, a World Wide Web page devoted to the study of ancient medicine. This page was designed to be an internet source that presents the study of ancient medicine in a manner that is both accessible and useful to the general public and to students in the history of medicine courses at Indiana University Bloomington.

Ancient Egyptian Medicine, courtesy of Medical News Today.

Ancient Egyptian Medicine, by Ellie Crystal.  Includes images.

Ancient Egyptian Medicine, from An introduction to the history and culture of Pharaonic Egypt.

Medicine in Ancient Egypt, from Aclepion.

Ancient Egyptian Medicine Images from Google.

Greek Medicine : An Online Exhibit from the National Library of Medicine.

Ancient Greek Civilizations.  A virtual exhibit by the Minnesota State University EMuseum.  Includes section on Medicine in Ancient Greece

Ancient Greek Medicine courtesy of Medical News Today.

Ancient Greek Medicine courtesy of the Ancient History Encyclopedia.

Medicine in Ancient Greece via Asclepion.  Click on buttons to see text.

Ancient Roman Medicine courtesy of Medical News Today.

Medicine in Ancient Rome courtesy of the History Learning Site.

Roman Medicine courtesy of the Ancient History Encyclopedia.

Selected Books

A history of medicine by Lois N. Magner. book cover

A history of medicine [electronic resource] / Lois N. Magner.  New York : M. Dekker, c1992.  393pp.  R131 .M179 1992eb  Online : Includes chapters on medicine in ancient civilizations - Mesopotamia and Egypt, Greco-Roman medicine, etc.




Bad medicine doctors doing harm since Hippocrates book cover

Bad medicine [electronic resource] : doctors doing harm since Hippocrates / David Wootton.  Oxford ; New York : Oxford University Press, 2006.  304pp.   R484 .W66 2006  Online  : We all face disease and death, and rely on the medical profession to extend our lives. Yet, David Wootton argues, from the fifth century BC until the 1930s, doctors actually did more harm than good. In this controversial new account of the history of medicine, he asks just how much good it has done us over the years, and how much harm it continues to do today.

A cabinet of ancient medical curiosities : strange tales and surprising facts from the healing arts of Greece and Rome

A cabinet of ancient medical curiosities : strange tales and surprising facts from the healing arts of Greece and Rome / J.C. McKeown.  New York, NY, United States of America : Oxford University Press, [2017]  268pp.  R138 .M394 2017 : There are few disciplines as exciting and forward-looking as medicine. Unfortunately, however, many modern practitioners have lost sight of the origins of their discipline. A Cabinet of Ancient Medical Curiosities aspires to cure this lapse by taking readers back to the early days of Western medicine in ancient Greece and Rome. Quoting the actual words of ancient authors, often from texts which have never before been translated into English, J. C. McKeown offers a fascinating glimpse at the origins of surgery, gynecology, pediatrics, pharmacology, diet and nutrition, and many other fields of medicine.... This book features hundreds of passages from Greek and Roman authors, with gentle guidance from McKeown, giving a vividly direct picture of the ancient medical world, a world in which, for example, a surgeon had to be strong-minded enough to ignore the screams of his patient, diseases were assumed to be sent by the gods, medicine and magic were often indistinguishable, and no qualifications were required before setting oneself up as a doctor. On the other hand, McKeown reveals that some ancient medical attitudes were also surprisingly similar to our own. Beyond the practice of medicine, McKeown highlights ancient views on familiar topics, such as medical ethics and the role of the doctor in society. A fascinating exploration of the bizarre - and sometimes grotesque - medical beliefs of the past, A Cabinet of Ancient Medical Curiosities will delight anyone with an interest in the history of medicine or the ancient world.

Medical ethics in the ancient world book cover

Medical ethics in the ancient world / Paul Carrick.  Washington, D.C. : Georgetown University Press, c2001.  266pp.  R725.5 .C37 2001  : Carrick  explores the origins and development of medical ethics as practiced by physicians in ancient Greece and Rome, and the relevance of their ideas to contemporary medicine. Sources of information include anthropological, linguistic and legal evidence, as well as the works of poets and playwrights. Ater discussion of the ancient world, the author concludes with an analysis of contemporary biomedical practices and associated ethical issues.

Medicine & health care in early Christianity book cover

Medicine & health care in early Christianity [electronic resource] / Gary B. Ferngren.  Baltimore : Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009.  246pp.  R145 .F47 2009  Online (Also available in print) : Drawing on New Testament studies and recent scholarship on the expansion of the Christian church, Gary B. Ferngren presents a comprehensive historical account of medicine and medical philanthropy in the first five centuries of the Christian era. Ferngren first describes how early Christians understood disease. He examines the relationship of early Christian medicine to the natural and supernatural modes of healing found in the Bible. Despite biblical accounts of demonic possession and miraculous healing, Ferngren argues that early Christians generally accepted naturalistic assumptions about disease and cared for the sick with medical knowledge gleaned from the Greeks and Romans. Ferngren next explores the origins of medical philanthropy in the early Christian church. Rather than viewing illness as punishment for sins, early Christians believed that the sick deserved both medical assistance and compassion. Even as they were being persecuted, Christians cared for the sick both within and outside of their community. Their long experience in medical charity led to the creation of the first hospitals, a singular Christian contribution to health care. Medicine and Health Care in Early Christianity is essential reading for scholars and students in the history of medicine and religious studies.

The Cambridge illustrated history of medicine book cover

The Cambridge illustrated history of medicine / edited by Roy Porter.  Cambridge ; New York : Cambridge University Press, 1996.  400pp.  R131 .C232 1996  :  Against the backdrop of unprecedented concern for the future of health care, The Cambridge Illustrated History of Medicine surveys the rise of medicine in the West from classical times to the present. Covering both the social and scientific history of medicine, this lavishly illustrated volume traces the chronology of key developments and events, while at the same time engaging with the issues, discoveries, and controversies that have beset and characterized medical progress. The authors weave a narrative that connects disease, doctors, primary care, surgery, the rise of hospitals, drug treatment and pharmacology, mental illness and psychiatry. This volume emphasizes the crucial developments of the past 150 years, but also examines classical, medieval, and Islamic and East Asian medicine. Authoritative and accessible, The Cambridge Illustrated History of Medicine is for readers wanting a lively and informative introduction to medical history. Roy Porter is professor of the social history of medicine at the Wellcome Insitute for the History of Science. He has written or edited numerous books about the history of medicine, including Western Medical Tradition (with L. Conrad, Cambridge, 1995), Drugs and Narcotics in History (with M. Teich, Cambridge, 1995), The Greatest Benefit to Mankind (Norton, 1999), and The Creation of the Modern World (Norton, 2000).

History of medicine : a very short introduction book cover

History of medicine [electronic resource] : a very short introduction / William Bynum.  Oxford ; New York : Oxford University Press, 2008.  169pp. R131 .B974 2008  Online  : Against the backdrop of unprecedented concern for the future of health care, this Very Short Introduction surveys the history of medicine from classical times, through the scholastic medieval tradition and the Enlightenment to the present day. Taking a thematic rather than strictly chronological approach, W.F. Bynum, explores the key turning points in the history of Western medicine-such as the first surgical procedures, the advent of hospitals, the introduction of anesthesia, X-Rays, vaccinations, and many other innovations, as well as the rise of experimental medicine. The book also explores Western medicine's encounters with Chinese and Indian medicine, as well as nontraditional treatments such as homeopathy, chiropractic, and other alternative medicines. Covering a vast amount of information, this Very Short Introduction sheds new light on medicine's past, while at the same time engaging with contemporary issues, discoveries, and controversies, such as the spiraling costs of health care, lack of health insurance for millions, breakthrough treatments, and much more. For readers who wish to understand the how we have arrived at our current state of medical practice and knowledge, this book is essential reading.

Ancient Medicine ( Sciences of Antiquity Series) book cover

Ancient Medicine ( Sciences of Antiquity Series) /  Vivian Nutton. London ; New York : Routledge, 2013..   488pp.  R135 .N88 2013.  The first edition of Ancient Medicine was the most complete examination of the medicine of the ancient world for a hundred years. The new edition includes the key discoveries made since the first edition, especially from important texts discovered in recent finds of papyri and manuscripts, making it the most comprehensive and up-to-date survey available. Vivian Nutton pays particular attention to the life and work of doctors in communities, links between medicine and magic, and examines the different approaches to medicine across the ancient world. The new edition includes more on Rufus and Galen as well as augmented information on Babylonia, Hellenistic medicine and Late Antiquity.  With recently discovered texts made accessible for the first time, and providing new evidence, this broad exploration challenges currently held perspectives, and proves an invaluable resource for students of both classics and the history of medicine.

Ancient Babylonian medicine [electronic resource] : theory and practice book cover

Ancient Babylonian medicine [electronic resource] : theory and practice / Markham J. Geller.  Chichester, West Sussex, U.K. ; Malden, MA : Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.  221pp.  R135.3 .G44 2010  Online : Utilizing a great variety of previously unknown cuneiform tablets, "Ancient Babylonian Medicine: Theory and Practice" examines the way medicine was practiced by various Babylonian professionals of the 2nd and 1st millennium B.C. Represents the first overview of Babylonian medicine utilizing cuneiform sources, including archives of court letters, medical recipes, and commentaries written by ancient scholars Attempts to reconcile the ways in which medicine and magic were related Assigns authorship to various types of medical literature that were previously considered anonymous Rejects the approach of other scholars that have attempted to apply modern diagnostic methods to ancient illnesses

Ancient Egyptian medicine book cover

Ancient Egyptian medicine / John F. Nunn.  Norman : University of Oklahoma Press, c1996.  240pp.  R137 .N86 1996 : The skills of the ancient Egyptians in preserving bodies through mummification are well known, but their expertise in the everyday medical practices needed to treat the living is less familiar and often misinterpreted. John F. Nunn draws on his own experience as an eminent doctor of medicine and an Egyptologist to reassess the evidence. He has translated and reviewed the original Egyptian medical papyri and has reconsidered other sources of information, including skeletons, mummies, statues, tomb paintings and coffins.  Illustrations highlight similarities in the conditions of ancient and modern patients. Nunn appraises the criteria by which the ancient Egyptian doctors made their diagnoses in the context of current medical knowledge, showing that many of their findings are still valid today. Nunn also explores ancient Egyptian spells and incantations and the relationship of magic and religion to medical practices.  Incorporating the most recent insights of modern medicine and Egyptology, Nunn furnishes the reader with a comprehensive and authoritative book on a fascinating subject.

Greek medicine : from the heroic to the Hellenistic age : a source book book cover

Greek medicine : from the heroic to the Hellenistic age : a source book / James Longrigg.  New York : Routledge, 1998.  244pp.  R138 .L649 1998 : The Greeks were the first to use rational systems of medicine, based upon belief in natural causation, rather than magical and religious elements, which resulted in a new conception of disease, accounting for causes and symptoms of illness. "Greek Medicine" places ancient Greek medicine, from Homer to the Alexandrians, within its historical and intellectual context by presenting a selection of source material in translation.  The book provides a chronological account on the most important aspects of ancient medicine, and includes chapters on specific areas of medicine, such as gynecology, dietetics, pharmacology and surgery.

Roman medicine book cover

Roman medicine / Audrey Cruse.  Stroud, Gloucestershire : Tempus, 2004.  256pp.  R138.5 .C78 2004 : n 'Roman Medicine' Audrey Cruse looks at the long and complex history of western medicine. After introducing relevant myths and legends from earliest times in Greece, she discusses ancient philosophers from the sixth-fifth centuries BC and the subsequent development of schools of medicine. Cult practices at shrines of healing in classical Greece are also discussed in this introductory section. Rome's conquest of the Greek world led to a syncretization of religion and to the development of knowledge and skills between these two worlds. Although physicians continued to be mainly Greeks, it was Roman (and Celtic) blacksmiths who developed and manufactured their surgical instruments, and Roman engineers who, albeit fortuitously, provided the people with clean water, baths and latrines and who drained Italy's disease-infested marshes. The Roman Army was provided with purpose-built hospitals, whilst contemporaneously, healing sanctuaries at both urban and rural sites continued to flourish. In 293 BC Rome was held in the grip of the plague and, according to legend, in answer to a directive from the Sibylline Books, the Roman Senate decided to send to Epidaurus for Asclepius. The paramount god of healing in the Greek world travelled to Rome in 291 BC. This was a significant event, for it is the first example of a foreign cult being imported directly into the Roman Pantheon. The story has it that after the god's arrival in Rome the plague subsided and 'Aesculapius' became the Latinized form of the god's name. His temples and shrines continued to flourish throughout the Greek and Roman worlds until well into the Christian period. Leading academics have demonstrated that eye diseases were prevalent in the western empire and this is discussed in the book with special relevance to Roman Britain. The author also looks at the many different aspects of medicine and health in the Roman Empire, especially with regard to doctors, their drugs and their surgical equipment.

The prince of medicine : Galen in the Roman Empire book cover

The prince of medicine : Galen in the Roman Empire / Susan P. Mattern.  New York, N.Y. : Oxford University Press, [2013]  334pp.  R126.G8 M38 2013  : Galen of Pergamum (A.D. 129 - ca. 216) began his remarkable career tending to wounded gladiators in provincial Asia Minor. Later in life he achieved great distinction as one of a small circle of court physicians to the family of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, at the very heart of Roman society. Susan Mattern's The Prince of Medicine offers the first authoritative biography in English of this brilliant, audacious, and profoundly influential figure. Like many Greek intellectuals living in the high Roman Empire, Galen was a prodigious polymath, writing on subjects as varied as ethics and eczema, grammar and gout. Indeed, he was (as he claimed) as highly regarded in his lifetime for his philosophical works as for his medical treatises. It is for medicine that he is most remembered today, and from the later Roman Empire through the Renaissance, medical education was based largely on his works. Even up to the twentieth century, he remained the single most influential figure in Western medicine. He was a complicated individual, full of breathtaking arrogance, shameless self-promotion, and lacerating wit. He was fiercely competitive, once disemboweling a live monkey and challenging the physicians in attendance to correctly replace its organs. Relentless in his pursuit of anything that would cure the patient, he insisted on rigorous observation and, sometimes, daring experimentation. He confronted one of history's most horrific events--a devastating outbreak of smallpox--and persevered, bearing patient witness to its predations, year after year. The Prince of Medicine gives us Galen as he lived his life, in the city of Rome at its apex of power and decadence, among his friends, his rivals, and his patients. It offers a deeply human and long-overdue portrait of one of ancient history's most significant and engaging figures.

Hippocrates in a world of pagans and Christians book cover

Hippocrates in a world of pagans and Christians / Owsei Temkin.  Baltimore : Johns Hopkins University Press, c1991.  315pp.  BL65.M4 T35 1991 : The fascinating story of how Hippocrates and the Oath (which is unlikely to have been written by the great Coan doctor himself) became Christianized is the theme of this wise and humane book... Historians, theologians, and doctors alike will benefit from this clear, learned, and courteous exposition of an enthralling theme."--Vivian Nutton, Times Literary Supplement. "A feast of citations from a staggering variety of sources... The reader can only salute [Temkin] as one of the greatest humanist physicians of our time."-- New England Journal of Medicine. In Hippocrates in a World of Pagans and Christians, Temkin shows how the perennial appeal of Hippocratic practice helped establish the relationship between scientific medicine and monotheistic religion. After the first century, Hippocratic medicine competed with powerful beliefs in religious healers from Asclepius to Jesus. Yet the ascendance of Christianity, Temkin explains, did not diminish the stature of Hippocratic science. Hippocrates, after all, saw nature as a divine and orderly power that caused growth and supplied "health." Hippocratic doctors could easily exchange the cult of Asclepius for the worship of Christ. But they could not sacrifice their belief in nature as the basis of health, disease, and therapy without renouncing their science. In compromise, the Church accepted Hippocratic medicine with the proviso that the Christian physician shun all pagan or heretical interpretations of naturalism--he must not, for example, believenature to be divine, the soul a mere function of the brain, or himself the true savior of the sick.

Miscellaneous Journal Articles

John Scarborough, "Drugs and Medicines in the Roman World", Expedition, Vol. 38, no.2 (1996)

Colin Davies. "Hippocrates, the Founder of Scientific Medicine".  History Today, Volume 21, Issue 4, April 1971

"Temple of Kom Ombo", Atlas Obscura. The Temple of Kom Ombo is an unusual double temple constructed during the Ptolemaic period, which lasted from 108 to 47 BC. The ancient Egyptian place of worship features a unique engraving that is thought to be among the first representations of medical and surgical instruments..  


What’s Inside a 2,000-Year-Old, Shipwreck -- Preserved Roman Pill?.   Article by Joseph Stromberg, Smithsonian Magazine, January 2013.

Rediscovering an ancient book.  Mark Schrope, "Medicine’s Hidden Roots in an Ancient Manuscript", New York Times, June 1, 2015.  Recently rediscovered Galen manuscript.  For centuries, Galen’s “Simple Drugs” was required reading for aspiring physicians, the summation of ancient knowledge about medicine, patient care and pharmaceutical plants. Galen described a root that cures “roughness of the throat” and recommended hemp as an earache remedy that “does not produce flatulence” (though it “dries out the semen”).


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