Ancient Greek healthcare: as contentious as today?


America has just voted through its biggest health-care reform in decades. But what was medical treatment like in ancient Greece?


Ancient Greece was, first and foremost, a world full of gods – gods who determined much of people’s lives. So, it will come as no surprise that when ancient Greeks were ill, they often believed a god was responsible for the illness. Epilepsy, for example, was known simply in ancient Greece as the Sacred Disease.

In search for a cure, the Greeks also turned to the gods – either in an effort to appease the god who have caused their illness or to the god of healing, Asclepius, who they hoped would cure them.

The great sanctuary of Asclepius at Epidauros – which so many people still visit today for its magnificent theatre – was one of the sanctuaries to the god of healing built during the early part of the 4th century BC. People would come to the temple in the sanctuary and pay a fee to the priests to sleep there, hoping the god would come to them in a dream and cure them, or tell them how they could be cured.

But, over time, the god-cure route stopped being the only option. During the 4th century BC, the development of medical knowledge about the human body, and about human illness started to take off.

Hippocratus, for example, whose Hippocratic oath doctors still swear today, was making his investigations of the human body and human disease at just this time and offering alternative practical remedies to many problems that did not depend on the gods.

The sacred disease, it is argued in the Hippocratic corpus of medical writing, had nothing to do with the gods, but had human causes and human solutions. The era of scientific medicine had begun.

By the end of the 4th century BC, the sanctuary of Asclepius at Epidauros may have been genuinely worried about the threat this new ‘medicine’ posed to its flow of ‘customers’. The sanctuary responded by commissioning a whole series of ‘success stories’ to be written up on stone and displayed at the sanctuary.

Those ‘stories on stone’ have survived to today and make fascinating reading. The god is claimed to have helped a woman pregnant for 5 years to give birth, to have cured wounds that had seeped pus for years, to have given the dumb back their voice and even the bald their hair. It seems that, even in ancient Greece, there was disagreement about who provided better healthcare.


Reprinted from Neos Kosmos