University of Virginia Historical Collections at the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library

Byzantine Medicine

Preserving and Building on Greek-Roman Predecessors

Detail of Vienna Dioscurides

Detail of wild blackberry in Vienna Dioscurides, 512 CE, Austrian National Library. An edition of De Materia Medica by Dioscurides, prepared for Julia Anicia, daughter of Emperor Anicius Olybrius.

Dioscurides was a physician who resided in Rome during the first century. He composed a compendium of all the materia medica then known from Greek medicine and other sources. He may have learned his medicine by practical experience while in the legions, and he most certainly relied on an earlier work by the physician Crateuas. His work describes some 600 plants and their possible medical use. The manuscript also has Arabic annotations because it came into the hands of an Arabic owner. In the picture to the left, wild blackberry is described and illustrated.



Detail of Frontispiece of Vienna Dioscurides

Detail of the Frontispiece of Vienna Dioscurides, 512 CE, Collection Bertarelli, Milan. Seven Physicians, Galen, the most prominent, sits on the folding chair to the left.

The frontispiece of the Vienna Dioscurides shows seven famous pharmacologists; this detail highlights Galen. Byzantine science was essentially Classical science. The value of a book like the Vienna Dioscurides was determined by the veracity of its illustrations. Eventually, copies became so bad that a movement was initiated to “clean up” the texts. Periodically, there were “renaissances.” In the sixth century CE, when the copy was made, there was such a renaissance. Scientific illustration could only progress as fast as accurate illustrations could be made. Consequently, science progressed pari passu, i.e., in equal parts, with scientific illustration. It was only with mechanized type that this problem of lag-time could be overcome.


Detail from Manuscript from Byzantium

Detail from Manuscript from Byzantium, 15th century, in Greek, Bologna, University, MS 3632, folio 51 Theophilus Protospatharius, On Urines

This Byzantine manuscript is illustrated with techniques and divisions of uroscopy. Seated at the left is Theophilus Protospatharius, a famous seventh century Greek whose treatise, On Urines, was much used throughout the Greek East and the Latin West (in translation). Handing Theophilos a urine flask is his assistant, Posos, according to the Greek caption above him.





Detail of the burial of Saints Cosmas and Damian

Detail of The Burial of Saints Cosmas and Damian, Fra Angelico, 1449, Museo di San Marco, Florence

Cosmas and Damian were reputedly twin brothers, physicians, and martyrs in the 3rd century under Diocletian. The camel in this detail enjoins that the bodies of saints Cosmas and Damian should be buried side by side; initially they were to be separated on account of a supposed disagreement. Cosmas and Damian are the patron saints of doctors.

The Introduction of Hospitals

Late antiquity witnessed a revolution in the medical scene: the birth of the hospital. Literary sources occasionally mention hospitals, but only documents from Egypt reveal how widespread they were at this time. These Egyptian testimonials record a multitude of hospitals founded by private individuals and independent of ecclesiastical institutions. The origin of the hospital as an independent institution for the care and treatment of the sick can be dated to the third quarter of the fourth century CE. The hospital resolved major tensions in the medical, ecclesiastical, and religious scenes of late antiquity.

Religion Interpolated

There have always been people who seek healing, even bodily healing, from the priest, as well as the physician. People often look to religion for a cure. In the early centuries of our own era, the old gods paled and new ones replaced them. Was Asclepius the true healer, the saviour, or was Jesus Christ? The Christian world decided in favor of Jesus. The old gods died.