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

Homer to Hippocrates

Early Greek Medicine

Although the Greeks created rational medicine, their work was not always scientific in the modern sense of the term. Like other Greek pioneers of science, doctors were prone to think that more could be discovered through reflection and argument than by practice and experiment. There was not yet a distinction between philosophy and science, including the science of medicine. Hippocrates was the first to separate medicine from philosophy and to disprove the idea that disease was a punishment for sin. Much of the traditional treatment for injuries and ailments stemmed from folk medicine, a practice which uses the knowledge of herbs and accessible drugs, collected piece by piece through the ages, to cure everything from toothaches to infertility.

Attic Vase, 490 BCE Philoctetes bitten by a snake on Lemnos

Red Figure, Attic Vase, 490 BCE, Philoctetes bitten by a snake on Lemnos. While en route to Troy with the Greek army, the hero Philoctetes was bitten by a snake as he participated in a sacrifice to Chrse, a minor deity. The wound was so malodorous and caused Philoctetes to utter such inauspicious cries that his comrades marooned him on the island of Lemnos for the duration of the war. Philoctetes treated his wound with unspecified herbs until he was finally rescued from Lemnos and cured by the military doctors at Troy.

Stray references in Greek literature give us a better understanding of folk medicine and magic in Greek society. In Sophocles’s tragedy Philoctetes, the hero Philoctetes treats a snakebite on his foot using an unspecified herb as a palliative. The practice of singing incantations over wounds is mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey. Odysseus, wounded in his youth at a boar hunt, is said to have been skillfully bandaged by the sons of Autolycus, who then stopped the bleeding with incantations (Odyssey XIX, 455-458).

One of Hippocrates’s predecessors was Alcmaeon of Croton. In operating on the eye, Alcmaeon discovered ‘passages’ linking the sense organs to the brain, which he recognized as the seat of thought and feeling (an idea adopted by Plato, but not Aristotle). Alcmaeon was probably the first physician to formulate the doctrine of health as a balance among the powers of the body, these powers being constituent fluids with definite qualities and causal properties.


Fragment of a grave stele, East Greek Tombstone of a Doctor

Fragment of a grave stele, Ionian, 5th century BCE: East Greek Tombstone of a Doctor. This tombstone can be identified as belonging to a doctor by the two small cupping vessels at the top of the stele. Because the marker is damaged, we cannot know whether the figure standing at right was a patient or an assistant.

Health, or isonome (”equality before the law“) was a balance between these fluids. When one dominated over another, illness, or monarche, developed. These terms, in another context, refer to the struggle between opposing political factions. Among the many qualities that needed to be held in balance were heat and cold, moisture and dryness, and bitterness and sweetness. This doctrine was later parlayed by Hippocrates into the Theory of the Four Humors, which provided the basis for medical theory up until the time of the American Revolution.

The philosophers/physicians Empedocles and Anaxagoras were contemporaries of Alcmaeon. Like other scientists of their day, they inquired about such quasi-medical topics as the composition of matter (is the primary element earth, fire, or water?), the seat of the human soul (some believed it to be the heart, some the liver, and still others the diaphragm), and the procreative process of humans (most held that the male sperm was exclusively responsible for conception).

A cursory survey of medical thought and practice throughout antiquity makes two underlying themes apparent. Throughout antiquity and into the Middle Ages there was a nexus between medicine and philosophy. Scientists in the ancient world often were philosophers as well as physicians, and the distinction between the two fields was often blurred. At its inception in the sixth century BCE, ancient medicine was a mere branch of natural philosophy. Even in Late Antiquity, when the philosopher/physician Galen reigned supreme, philosophy was considered a necessary part of medical training.

Unlike philosophy and medicine, which worked in harmony, the tension between medicine and religious belief often stifled or impeded physiological research. Throughout antiquity, rational medicine and faith healing existed side by side, never fully divorcing themselves from one another. Roman medicine, especially, was an eclectic blend of rational Greek medicine, folk remedies, and religious cult practice. Like so many other aspects of antiquity, medicine was truly interdisciplinary, influencing and in turn being influenced by art, literature, philosophy, politics, and in no small way, religion.