Biblical Studies Ancient Medicine
Trevor Thompson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 January 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0192


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.

General Overviews

The heightened interest in ancient medicine during the 20th century, especially in England, has resulted in a number of new introductory works. The classic account of Edelstein 1967 is still valuable, despite its date. Van der Eijk 2011 is a very accessible and brief summary of the most recent research. King 2001 has composed a broad and short overview that is easily accessible for students. Bynum 2008 offers instructive survey of the entire history of medicine. Its account of humoralism is nuanced and clear. Boudon-Millot, et al. 2007, a collection of essays dedicated to Jacques Jouanna, supplies ready access to French scholarship in the second half of the 20th century. Nutton 2013 is the single most authoritative account on ancient medicine and serves as a constant reference point for primary and secondary literature. Michaelides 2014 is a far-ranging volume of diverse essays, ideal for more advanced research. Ferngren 2014 brings together a wealth of evidence in a volume focused on the interplay between medicine and religion in Antiquity.

  • Boudon-Millot, Véronique, Alessia Guardasole, and Caroline Magdelaine, eds. La science médicale antique: Nouveaux regards; études réunies en l’honneur de Jacques Jouanna. Paris: Beauchesne, 2007.

    An important collection of essays dedicated to the preeminent French-speaking authority on ancient medicine, Jacques Jouanna. The volume begins with a complete list, eighteen pages in length, of Jouanna’s contributions to the study of ancient medicine, an invaluable resource.

  • Bynum, William. The History of Medicine: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

    DOI: 10.1093/actrade/9780199215430.001.0001

    Broad introduction to medicine that stretches from Antiquity to the present. This short and accessible work is ideal for one new to the study of the history of medicine. Each chapter is thematically arranged: bedside, library, hospital, community, laboratory, and modern world. The first chapter contains a helpful introduction to Hippocratic humoralism and Galenic physiology. Succinct bibliography of essential literature.

  • Edelstein, Ludwig. Ancient Medicine: Selected Papers of Ludwig Edelstein. Edited by Owsei Temkin and C. Lilian Temkin. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1967.

    A classic study that brings together the most salient of Edelstein’s essays. Although much of his work is now outdated, Edelstein greatly advanced the study of ancient medicine in the 20th century. His papers continue to serve as a foundation for new study.

  • Ferngren, Gary B. Medicine and Religion: A Historical Introduction. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014.

    A detailed account of the ancient role of religion in therapy. Ferngren draws upon a broad geographical area to illuminate the diverse ways in which religious traditions conceptualized and treated the ailing body. The concluding endnotes with bibliography are quite helpful.

  • King, Helen. Greek and Roman Medicine. London: Bristol Classical, 2001.

    A brief introductory textbook. King offers a succinct description of medical theory and practice in the classical world for the non-specialist. She also supplies helpful suggestions for further reading and study.

  • Michaelides, Demetrios, ed. Medicine and Healing in the Ancient Mediterranean World. Oxford: Oxbow, 2014.

    New and essential resource that includes forty-two essays that cover almost every aspect of ancient medicine in the Mediterranean world. Topics include surgery, pharmaceuticals, skeletal remains, the cult of Asclepius and incubation, medicine and archaeology, and individual authors and schools of medical thought. A concluding section takes up the reception of medical theory and practice in later Byzantine, Arab, and Latin sources.

  • Nutton, Vivian. Ancient Medicine. 2d ed. New York: Routledge, 2013.

    The definitive introduction to ancient medicine from the definitive authority. If one could only own a single volume on ancient medicine, this would be the choice. Nutton’s command of the field and presentation of the material make this work indispensable.

  • Van der Eijk, Philip. “Medicine and Health in the Graeco-Roman World.” In The Oxford Handbook of the History of Medicine. Edited by Mark Jackson, 21–39. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

    DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199546497.001.0001

    Brief introduction to Greco-Roman medicine from one of the leading scholars in the field. Van der Eijk surveys recent significant developments and offers numerous bibliographic references.

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