Hellenistic Medical Practices and Treatments

The Hellenistic Era was a time greatly influenced by a variety of cultures. In Alexandria the center for all knowledge, advances in medicine made leaps and bounds that lead the way for modern medical achievements. Prior to the Hellenistic period Classical Greeks had already established a precedent amount of knowledge of herbal remedies for infirmities. What Hellenistic physicians attempted to do was to broaden knowledge of human anatomy and physiology of organs.

1. Hellenistic citizens
A typical person living in the Hellenistic Era would have been exposed to numerous diseases especially with the introduction of other cultures due to the eastern expansion of the kingdom of Alexander the Great. A lot of citizens did not have access to physician’s only very wealthy people and military personnel. If you did have access to physicians you as a citizen had to be very cautious. Numerous accounts of incidents were documents of “physician’s” claiming to be healers of illness but in fact were just regular people giving fake remedies for money. Hellenistic citizens would have tried a number of solutions to cure their sickness. ‘Ready remedies’ were very popular. Simple easy to use oils, flowers, roots, animal urine, and opium were the usual ingredients prescribe by local apothecaries.

Ex: Remedy for improving vision
Twice daily rub of ointment of gum, Manure of a land crocodile, Vitriolic copper, Bile of a hyena made with honey,
And give the patient goat liver to eat on an empty stomach.

2. Magic
An alternative route for curing illness or preventing illness in the Hellenistic Era would be the use of magic. Hellenistic medicine was largely based on Greek philosophy, ideas that the soul was the most important part of the body and that physical illness could put the soul in jeopardy. The use of various charms and amulets was inquired for protection against curses and the evil eye (curse of jealousy of dislike). Documented cases of incantations being spoken with aid of remedies can be seen in this period. References of people asking dead spirits to do their bidding are great examples on why charms and amulets were taken so serious.

3. Religion
A variety of religious cults were worshipped in this time, but one of the most popular was Asclepius god of medicine. He was a Greek god adopted by both Egyptian and Roman culture. Son of Apollo god of healing, Asclepius was a demigod who had dedicated his life to healing. Once dead he was raised up and made into a god. Asclepeion Temples were visited regularly by people seeking divine healing. A typical encounter with Asclepius would start with a cult fee when you enter the temple, followed by a sacrifice. Sacrifice was believe to be away to establish communication between mortals and greater powers. The person seeking healing would then go to a sacred room in the temple laced with snakes (Aesculapian snakes) which was an attribute of Asclepius. Their they would spend a night with other sickly people. People would experience dreams in the Adyton (holiest part of temple) of Asclepius coming and touching the part of the body that ailed the person, or give them medical instructions to heal their sickness. Once awakened the priest of the temple would interpret the dreams of visitors and perform treatments.

Other religious routes would be the assistance of oracles. References to the oracle of Delphi mention certain times of the year a person could consult with the oracle, and talks about cult fees having to be met before being able to speak with the oracles. The oracle of Delphi could be asked many things like politics, marriage, journeys, and sickness. Once your question was asked the oracle would then enter a violent trance to allow Apollo to enter her body. She would then speak an unknown mumble of words that would then be translated by the high priest of the temple.

4. Advances in Medicine
The Hellenistic Era was a time for many advances in science. One of the most impacted was anatomy. Various contributions were made by physicians such as Herophilus of Chalcedon and Erasistratos of Cos as well as others.

Herophilus (335-280 BC) was the first known physician to practice dissection and became quite famous for conducting public vivisections (live dissection) on non-Greek, Egyptian convicts. He made detailed descriptions of the brain and attempted to distinguish various functions connecting the nervous system to motion and sensation.

Erasistratus (304-250 BC) explained the mechanics of the heart and how it pumps blood. He claimed the human body was controlled by vacuums pulling blood across the body. Along with blood Erasistratus analyzed the path of veins, arteries, and nerves throughout the body. He recognized that all organs had individual arteries and veins.

Greek medicine was also influenced with works from many other writers in the Hellenistic Era. Adreas of Karustos (250-271 BCE) was the personal physician to Ptolemy IV and member of Herophilus School who wrote on remedies for sores, blisters, and other pains.

Ex: “Rose- Compound” good for great pain, fluxes great and small, blisters, and prolapses

4 Drachmas of rose petals

2 drachmas of saffron

1/6 opium

1/6 indian nard

3 drachmas of gum acacia

–          Mixture dissolves in rain water  and apply with cupping glass

Glaukias of Taras (195-155 BCE) wrote on pharmacology and bandaging. Agatharchidies of knidos documented an outbreak of disease in the people living along the ready sea. We even have Theophrastus who was the successor of Aristotle writing on plants and their medicinal uses.

Three important medical schools were set up in Ptolemy’s Alexandria. The Empiric school was based on a trial and error method of treatment. They based their knowledge by experience, looking for similar symptoms in other known diseases they used known cures to try to dissolve the patient’s illness. The Dogmatic school followed teachings of Hippocratic and based their concept of disease on humor. The Theory of Humor states that the body is made up of four humors and that all diseases and disabilities result from an imbalancement of (black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood) these four humors. Then there’s the Methodist school which looked at disease itself to determine treatment.The foundation laid by Greek medicine was bettered by later empires like the Romans and ultimately greatly improved knowledge of medicine in the western world.

5. References

” C0123456, TQ Team. “Explore: Greece.” ThinkQuest. Oracle Foundation, n.d. Web. 05 Nov. 2013.

“The First Great Age of Science in Hellenistic Period.” The First Great Age of Science in Hellenistic Period. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Nov. 2013.

“Herophilus of Chalcedon and the Practice of Dissection in Hellenistic Alexandria.” Free Online Library. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Nov. 2013

“Science and Medicine.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d. Web. 05 Nov. 2013.

Irby-Massie, Georgia L., and Paul T. Keyser. Greek Science of the Hellenistic Era: A Sourcebook. London: Routledge, 2002

Martin, Luther H. Hellenistic Religions: An Introduction. New York: Oxford UP, 1987.

Tinker, George E. “Medicine and Miracle: A Comparison of Two Healing Types in the      Late Hellenistic World.” Diss. U Microfilms International, 1983. Web. 6. Dec. 2013

Watts, Sheldon J. “Ch.2 & 3.” Disease and Medicine in World History. New York [u.a.: Routledge,2003. 21-35

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