The Legacy of Ancient Greek Medicine: a Study of yhe Wealth and Historical Aspects of Medical Practice in Ancient Greece

  • Authors: Konstantinova A.A.1, Nenakhov I.G.1
  • Affiliations:
    1. Voronezh State Medical University named after N.N. Burdenko
  • Pages: 86-91
  • URL:

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The scientific article explores the richness of ancient Greek medicine and its historical aspects. Ancient Greek medicine played a significant role in the development of modern medicine, and the study of practices and beliefs of that time provides valuable information about the evolution of medical practices over time.
The article discusses various medical approaches to treatment, as well as procedures and beliefs common in ancient Greece, their impact on the development of medicine over time. It highlights the contributions of famous Greek doctors, as well as various medical schools and institutes that existed at that time.
Exploring ancient Greek medicine, this article sheds light on the origin of certain medical treatments and beliefs that are still in use today. It emphasizes the importance of understanding the history of medicine and the significant role it played in shaping the world in which we live today.

Full Text

When we think of ancient Greek medicine, the first thing that comes to mind is often Hippocrates and the Kos school [1]. However, the history of medicine in Ancient Greece is much richer and more diverse than what is indicated above. Greece gave birth to many famous doctors who laid the foundation for the development of scientific medicine in the future, and left behind a large number of texts that describe ancient healers as intelligent scientists, far from the dark mysticism of religion. These healers asked the same questions then as we do today, and tried to solve them in the context of the materialistic concepts of that time.
The roots of Ancient Greek medicine can be traced back to the heyday of Crete, which coincided with the heyday of the Indian civilization. The conducted research proved that at that time there were cultural ties between the Mediterranean and Hindustan, and such civilizations as Crete and Harappa had a large number of similar features [2].
Interestingly, the main sources of healing in Ancient Greece were such a literary genre as a poem, namely Homer under the names "Iliad" and "Odyssey". Homer, the brilliant creator of these works in the eighth century BC, presented about one hundred and forty-one injuries to the trunk, as well as limbs, including both superficial and penetrating wounds, bruises and suppuration due to venomous snake bites. The treatment of these wounds mainly consisted in the removal of arrows and other objects causing wounds, the use of painkillers and hemostatic agents consisting of vegetable raw materials, as well as the use of bandages. In addition to describing injuries in the form of injuries, in his works Homer also describes an epidemic related to a certain disease, which most modern researchers associate with such a disease as the plague. They also tell stories about the madness of Odysseus' friends, the despondency of Bellerophon, a newborn seven months pregnant, as well as about the use of sulfur disinfection for the prevention of diseases and in the form of medicine [3].
Despite the fact that autopsy in Ancient Greece was carried out until the Hellenistic era, the medical list of the Iliad and Odyssey is taken as the basis of the terminology of healers of that era and has become part of the current language of anatomy.
The aim is to provide a comprehensive understanding of the medical practice and beliefs of the ancient Greeks, to study the various medical treatments, procedures and beliefs that were common at that time, and how they influenced the development of medicine over time.
The aim of the work is to highlight the contribution of ancient Greek doctors and scientists in various fields of medicine.
In general, this scientific article serves as an important source for those interested in the history and evolution of medicine, as well as for medical professionals seeking to understand the origin of certain medical practices and beliefs.
Materials and methods: general methods of scientific research, analytical method.
The main part.
During the prosperity of the polis in ancient times, church healing developed along with empirical healing [4]. Cathedrals were often dedicated to Asclepius, the god of healing, and were known as Asclepions. The temple of Asclepius, located in Epidaurus at that time was considered the greatest. The formation of temple healing led to the development of the healing tradition, which included a combination of religious ritual, practical knowledge and therapeutic experience. Patients had to undergo a period of purification and prayer before receiving medical treatment, which included herbal remedies, surgery and dietary recommendations. In the future, many tips were reflected in the activities of doctors in the fight against the plague [5].
In the classical era, schools of medicine arose in different places, each with its own unique teaching and practice. Of particular importance was the Croton School with its belief in the unity of opposites as the key to a healthy body. They believed that an imbalance of antagonistic forces within the body could lead to illness, and advocated treatment by prescribing the opposite force to restore balance. It is generally believed that the healer and philosopher Alcmaeon hails from Croton, is the successor of empirical anatomy and physiology, he conducted the first autopsies of animals to study the structure and function of organs [6].
The Medical School of Knidos, located in the city of Knidos, developed the concept of fluids in the body in the amount of four pieces, and formed the basis of the humoral theory, which has dominated the medical practice of Europe for centuries. The Cnidian educational institution, continuing to honor the traditions of the healers of Babylon and Egypt, developed a theory about the signs of the disease and its study using the listening method, which later led to the detection of pleural friction. The Sicilian educational institution founded by Empedocles, originally from Akraganta, has developed individual methods of treating specific diseases, including complicated recipes, as well as rules of diet and local legal remedies.
Machaon and Podaliria, not only military heroes, but also capable healers, are first mentioned in Homer's Iliad. Later, even Asclepius, recognized as a demigod and the successor of Apollo himself, became famous for the impeccable art of healing. In the 6th century BC, he was the god of healing. According to the myth, Asclepius was born with the help of a caesarean section performed by his father Apollo, who saved him from the dying mother of Coronis, who was the daughter of the titan Phlegius. The snake is an important symbol used in the iconography of Asclepius, which symbolizes wisdom, rebirth and the very power of nature. The son of Apollo is depicted as a man with a beard holding a staff that is woven into a snake, and the goddess of health, Hygeia, is represented as a beautiful young woman with a tiara, tunic and a snake from which she drinks [7].
Asclepius surpassed his mentor Chiron and became famous for his ability to bring the dead back to life, which angered the god of the underworld of the dead - Hades. Asclepius married the daughter of the ruler of the island of Kos Merops – Epione, which became the center of medical teachings in ancient Greece. The Asclepid family, to which Hippocrates belonged, flourished. Hippocrates, who was born in about 460 BC on this island, was a member of the noble Asclepid family and was the seventeenth descendant of Podalirius. Hippocrates' mother, Fenaret, continued the line of the legendary Hercules [8].
Hippocrates studied medicine with his ancestors – his father and grandfather, later in the city of Cnida, and then with Herodicus himself, as well as a sophist named Gorgias. Being a wandering doctor, he made a large number of trips throughout the Eastern Mediterranean, and his reputation as a skilled healer spread to most states. Hippocrates lived his remaining years in the city of Larissa, where he died, approximately, in 370 BC, either on the 83rd, or on the 104th year of his life. This is the only reliable biographical information about Hippocrates that has come down to us. A staff woven into a snake and a bowl with a snake have become the main symbols of medicine in some countries, symbolizing the art of healing and the power of nature.
The legacy of Hippocrates, the father of medicine, is shrouded in mystery, but his influence on the field of medicine is undeniable. A collection of texts traditionally attributed to him has survived to the present day, although it is unclear which specific works can be definitively attributed to him. The first collection of medical works of Ancient Greece was collected in the Library of Alexandria, which was created many years after the death of Hippocrates himself in the third century BC [9]. This library was a well-known center of knowledge, and the manuscripts of scientists were brought to Alexandria from all over the Ecumene. Among these manuscripts there were seventy-two medical works written in the Ionic dialect, all of them were nameless and differed in style, manner of writing, depth of presentation and medical and philosophical position.
Many decades later, around 280 BC, all the unnamed texts were combined into a common work, The Hippocratic Collection, named after the famous founder of medicine. The collection includes works by many authors, and it is still unknown which works can definitely be attributed to Hippocrates himself. Nevertheless, for more than eighteen centuries, this collection of works was copied manually in Greek, Latin, Arabic, and many other languages [10]. Only in 1525, after printing was invented, the collection was first published in Rome in Latin.

Discussion of the results.
The Hippocratic Collection has had a profound impact on the history of medicine and continues to influence practitioners today. The works included in this collection cover a wide range of medical topics, including diagnosis, treatment and prevention of diseases. The principles and ethics of medicine are also discussed in detail. The collection contains texts that encourage the use of observations, reasoning and experience in medical practice, rather than relying solely on tradition or superstition. The Hippocratic Oath, which sets out ethical principles for practicing physicians, is also included in the collection [5].
Although the authorship of specific works from the Hippocratic collection is unclear, the impact of the collection on the development of medicine is difficult to overestimate. The works contained in this collection have been studied, translated and interpreted over the centuries, and they have shaped medical practice as we know it today. In future essays, we will look at the lives and contributions of other important figures in the history of medicine, each of whom relies on the knowledge and discoveries of those who came before her.
In the classical ancient Greek era, autopsy was banned. This led to empirical representations of anatomy among ancient physicians. The development of such a field of medicine as surgery in ancient India surpassed the development of this direction in ancient Greece. But it is worth noting that the healers of antiquity mostly formed the concept of dressings, called desmurgy, in which they reached a high level. Ancient Greek essays on surgery describe a significant improvement in the concept of dressings, surgical profile operations, healing fractures, wounds, as well as dislocations and head injuries, including the facial skull. The essay titled "On Dislocations" describes the "Hippocratic bench", a lever invention for correcting dislocations. Despite the fact that autopsy was banned in the classical ancient Greek era, the collection of the father of medicine - Hippocrates includes the "Oath", a special text obliging each doctor to make a promise to all future generations of other doctors. This scripture was created orally, long before Hippocrates himself, but it still lives in the soul of every medical figure.
The supporters of Hippocrates abandoned religion and dark mysticism in medicine. They renounced explanations of the origin and essence of diseases due to the intervention of any mystical forces. Instead, they taught that medicine should be based only on full observation and examination of patients, on accumulation and synthesis of practice experience. The basis of such a method as empirical induction was taken as a basis in the healing of Hippocrates.
During Hellenism, there was a need for much deeper and more reliable information, which led to the emergence of specializations of scientists and the separation of some areas of science from the ancestor- philosophy. Medicine at that time was one of the first to receive specialization. Hellenistic medicine was able to reach fantastic heights, having absorbed the experience of practical treatment, as well as academic knowledge of Eastern countries and relying on the philosophy of Greece and the medical art of the largest medical schools of antiquity.
Anatomical and surgical sciences developed rapidly in the Hellenistic era. The creator of the science of anatomy in Alexandria is considered to be Herophilus from the city of Chalcedon. When he was a student of Praxagoras from the island of Kos, he improved the traditions of the Kos school of healing and was a follower of the humoral concept. He was announced as the first person from Greece who began to conduct an autopsy. In his work entitled "Anatomy", he gave a detailed description of the hard and soft meninges, as well as the lobes of the brain and, in particular, its ventricles, noting that the fourth is the seat of the soul. Most other anatomical formations still have the names that Herophilus gave them: duodenum, Calamus Scriptorius, torcular herophilius, choroid plexus, venous sinus. In his essay entitled "About the Eyes", he gave a description of the vitreous body and the membranes of the eye. In the work called "On the pulse", he expressed his own ideas about the anatomy of blood vessels.
Ancient Greek medicine was a gift of Prometheus, which continues to influence the development of medicine and science to this day. From the poems of Homer to the development of temple healing, the Greeks passed on a rich heritage of medical knowledge that helped shape our modern understanding of health and healing.
1) The study of ancient Greek medicine provides valuable information about the development of medical practices and beliefs over time. The wealth of knowledge and understanding gained from studying this historical epoch has made a significant contribution to modern medicine.
2) the ancient Greeks were pioneers in many fields of medicine, including anatomy, surgery and pharmacology. Their contributions and innovations continue to influence medical practice today, and their legacy remains a significant part of medical history.
3) The knowledge and understanding gained from the study of ancient Greek medicine serve as a reminder of the importance of understanding the history of medicine and the significant role it played in shaping the world in which we live today. By exploring the richness of ancient Greek medicine and its historical aspects, we can better assess the evolution of medical practice and the numerous contributions made by ancient Greek doctors and scientists to the field of medicine.


About the authors

Anna Andreevna Konstantinova

Voronezh State Medical University named after N.N. Burdenko

ORCID iD: 0000-0001-5220-9701
SPIN-code: 6684-8080

student of the 5th year Faculty of Medicine and Prevention

Russian Federation, 10 Studentskaya str., Voronezh, 394036, Russia

Ivan Gennadievich Nenakhov

Voronezh State Medical University named after N.N. Burdenko

Author for correspondence.
ORCID iD: 0000-0001-7942-2844
SPIN-code: 9905-2934

Candidate of Medical Sciences, Associate Professor of the Department
of Hygienic Disciplines

Russian Federation, 10 Studentskaya str., Voronezh, 394036, Russia


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