The ancient Greeks are widely seen as having been the founders of Western medicine more than 2,000 years ago. But since then our understanding of the human body and how to treat it has changed beyond recognition. So what would be the point of studying ancient Greek medicine today?
It’s part of a more general question: why bother studying medicine from times before people knew about germs, antibiotics, the circulation of the blood, or anaesthetics? Although we now have a far more detailed and accurate picture of medicine, I think the ancient Greeks can help us think through a number of topics that are still relevant today.
1. New (Old) Treatments
The idea that we might uncover an unknown treatment in a forgotten treatise looks like a promising reason to study the ancient Greeks. But it’s not that simple. Yes, it’s possible that a forgotten plant used in the ancient world will prove to be the basis for a new drug today but that hasn’t happened yet. It would have to get through the various stages of testing that we now regard as essential, and that’s not always straightforward. And ancient Greece was not some golden age of simple, safe medicine. Some treatments such as womb fumigation were unpleasantly invasive. Others used very dangerous materials such as hellebore.
However, drugs weren’t the starting point of ancient medicine. First came diet, in the broad sense of your whole way of life, including food, drink, exercise, excrement and sleep. Health was seen as the balance of different fluids in the body. The focus on diet was never a call to eat raw foods, whatever the claims of modern charlatans who use the name of the ancient Greek doctor Hippocrates to sell their diet regimes.
A patient’s condition was thought to result not just from the balance of their body, but from how that body relates to the environment. With diseases related to obesity and mental health today taking an increasing amount of doctors’ time, it’s not surprising medicine is turning more and more to a Greek-style holistic approach.