2. Medicine Requires Trust

While using ancient Greek medicine as a source of remedies is problematic, drawing on it to understand the doctor/patient relationship is more straightforward. We still say, “Trust me, I’m a doctor”. But there was clearly a lot of unease about doctors in the ancient world. They weren’t family members so it felt risky to let them near your body, especially when you weren’t feeling very strong. Being ill was seen as a loss of self-control and therefore damaging to a man’s masculinity.

To gain a patient’s trust, a doctor had to make sure his image was right. Today it’s the white coat. In ancient Greece it was all about wearing plain, simple clothing, avoiding strong perfumes and never quoting the poets at the patient’s bedside. If you’ve read any Greek tragedy, you’ll see why not. When you are feeling ill, it isn’t cheering to hear “Death is the only water to wash away this dirt” or “alone in my misery I would crawl, dragging my wretched foot”. As a doctor, you needed to understand what your patients were thinking, and help them to trust you. And if they trusted you, then they’d take the remedies.

3. Treatments Go In and Out of Fashion

Medicine isn’t some linear process in which we move steadily towards “The Truth”. It has its ups and downs, and new discoveries don’t always catch on. Human dissection as a way of finding out how the body works was carried out in the third century BC but was then abandoned for hundreds of years. With this in mind, we can study why particular methods of treatment are adopted or resisted.

Roman medicine seems to have been a simple, home-based approach with the head of the family collecting and applying remedies. When Greek medicine began to take over in Rome, it was not an instant success: a story about an early Greek doctor in Rome labels him “The Butcher”.

Greek medicine’s eventual triumph was not because it was “better”. It may have been the appeal of a fashionable practice. Or because it was based outside the family. Or it may have been due to the fact it had explanations attached rather than relying entirely on trust in authority.

No poetry reading here.Wellcome Images/Johannes Zacharias Simon Prey, CC BY