In honor of everyone (including myself) getting several different kinds of sick lately, I present to you, gentle readers, a very special blog post about illness in the ancient world. It’s knowledge of things like this that make me very thankful for the inventions of things like Neosporin and decongestants because quite honestly, I have NO idea how I would have survived in the ancient world. I’m one of those people whose world comes to a dramatic, screeching halt when sinus congestion is involved but at least I can rest (somewhat) easy that I can go purchase some quality decongestants at my local 24-hour CVS Pharmacy and get on with my day. I am also happy to live in a world free from dreaded conditions such as ‘The Vapors’, ‘Child-bed Sickness’ and injury by oxcart. I also don’t have to worry about my life being cut short by things like…paper cuts or most moisture-borne illnesses. Modern medicine is a wonderful thing indeed, but a good portion of it isn’t actually all that modern. With that, I will raise my glass of OJ to my immune system and share some of the rather nifty aspects of medicine in the ancient Mediterranean. Cheers!
I get the feeling that a lot of people assume that if a person had the misfortune of getting ill or injured in the BC times, they simply flipped a drachma and hoped for the best. This is so very not true! In fact, ancient medicine was (with a few exceptions) about on par with modern medicine in terms of diagnosis and treatment of various ailments. Let’s start with the Egyptians first, because they rock the hardest.
Paging Dr. Per, M.D.
There’s a great deal of Middle Egyptian medicine texts that go into a crazy amount of detail about almost every possible injury or illness a doctor could deal with. These texts describe conditions ranging from a basic cold to catastrophic battle injuries in incredible detail that were meant to act as a guide for other physicians should they encounter a patient with a similar condition. The texts all follow a similar format for reading convenience: description of the injury/condition; instructions for examining the patient and obtaining information; diagnosis and prognosis giving one of three possible outcomes–success, possible success or untreatable. If the condition is treatable, a treatment is described. There’s a whole mess of papyri with information on everything from proctology to snake bites to eye diseases to obstetrics. It’s things like this that really reinforce how on top of the medicinal world the Egyptians were and why they were acknowledged as the best doctors in the ancient world. They had specialists just like we do now and there’s record of an individual, a one Hesy-Ra, c. 2620 BC who specialized in dental problems in the court of Djoser. A super nifty fact about Egyptian surgery is that lots of people had limbs and things amputated for a variety of reasons. Once the person died, they were fitted with a symbolic prosthetic limb so that they would regain their lost limb in the afterlife! They also used prosthetics in the living world too, ranging from larger limbs to smaller things like toes. So, in conclusion, a good portion of Egyptian medicine was pretty spot-on with the diagnosis and treatment of things. It kind of makes up for the other portion that involved the use of dung for various prescriptions or aphrodisiacs…
Romans be crazy, yo
Well, yes, but probably no more so than anybody else. I suppose the main example of this would be some of the more well-known emperors who were fortunate enough to have their crazy documented and exaggerated, or perhaps just documented if they were actually that crazy! Like the Egyptians, the Romans were really into the mastering and progressing of the medical field. They had to deal with the same diseases that the Egyptians dealt with (arthritis, tuberculosis, polio, misc. battle injuries…) but this time they had some truly crazed people in charge. The Romans, being Romans and lovers of gossip, wrote everything down and now we get to read about the various goings-on in the imperial palace and scratch our heads because we don’t get the references or jokes. We do, however, get a very good description of some of the possible mental and physical illnesses that many Caesars suffered from. Por ejemplo, we know for a fact that (Gaius) Julius Caesar suffered from epilepsy. The ‘falling sickness’ was about as prevalent in the ancient world as it is now so most Romans were aware of this condition and while there was no treatment, they knew how to help someone in the middle of an epileptic episode. Roman doctors followed the teachings of Hippocrates and essentially combined Greek scientific methods with their religious beliefs to create a functioning hybrid. This was the sort of thing where treatment for an illness might include medicinal herbs and frequent prayer/offering to a deity of your choice, usually Aesculapius, the god of healing. Perhaps not the most effective treatment, but it got the job done most of the time. Romans were also really keen on public and preventive health which is one of the many reasons that they had ace plumbing and public baths. They realized that cleanliness helped keep disease at bay and lo and behold, their cleaner cities had less disease! Amazing! This also applied to the finer aspects of medicine, like making sure wounds were kept clean and tools were sterilized before use. The Romans also learned a large amount from the Egyptians once they brought Egypt into the Roman Empire. The great library at Alexandria provided them with thousands of years of knowledge about the human body which they happily took and expanded on. Romans still preferred Greek physicians and a few, such as Galen, went on to have a very successful career as a lecturing physician and treated several emperors. Like the Egyptians, not all aspects of their medicine were functioning with all the lights on. They too were guilty of silly practices like bleeding (Wait, why’d he die? We took all his bad blood out. Yeah, you took ALL the blood out, genius. *facepalm*) excessive use of leeches, and belief in things like the blood in a person’s body migrates south once a year…yes, really. Sometimes I wonder how people survived at all!
Excessively Silly Medicine
That last bit has inspired me to make a list of some of the ultra-silly medical beliefs and practices of the ancient world, particularly the ones that make you wonder how anyone managed to survive to old age.
-Blood migrates to the lower parts of the body once a year (my current favorite)
-Dropsy (one of my favorite ye olde ailments)
-Hysteria (sorry ladies…)
-Crocodile dung is an excellent aphrodisiac (no)
-Plagues are Apollo’s (or Sekhmet’s) way of telling you to act right
-Food can magically turn into phlegm in your stomach
-Belief in astrology is a mental illness (Roman, at least. No horoscopes for you!)
-Unwashed wool has many medicinal properties
-The nighttimes will make you sick (Shut the windows and cover your head!!! O.o)
-A hedgehog amulet can help cure your baldness. In related news, there are hedgies in Egypt.
-The body is governed by 4 humors. Illness is caused by the balance being off between these fluids.
-The Evil Eye is causing most of your problems in life
And with that, I think it’s time for me to take another dose of Robitussin and attempt to rid myself of this horrible allergy-induced cough. Boo to allergies!