The best medical advice from ancient Greece and Rome
A Cabinet of Ancient Medical Curiosities: Strange Tales and Surprising Facts from the Healing Arts of Greece and Rome
BY J.C. MCKEOWN
JANUARY 22ND 2017
As a highly revered and extensively-studied field, medicine today has certainly evolved from its origins in ancient times. However, to fully appreciate how far we’ve come since then, we’ve compiled some of the best medical advice the ancient Greeks and Romans had to offer back in the day.
Disclaimer: We at Oxford University Press do not condone or encourage heeding the advice below. For medical issues, please (please!) seek the advice of a medical professional (preferably not one from antiquity).
People born when Mars and Saturn are in opposition to each other have a tendency to vomit blood. As for those born when Mars is in opposition to the Moon while he is in Scorpio, Capricorn, Pisces, or Cancer, he will cause them to suffer from impetigo, jaundice, and leprosy. If Saturn is in opposition to the Moon when she is not in her own house nor in the house of Saturn, those born then will have hemorrhoids or be susceptible to boils (Firmicus Maternus Astrology 7.20.11).
Human teeth contain a sort of poison; baring one’s teeth in front of a mirror dulls its brightness, and it also kills fledgling pigeons (Pliny Natural History 11.170).
Such influential physicians as Praxagoras and Phylotimus of Cos could maintain that, whereas the soul is located in the heart, the brain is just some sort of superfluous growth, an offshoot from the marrow in the spine (Galen The Function of the Parts of the Body 3.671K).
Red- haired people are very devious, like foxes (Pseudo- Aristotle Physiognomonica 812a).
Sexual intercourse is good for lower back pain, for weakness of the eyes, for derangement, and for depression (Pliny Natural History 28.58).
Physician treating a patient. Red-figure Attic aryballos by Clinic Painter. Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen. CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Men have more sutures in their skulls than do women, because their bigger brains need more ventilation (Aristotle Parts of Animals 653b).
Pork is more nourishing than any other food derived from four-footed animals, since it is the meat that tastes and smells most like human flesh, as some people have discovered when they tasted human flesh unawares (Paul of Aegina Medical Compendium 1.84).
People with small faces have small souls, like cats and monkeys (Pseudo-Aristotle Physiognomonica 811b).
People with large faces are slow-witted, like cows and donkeys (Pseudo-Aristotle Physiognomonica 811b).
A cure for severe insomnia: you should tie the patient’s arms and legs at the time when he usually goes to bed, and order him to stay awake. If he closes his eyes, force him to open them. Do this till he is sufficiently exhausted, then suddenly untie him, remove the lamp, and ensure that he is left undisturbed (Oribasius Synopsis to Eustathius, His Son 6.31, drawing on a lost work by Galen).
The human bite is one of the most dangerous. It can be cured with earwax. This need cause no surprise, given that earwax, especially that obtained from an executed person and applied while still fresh, cures even scorpion stings and snakebites. Earwax is also effective against hangnails, as is a human tooth against snakebites, if ground to a powder (Pliny Natural History 28.40).
Bald people tend not to suffer from varicose veins. If a bald person does get varicose veins, his hair grows again (Hippocrates Aphorisms 6.34).
Sneezing occurs when the brain is heated or the cranial cavity fills with moisture. The air inside overflows, and makes a noise because it has to escape through a narrow passage (Hippocrates Aphorisms 7.51).
Featured image credit: Colosseum by martieda. CC0 public domain via Pixabay.
J.C. McKeown is Professor of Classics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is a coeditor of the Oxford Anthology of Roman Literature. J.C. McKeown is also the author of Classical Latin: An Introductory Course, A Cabinet of Roman Curiosities, A Cabinet of Greek Curiosities, and most recently, A Cabinet of Ancient Medical Curiosities.
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