Hippocratic Remedy: How It Worked In Ancient Greece


By Robert Garland, Ph.D., Colgate University

If you could be a traveler in antiquity you would have to be very careful. You wouldn’t be able to drink water or eat raw vegetables. You have to be very alert about potholes and bolting horses. And you may have things falling on your head. These could be contents of the chamber pots or even chamber pots themselves. Because if you get sick, you will find it hard to find a physician with knowledge of Hippocratic remedy.

Hippocrates refusing gifts from Emperor Artaxerxes.
Hippocrates is seen as the father of modern medicine. (Image: Anne Loise Girodet de Roussey-Trioson/Public domain)

The Risks in Antiquity

If you have planned to travel to antiquity, follow one advice strictly. Do not get sick or injured when you are there. This is because there would be no pain killers, antibiotics, or anesthetics available there. The intensity and frequency of pain would be much more than what we can even imagine in the West today.

Archabathus, the first Greek doctor to practice in Rome, was nicknamed Carnifex, which means ‘butcher’. The name itself is enough to scare you. That we can control our pain through medical intervention today is definitely one of the things that separate us from most of the ancient people. It may not look pleasant but suppose you are sick. Maybe, you suffer from a disease like beriberi, dysentery, malaria, scurvy, pneumonia, typhoid, rickets, or tuberculosis. It is known that such diseases existed in ancient times because their symptoms have been identified in what is called Hippocratic texts attributed to the semi-legendary Hippocrates.

Or you may even have a sexually transmitted disease. Or you might be suffering from chickenpox, mumps, diphtheria, or roaring cough. Or you may have cancer. We can say so because Galen, the greatest of Greek physicians has indicated that breast cancer was prevalent in ancient Greece, so maybe other forms of cancer also existed.

This is a transcript from the video series The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World. Watch it now, Wondrium.

If you are poor or downtrodden, you may not like to think much about it, because there is some work to be done which only you can do. After all, you have to take care of your wife and family. So all you do is grit your teeth and carry on with your life. But after some time, you can’t bear the pain anymore.

So you go to the local shrine of iatros heros, who is supposed to have healing powers and make a dedication. You might also go to a folk healer, who is considered to be amazing with amulets, charms, incantations, and spells. Alternatively, you may go to an elder male or female who is good at certain herbal remedies. But then none of these gives relief.

So you decide to go to one of the followers of Hippocrates for a Hippocratic remedy. Hippocrates, supposed to have been born in 469 BC on the island of Cos, is considered to be the founder of rational medicine. There are around 60 studies attributed to the members of his school.

Learn more about what it was like to be an ancient Egyptian.

The Hippocratic Remedy

When we talk about school, it doesn’t mean any institution. There were no medical schools in ancient times. One would have had to just attach oneself to a practitioner of the Hippocratic remedy to learn it. Out of these treatises, one of the most important ones is called On the Sacred Disease.’ This work mocked at the belief that epilepsy was a malady sent by Gods. The author of the treatise rebuked those witch doctors, faith healers, quacks, and charlatans who claimed that they could relieve the pain of epilepsy by advising incantation, purification, and not bathing. The fact was that epilepsy was no more God-sent than any other disease.

Bust of Hippocrates from Roman times
The remedies of Hippocrates were popular in Roman times too. (Image: Unknown/Public domain)

So you engage a Hippocratic physician to undergo a Hippocratic remedy. But this could be done only if you lived in a town. Villagers seldom set their eyes on physicians because their services came at a price. Anyway, so you look for a doctor who has a good reputation. As there was no formal qualification like a diploma at that time, reputation was the only criteria to find a good doctor.

Once you have found a doctor, you agree on certain terms. He then asks you questions about your symptoms and examines you physically to find the exact location of the pain. He goes on to tell you that to maintain good health, you should have a balance between what he calls ‘four liquids’ in your body – namely yellow bile, black bile, phlegm, and blood – and you fall sick because of an excess of one liquid or shortage of other. 

Learn more about what it means to be human.

The Diagnosis And The Advice

He then proceeds to give you his diagnosis. He suggests that you exercise regularly and puts you on a strict diet. You may also be given some herbal remedies and drugs. The collection of treatises, ascribed to Hippocrates and called the Hippocratic Corpus suggests the use of around 380 herbs for a wide range of ailments as the Hippocratic remedy. If required, he will make a small cut on your body and hold a warm cup underneath to allow blood to flow, and if he wants any other liquid from the body to flow, he can make you vomit to empty your bowels. He will call on you every day and record your symptoms in his notebook. 

This is a transcript from the video series The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World. Watch it now, Wondrium.

A Hippocratic text with the title On Behavior tells how the physicians involved in giving a Hippocratic remedy should behave in a patient’s home. The words ‘clinic’ and ‘clinical’ have come from the Greek word ‘kline’ meaning ‘couch’ or ‘bed’ because couches were often used as beds also.

Text from Hippocratic corpus.
Hippocratic texts were the corpus of texts that transmitted the medical knowledge pioneered by Hippocrates. (Image: medieval author / Public domain)

The effectiveness of Greek physicians is impossible to know. But one thing that is absolutely clear: they had no knowledge of the female body. Their understanding was that womb wandered around the body and the menses was in fact, failed sperm.

But on this basis, we should not assume that the success rate of physicians offering the Hippocratic remedy was negligible. This would mean we are assuming that we know everything and they knew nothing. And if they had not made mistakes, we would not be where we are today. We must be thankful to the Greeks for this.  

Common Questions About Hippocratic Remedy

Q: What did Hippocrates emphasize on?

The Hippocratic remedy greatly emphasized strengthening and building the body’s innate resistance to disease. Hippocrates recommended exercise, gymnastics, massage, and hydrotherapy for this.

Q: How did Hippocrates improve medicine?

Many times called the father of modern medicine, Hippocrates made some very important contributions in developing medicine. The Hippocratic oath eventually led to better treatments.

Q: Which Hippocratic idea is still being used?

Hippocrates developed a theory known as the Theory of Four Humors which explained disease in the context of liquids in the body and their balance. He also favored clinical observation which is still very much in use today.

Keep Reading
Investigate Art History in Ancient Egypt
Religion and Deities of Ancient Egypt
Private Religion and Monotheism in Ancient Egypt