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Greek Science - Medicine

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Disease and its causes occupied a prominent place in Greek culture and thinking. It played central roles, for example in Homer's epic poems, in histories and in tragedies, and there exists evidence for a plurality of competitive practices ranging from inscriptions at temples to literary material with close ties to philosophy.

The main source on early medicine is a collection of medical treatises known as the Hippocratic corpus, which derives from many authors mainly from the fifth and fourth centuries. It is difficult to characterize this diverse collection of works, but the majority of the Hippocratic doctors were committed to explaining health and disease as physical phenomena. Authors recommend systematic approaches to diagnosis through close observation of symptoms and offered dietary regimes to maintain health. The treatise On the Nature of Man influentially described health as a balance between the humors: blood, yellow and black bile, and phlegm.

In Alexandria in the Hellenistic period anatomy and physiology changed through the work of Herophilus (c. 335–280 B.C.E.) and Erasistratos (c. 304–250 B.C.E.), who unusually for the Greek world based their work on human dissection. Later in this period different medical schools also emerged, which vigorously debated the relative merits of theory and practice in medicine; these debates are known mainly through Galen's somewhat biased accounts of them.

Galen of Pergamum (probably 130–200 C.E.) shaped subsequent medical theory up until the renaissance and a vast number of his works has been preserved. Galen drew on material from many previous authorities, but explicitly attempted to reconcile the theories of the Hippocratics (for example, on the humors) with those of Plato (such as the tripartite division of the soul). He famously stated that the best doctor is also a philosopher and recommended demonstrative knowledge in medicine. He also, however, emphasized that a doctor must be good with his hands and he describes both surgery and dissections of animals in great detail.


Aristotle. The Complete Works of Aristotle: The Revised Oxford Translation, edited by J. Barnes. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1984.

Cuomo, Serafina. Ancient Mathematics. London: Routledge, 2001. Accessible account of ancient mathematics and mechanics in its historical context.

Evans, James. The History and Practice of Ancient Astronomy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. Covers both theories and instrumentation.

Heath, Thomas, L. A History of Greek Mathematics. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon, 1921. Comprehensive study of Greek mathematics focusing on the mathematical content.

Kirk, G. S., J. E. Raven, and M. Schofield. The Presocratic Philosophers: A Critical History with a Selection of Texts. 2nd rev. ed. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1982. Main collection of fragments from the earliest Greek philosophers with commentary.

Lloyd, Geoffrey E. R. Aristotelian Explorations. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Discussions of a number of issues in Aristotle's thought.

Lloyd, Geoffery E. R., ed. The Hippocratic Writings. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1995. Translations with a general introduction.

Marsden, E. W. Greek and Roman Artillery. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon, 1971. Detailed account of the development of Greek and Roman artillery with translations of ancient texts on artillery-construction.

Netz, Reviel. The Shaping of Deduction in Greek Mathematics: A Study in Cognitive History. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Important study of the development and characteristics of Greek deductive mathematics.

Nutton, Vivian. Ancient Medicine. London: Routledge, 2004. Accessible account covering the whole period.

Plato. Complete Works. Edited by J. M. Cooper. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997.

Toomer, G. J., ed. and trans. Ptolemy's Almagest. Rev. ed. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1998. Commentary and translation.

Vlastos, Gregory. Plato's Universe. Oxford: Clarendon, 1975. Plato's theory of the cosmos.

Von Staden, Heinrich. Herophilus: The Art of Medicine in Early Alexandria. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1989. Translations with interpretive essays and an introduction on Alexandrian medicine.

Karin Tybjerg

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