Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.12.33

Helen King, Greek and Roman Medicine. Classical World Series.   London:  Bristol Classical Press, 2001.  Pp. xi, 73.  ISBN 1-85399-545-2.  £8.99 (pb).  

Reviewed by Miri Shefer, Middle Eastern and African History, Tel Aviv University (
Word count: 1152 words

Reviewing an encyclopaedia is a difficult task.1 The same predicament applies to a textbook. Like an encyclopaedia, a textbook does not have a thesis, an argument, and a conclusion. It is not supposed to establish the frontiers of research in any field or to raise any issues about the direction of such research or the degree to which such frontiers could be pushed. Instead it is supposed to report on the state of the art. One does not expect to find in a textbook answers to pressing problem in a specific field but guidelines as to where such problems may be found. Greek and Roman Medicine achieves this for high school students and interested non-specialist readers.

Greek and Roman Medicine is a recent addition to the Classical World Series by Bristol Press. It is the first book in the series to deal with medicine, and as such it is a welcome addition. To date, the series includes 30 publications on various social and cultural issues and great personalities of the classical world. Classical World Series includes literature, art and architecture, politics and religion, Plato and Aristophanes, Greeks and Romans, emperors and slaves. It is surprising to notice that only the 30th item is devoted to medicine, as detailed material on symptoms and treatments survived from antiquity in such profusion and it is a field of enquiry with its own long history and famous heritage.

The series editor presents this project on the jacket of Greek and Roman Medicine as one which offers the non-specialists a concise and lively summary of medical theory and practice in the classical world. This goal has been achieved: the book is presented in a form and style that are accessible and easy to read for the students and non-specialists. However, it seems to this reviewer that high school students will find it more to their taste than readers at the university level, even in their first years; university students majoring in Classics may find the text too simplistic (more on that below). However, it might be useful as a short overview for courses focusing on non-European medical systems. I would certainly consider assigning it to my students studying Muslim medicine.

Another goal which the series aims to achieve is to offer the readers an explanation "how the Classical world felt and lived, thought and acted". The author, Helen King, a reader in the History of Classical Medicine in the University of Reading, UK, indeed tries to focus on everyday life and experiences rather then grand theories and learned treatises. The sources, as this series boasts, are essentially "primary evidence, verbal or visual". In our case they include medical writings as well as other genres of literature. The quotations discussed in the book range from Hippocrates to Pliny, from Thucydides to Cato, from Homer to Galen. The use of quotations (in English translation) is commendable as it allows an interested reader to become familiar with the primary sources on his/her own aided by the author's interpretations.

King has a flair for telling a story and clearly loves her subject. As she introduces herself to readers in one publisher's webpage,2 she has been fascinated since her childhood by Classical myths and legends, and turned this fascination into an academic career. She openly admits that her love of the Classical world transcends her career interests.

The book consists of eight chapters, a preface and conclusion. The chapters are organised in a chronological manner going from Greece to the Roman Empire. The book starts with the origins of Greek medicine associated with the pantheon of Greek gods, passes through Rome and Alexandria and concludes with the later uses of classical medicine. Although Vesalius and Paracelsus and their discoveries are present in the last chapter, it contains more than the attacks of these later physicians on older medical theories. King situates early modern medicine as a continuation rather than a break away from classical heritage, even though the authority of Hippocrates and Galen declined.

The eight chapters encompass topics like key medical figures, aetiologies, notions of the human body, geographical centers of medical learning, therapeutic methods, medical language and literature, the relationship between religion and medicine, medical professionalism and the role played female healers. The inclusion of the last subject comes as no surprise. Gender has become part of the main stream of historiography, and as such is naturally included in a textbook on medicine; it is only to be expected in a book authored by King, whose previous monograph (published in 1998 by Routledge) is Hippocrates' Women: Reading the Female Body in Ancient Greece.

All the subjects King presents are important. It is the personal choice of the author what to discuss at length, what to mention with passion and what to neglect altogether. One can always find fault with the choice of subjects, as a selection must be made, especially in a textbook of no more than 80 pages. For instance, because of my own research interests, I would have liked to read more than a one short paragraph on Muslim medicine as part of the process of translation and transmission of medical knowledge after antiquity. I suggest that more thorough discussion of this subject Would have served this book well. The discussion is clearly Europe-centric and adding the Muslim aspect would help to situate ancient medicine in a non-European, non-Christian context.

The book ends with suggestions for further study and readings. Some questions focus on information and invite the readers to learn more on medical theories, therapeutics and the medical profession in antiquity. Others invite the readers to assess the importance of key figures and compare ancient medicine with our modern system and to draw conclusions with regard to Greek and Roman medicine. It is the opinion of this reviewer that the questions offered by King for further study, and the way they are formulated, are more appropriate to high-school pupils than to university students who will need more complex and thought provoking questions from their instructors to encourage them to analyse the subject.

The bibliography, on the other hand, can be useful also for university and college level students beginning their studies on the subject. The bibliography is divided into 'original sources in translation' and 'modern historical works'. King ends her list with several recommendations for those who would like to read about the later uses of ancient medicine. The list of secondary sources includes both monographs and collections of articles and is composed of works mainly from the 1990s. This very up-to-date list includes the 'usual suspects' and is a good starting point for those who would also like to know the important names in the field.

My personal misgiving, however, does not change the fact that on the whole King should be commended for her ability to sort out the wheat from the chaff and produce an easy to follow summary of such a broad subject.


1.   George Saliba in his review of 'Science and Medicine' in the Encyclopaedia of Iran in Iranian Studies, 31 (1998).
2.   On the Routledge website.

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