Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.02.35 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.02.35

Florian Steger, Asklepios: Medizin und Kult.   Stuttgart:  Franz Steiner Verlag, 2016.  Pp. 162.  ISBN 9783515114479.  €26.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Michaela Senkova, University of Leicester (

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

Asklepios: Medizin und Kult is a systematic assessment of medical care provided by the sanctuaries of the healing god Asclepius, mainly in the Roman principate (c. 27 BC – AD 284). It is based on the author’s 2004 monograph Asklepiosmedizin: medizinischer Alltag in der römischen Kaiserzeit, now out of print, and closely follows its format. 1 Steger builds upon the evidence collated by Edelstein and Edelstein (1945)and includes new interpretations of numismatic, epigraphic and archaeological sources.2 He interrogates this material for individual healing experiences, which he contextualizes within the broader context of imperial medicine. Notably, his analysis of self-reflexive reports of the “patients” of Asclepius reveals the combination of customary mythic and ritual traditions with the “scientific” understanding of human health as presented in the writings of contemporary professional doctors, such as Celsus and Galen. In short, Steger argues that the medicine practiced in the Asclepieia of the Imperial Roman period was a separate, and important, form of healthcare that was characterized by the interweaving of cult and medicine.

The book contains an introduction, two main chapters, and a brief closing summary. In the introduction (9–17), Steger reviews previous scholarship and emphasizes the need to investigate the development of medical practice within the cults of Asclepius from its beginnings in the fifth century BC to the imperial period. Chapter II (17–36) defines the spectrum of the “healing market” within the Roman Empire. Over several sections, Steger addresses the cultural development of healing opportunities across diverse medical traditions: from the practice of professional physicians to midwives, magic and religion. Cultural influences from beyond the Mediterranean world (especially Babylon and Egypt) become apparent in this chapter, and the author stresses that ideological exchange had a direct effect on the development of the Asclepius cults.

Chapter III (37–131) forms the main part of the book and concentrates solely on Asclepius. It establishes Asclepius as the most important pagan healing deity and examines his shrines for their social function based on the needs of their supplicants. In the first instance, Steger examines the topography and architecture of major Asclepius sanctuaries and reveals the significance of environment. Access to a water source, for instance, seems to have been a key requirement, both in ritual purification and in therapeutics, and other facilities, such as libraries and theaters, were pleasant surroundings supporting the regimen. On the basis of these observations, Steger questions the actual experiences of supplicants. He argues that though Asclepius worshippers normally offered dedications to the god after the course of their cure (e.g. anatomical votives, inscriptions), it is often difficult to distinguish between instances of miraculous healing and propaganda when reading this data. Instead he evaluates treatment reports by three individuals who explicitly comment on their personal healing experience within the Asclepieia at Pergamum and Epidaurus. These are P. Aelius Aristides (104–119), M. Iulius Apellas (119–126) and P. Aelius Theon (126–131). Steger’s discussion of the three testimonies is especially interesting because it reveals that the treatment recommended by the healing god, in addition to means specific to the Asclepius cult (e.g. ritual bathing), also involved remedies based in contemporary medical ideals (e.g. dietary recommendations). Moreover, it contained further measures such as sports or rest that appear logical even from the modern perspective. Steger’s analysis is persuasive and leads to clear conclusions, namely that the shrines of Asclepius employed a complex network of therapies in the Imperial period, where both medicine and cult played an important role, forming a unique form of health care available within the Roman healing market.

In comparison with the 2004 volume, Asklepios: Medizin und Kult has been revised to encompass the latest research (e.g. Oberhelman 2013), but it is also much condensed.3 A discussion of further developments in medical thought within medieval cultures that resulted from ideological migration at the end of antiquity, to which Steger dedicated a whole chapter in his 2004 volume (chapter IV), is omitted altogether in his new monograph.

Steger covers a broad ground in this concise study but takes care to include much contextual information that makes his text accessible to broader audiences rather than only to the ranks of expert classicists. All sources that he analyzes in detail (e.g. the inscription of M. Iulius Apellas) are punctiliously translated with careful referencing throughout. Additionally, eighteen black and white plates accompany the text, providing a useful visual aid. These are mostly the plans of sanctuaries that Steger discusses in detail (e.g. Epidaurus and Pergamum) and photos of specific architectural features within these sanctuaries that illustrate his points (e.g. accommodation and bath facilities). There is also a generous bibliography (138- 157), and two compact indices organized by general terms and proper names (159-162) – a welcome format that allows for easier orientation in the book and further research. Although errors are kept to minimum, it needs to be said that Juliette Harrisson’s name is misspelled throughout, including in the bibliography.4 This is only a minor slip, but it could ultimately result in confusion for Steger’s readership, especially when considering the book as an innovative, wide-ranging survey that may potentially facilitate further study. Nevertheless, Steger succeeds in every way in presenting a well-researched and at the same time approachable piece of work. Overall, Asklepios: Medizin und Kult is an engaging as well as informative read and it will surely appeal to readers from both academic and non-academic backgrounds.

Table of Contents

I. Einleitung
II. Die Asklepiosmedizin im Kontext
II.1 Die Anfänge des Asklepioskultes in Rom
II.2 Die Beziehung zum alten Babylon und Ägypten
II.3 Medizinische Traditionen
II.4 Medizin jenseits der Traditionen
II.5 Medizinische Praxis
III. Die Praxis des Asklepios
III.1 Mythos und Heilkult um Asklepios
III.2 Der Ort der Asklepios-Praxis
III.3 Die Quellen – nur Wundergeschichten?
III.4 Methodische Überlegungen
III.5 Patienten in der Praxis des Asklepios
III.5.1 P. Aelius Aristides in Pergamon
III.5.2 M. Iulis Apellas in Epidauros
III.5.3 P. Aelius Theon in Pergamon
IV. Zusammenfassung
V. Anhang
V.1 Textausgaben und Übersetzungen
V.2 Literatur
V.3 Abbildungsnachweise
V.4 Sachregister
V.5 Personen- und Ortregister


1.   Steger, F. 2004. Asklepiosmedizin: medizinischer Alltag in der römischen Kaiserzeit. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag.
2.   Edelstein, E. and Edelstein, L. 1945. Asclepius: A Collection and Interpretation of the Testimonies. 2 volumes. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
3.   Oberhelman, S. M. (ed). 2013. Dreams, Healing, and Medicine in Greece From Antiquity to the Present. Farnham; Burlington, VT:  Ashgate.
4.   It is also surprising not to see, in Steger’s bibliography, Harrisson's recent book Dreams and dreaming in the Roman Empire (London; New York:  Bloomsbury Academic, 2013), where she has a lot to say about Aristides.

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