Everything you always wanted to know about ancient medicine—or almost everything. This might have been a suitable subtitle for the introduction to the history of medicine written by the renowned German medical historian Florian Steger.
The book contains chapters on ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, followed by chapters in historical order on ancient Greece and Rome and the Byzantine Empire. It discusses various key items in medical history, such as nosology and therapies, ethics, the role of magic and religion, perceptions on patients, the social position and the education of the physicians. One chapter is devoted entirely to Hippocrates and the Hippocratic Corpus, with comments on a number of its treatises.
In each chapter, concise but mostly accurate overviews are followed by a number of relevant sources, both literary and otherwise. At the end of the book, we find an extensive bibliography: editions and translations of source material, and secondary literature.
The book does what its title claims to do in so far as it provides an introduction supported by source material, with translations into German opposite. For a deeper understanding and more detail, one should still consult earlier overviews. It is not, as the title might suggest, a general world history but focusses on the geographical regions which have been important for the development of Western medicine. It is descriptive rather than polemical. Also, its bibliography is not exhaustive, but that would have been virtually impossible. Somewhat disappointingly, the author makes little use of historical medical information which may be derived from literary sources such as Homer and Greek tragedy and comedy. A separate chapter on these sources would have been an asset. One of the virtues of this book, on the other hand, is that Greco-Roman medicine is surveyed using texts from medical writers as well as philosophers. It follows a good tradition of showing the close relationship between ancient medicine and philosophy. A short sub-chapter on the ‘Philosophenarzt’ in the Arabic world makes this survey complete. The book offers an easy-reference overview of the historical developments.
Thus, the book provides both an important update and supplement to the earlier studies of, for instance, James Longrigg (1993), Axel Karenberg and Christian Leitz (2002), Bruno Halioua (20093), and—as far as Greece and Rome are concerned—Vivian Nutton (20132), and (not yet included in Steger’s scope and bibliography) Robin Lane Fox (2020).
This introduction reveals not precisely everything but still a good deal on Greco-Roman medicine, its roots and its afterlife: a variety of key themes and the historical developments are presented in a compact and well-organized way. Although the reader who is interested in more detail needs to look elsewhere, the book is a very good and up-to-date starting point to find out everything about the past of Western medicine.