Medicine in Ancient Greece and Rome

In classical antiquity, the field of medicine was dominated by men. Women’s bodies were treated based on theories collected from medical texts written by men. These texts determined the various ways to treat illnesses and diseases that affected only women. The main theory accepted was that women’s illnesses were tied to their reproductive system. These texts spanned across centuries, as time passed new writers challenged the past writings. These texts are the foundation to what we now know about women.

Timeline of Medical Authors 

Hippocratics

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The Hippocratic Corpus, Wikipedia

In the mid-fifth century B.C.E until the fourth century B.C.E, medical texts and treatises were compiled together to create the Hippocratic Corpus. The Hippocratic Corpus sought out to find answers to questions about the human body and how it worked. Animal carcasses would be used as a reference for human bodies in research. Half of the texts focused on well-known diseases and treatments while the others focused on medical theories. These texts were strongly affiliated with the very popular physician Hippocrates, but in reality there is no proof that he actually wrote any of these texts. Nonetheless, it created an advantage for Hippocrates who was considered the “Father of Medicine” (Hanson, 1991).  It is believed that various doctors actually wrote the majority of the 70 compiled texts. A small amount of these texts included gynecological treatises which described several different treatments and theories for women’s illnesses. The main gynecological treatises included were “Diseases of Women 1, Diseases of Women 2, Barren Women, and Nature of Women” (Hanson, 1991). These were the first texts that started to fully detail diseases and disorders (Hanson, 1991). 

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The History of Animals, Wikipedia

Aristotle

As the last treatises and texts were added to the Hippocratic Corpus, new theories started to emerge that disagreed with previous understandings of the female body. Aristotle, a philosopher who’s interest in the inner workings of the human body, was one of these individuals. Aristotle did not partake in medical practices, but he did have a passion in human and animal biology which in turn helped him to create his biological treatises (Fantham, Foley, Kampen, Pomeroy, & Shapiro, 1994). Aristotle’s main reason for his research was not for his interest in pathology but rather the inner workings of animals and how they related biologically to human beings. The main biological treatises that discussed women were History of Animals, Parts of Animals and Generation of Animals.

Herophilus and Soranus

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Anatomy Lesson by Rembrandt, a similar depiction of Herophilus’ type of dissections, Wikipedia

In the fourth century B.C.E, another male individual was interested in studying the human body. His name was Herophilus and unlike Aristotle and the Hipprocratics, this physician started dissecting humans for his research (Fantham et al., 1994). Unfortunately the works that were written by him are now lost with just small fragments of his writing remaining. Herophilus’ writings were very important to the future of medicine. He wrote a manual for midwives to follow while on the job.  This manual impacted another physician named Soranus, he wrote the Gynecology which detailed the various aspects of female biology and described how mid-wives should act in their jobs (Fantham et al., 1994). He deemed midwives to be intelligent people, this paved the way for more women in the field of medicine.

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Portrait of Galen by Georg Paul Busch, Wikipedia 

Aretaeus and Galen

The last two important male authors in the Classical period are Aretaeus and Galen. Both wrote medical texts in the second century B.C.E. They were close contemporaries of each other and would not reference the other’s work when describing their research (Fantham et al., 1994). The main medical treatises that discussed women were On the Causes and Symptoms of Acute Diseases and Therapeutics of Acute Diseases. Aretaeus’ writings concentrated on treatments for “acute and chronic diseases” (Fantham et al., 1994). Galen became a very important medical author. His writings were very prolific to physicians at the time. He did not mainly focus on females bodies as he assumed women could be viewed as the same as men except for their reproductive systems (Fantham et al., 1994). Galen’s texts on women included On the Usefulness of the Parts of the Body, On the Anatomy of the Uterus and On the Affected Parts (Fantham et al., 1994). These male authors were incredibly important in showing how female bodies were understood medically in ancient Greece and Rome. 

 

Various Medical Theories About Women

 

Women and Men

Women’s bodies were constantly compared to men’s in medicine. Men’s bodies were seen as superior in their strength and formation. Women’s bodies were defined by their genitalia which was seen as the other or the ‘inverse’ of the male’s genitalia (Cilliers, 2006). In Galen’s On the Seed, he describes the ovaries of a female by comparing it to the testes of a man:

In females the two “testicles” [that is, ovaries] are attached to each of the two shoulders of the uterus, one on the right, the other on the left, not both in a single scrotum but each of the two separate, enclosed in a thin membrane skin. They are small and rather flat, like glands, sinewy at their surrounding covering, but easily damageable in their flesh, just like the testicles of males (11.1)

Another large distinction was between men’s flesh and women’s flesh. Men’s flesh was described as being dry and hard while women’s flesh was described as being moist and soft. The Hippocratics compared a woman’s body to that of wool and men to cloth. This is exemplified in the Hippocratic text the Diseases of Women:

I say that a woman’s flesh is more porous and softer than a man’s: since this is so, the woman’s body draws moisture with more speed and in greater quantity from the belly than does the body of a man. For if anyone should set clean wool and a piece of cloth which is clean, thickly-woven, and equal in weight to the wool, over water or on top of damp place for two days and nights, when he takes them off and weighs them, he will discover that the wool is much heavier than the cloth (Hippoc. 572)

Aristotle also believed men were hot and dry while women were cold and wet. He believed men could conduct ‘hot’ semen to produce children while women could only make ‘cold’ blood,  Aristotle believed men to be better than women (Fantham et al., 1994). He even goes on to describe in Generation of Animals that females to him are considered “a deformed male” (175). The comparison of women to men can be summed up in this passage by Galen in Doctrines of Hippocrates and Plato :

For women are similar to men to the extent that they too are rational animals,
that is, capable of acquiring knowledge; but to the extent that the genus of men
is stronger and superior in every activity and learning, and women are weaker
and inferior, in this they are unlike (Arist. 9.3.25-26)

 

Menstruation

Women who were built with a bigger frame were seen as better because their bodies retained more moisture. The heavier the woman the more surface area she had to be soaked up by moisture and the more nutrients she had inside her (Fantham et al., 1994). This moisture that women soaked up was blood. The Hippocratics believed that blood was soaked into the woman through her skin and that once a month this blood was expelled from her body (Fantham et al., 1994) This process they identified is what we now know as the menstrual cycle. If a woman fell pregnant, it was believed that her menstrual blood would help in the nourishment of her baby in the womb. In Diseases of Women by the Hippocratics, a woman’s period played a major role in the conception of a child:

The best time [for conception] is when the menstrual flow has stopped. It is especially during these days that one should see if [a woman] is able to conceive, for they are most successful [for fertility]. If she does not conceive straight away, and everything else is well with her, nothing stops her from going to her husband on other days, for the habit will excite her desire and cause her passages to open. If the ejaculate from the man runs together directly with that from the woman, she will conceive (Hippoc, 8:56)

Even at this time in antiquity, doctors had realized the importance of the “time of the month” in conjunction with the probability of a successful pregnancy (Fantham et al., 1994). They believed that as her body progressed to another period, her blood thickened each day making it difficult for her to conceive. In the Epidemics by the Hippocratics, women were said to accumulate a large amount of blood in their breasts which in turn made them irrational people. Men were seen as rational due to them not collecting blood in their breasts. There is a passage in the Epidemics that states that there “is a thick vain in each breast. These contain the greatest portion of intelligence . . . In one who is about to go mad the following is a warning indication: blood collects in the breasts” (5:136 & 138). The Hippocratics also believed that if a woman did not get her period, it could be detrimental to her life, ultimately being deadly (Fantham et al., 1994). In some aspects, menstruation was seen as harmful to women with absolutely no benefits except for procreation. This was shown in Soranus’ Gynecology, “In regard to health menstruation is harmful to all” (1.29)

 

The Wandering Womb

It was often thought that if a woman did not have enough intercourse, her womb would ultimately become too light and dry which in turn could create harmful symptoms in women. The most harmful symptom of all was hysteria. Men believed that because older women and virgins were more inclined not to have intercourse, the higher the chance there was that they would become hysterical. The treatment for this hysteria was to burn sweet- and foul-smelling substances in and around the women’s body to draw the hysteria out of her. Soranus describes in Therapeutics of Acute Diseases that a womb “is subject to the affections of an animal in smelling; for it follows after fragrant things as if for pleasure, and flees from fetid and disagreeable things as if for dislike” (11.10).

 

Conclusion

Ultimately, these medical theories became the foundation for medicine today. Women’s lives were greatly affected by the many theories and treatments associated with these authors. These texts told women they were inferior to men and that their lives were controlled by the only thing that made them unique to men which was their reproductive system. Their lives were controlled by the assumptions of their mind and bodies. This sad truth creates a vision for what it must have been like for women in antiquity.

 

References

Cilliers, L.(2006).  “Facts and Fancies About Male and Female In Graeco-Roman Medical Theories.” Scholia: Studies in Classical Antiquity 15 : 53-77.

Dean-Jones. L. (1991). The cultural construct of the female body in classical Greek science. In S. B. Pomeroy (Ed.), Women’s history and ancient history (pp. 111-137). Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press

Fantham et al. (1994) Medicine: the “proof” of anatomy. In Women in the classical world (pp. 183-205). New York, NY: Oxford University Press

Hanson, A. (1991). Continuity and change: three case studies in Hippocratic gynecological therapy and theory. In S. B. Pomeroy (Ed.), Women’s history and ancient history (pp. 73-110). Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press

King, H. (1983). Bound to bleed: artemis and greek women. In A. Cameron & A. Kuhrt (Ed.), Images of women in antiquity (pp. 109-127). London: Billing & Sons Limited

Lefkowitz, M. R., & Fant, M. B. (2016). Medicine and anatomy. In Women’s life in greece and rome (4th ed.) (pp. 301-349). Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press

 

 

 

 

 


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