What Was the Medicine of Ancient Greece?

The medicine of ancient Greece was a fascinating blend of science and myth. Greek physicians believed that the human body was made up of four humors: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. According to this theory, health depended on the balance of these humors.

Humoral Theory

The humoral theory was first introduced by the Greek physician Hippocrates in the 5th century BCE. He believed that diseases were caused by imbalances in the humors and could be treated by restoring balance. For example, if a patient had too much blood, they would be bled to reduce it.

The Role of Gods and Goddesses

Greek medicine also incorporated a strong belief in gods and goddesses. Asclepius was the god of healing and his daughters Hygieia and Panacea were associated with cleanliness and cures respectively. Greek physicians often prayed to these deities for guidance and healing.

The Hippocratic Corpus

The Hippocratic Corpus is a collection of medical texts attributed to Hippocrates himself or his followers. These texts cover various topics such as anatomy, physiology, diagnosis, treatment, and ethics. They are considered some of the earliest examples of scientific writing in Western civilization.


Greek physicians had a good understanding of anatomy based on dissections of animals. However, human dissection was not allowed at the time due to religious beliefs about desecrating corpses. As a result, much of their knowledge about human anatomy was based on observation rather than direct study.


Greek physicians used a variety of treatments including herbs, diet, exercise, massage, and surgery. They also employed techniques such as bloodletting and purging to restore balance to the humors.

  • Herbs: Greek physicians used a wide variety of herbs for medicinal purposes. For example, willow bark was used to relieve pain and fever, while opium was used as a sedative.
  • Diet: Diet was considered an important factor in maintaining health.

    Greek physicians recommended a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and grains.

  • Exercise: Exercise was also considered important for maintaining health. Greek physicians recommended activities such as walking, running, and swimming.
  • Massage: Massage was used to relieve pain and promote relaxation.
  • Surgery: Although surgery was not common at the time due to the risks involved, Greek physicians did perform procedures such as amputations and trepanation (drilling a hole in the skull).


Greek physicians were also concerned with ethical issues. The Hippocratic Oath, which is still used today by many medical schools, is attributed to Hippocrates. This oath outlines ethical principles for medical practice such as confidentiality and avoiding harm to patients.

In conclusion, the medicine of ancient Greece was based on a complex blend of science and myth. While their theories about the humors may seem outdated today, their contributions to anatomy, treatment methods, and ethical principles continue to influence modern medicine.