Ancient Greece has become a byword for civilization as we know it. The people of the Hellenic world took care to nurture the mind as well as the body. This was the birthplace of modern philosophy, with the unexamined life deemed not worth living. The era also gave us breakthroughs in mathematics, medicine and ethics that remain relevant to this day. Oh, and Ancient Greece also gave the world the concept of democracy, even if at the same time it also built its society on the backs of slaves.
But life wasn’t all gymnasiums and symposiums in Ancient Greece. Life could be tough, especially for the lower social orders or for women. In fact, even if you were born into privilege, you still had to endure some truly horrible traditions and customs. From basic sanitation through to grooming and medical treatments, things looked very different to how they do today. Indeed, some of the things that went on in everyday life were nothing short of stomach-churning, especially when looked at from our cushy twenty-first century perspective. So brace yourself as you take a tour through the darker side of Ancient Greece:
Doctors who did more harm than good
“Above all, do no harm.” So said the Ancient Greek physician Hippocrates. And it’s his Oath that new doctors pledge upon starting their careers in medicine. Thankfully, however, it’s only his promise to do their best for their patients that modern-day doctors copy. Indeed, if any doctor treated their patients like the physicians of Ancient Greece did, they would soon find themselves out of a job, and hit with an expensive lawsuit. Things back then were a lot different – and a lot more disgusting.
Quite simply, medicine in Ancient Greece was based around the idea that the human body was composed of a range of fluids. A good doctor was supposed to know each of these separate fluids, what they looked like and even what they tasted like. So, if you were feeling sick, a doctor would examine your vomit and even have a quick taste to make a diagnosis. Or how about an aching head? Well then you could expect a finger in the ear, a rummage around in there and then the doctor tasting your ear wax.
For a more general examination, a diligent doctor like Hippocrates would ask for a urine sample (so far, so normal) but then proceed to drink it in front of you. According to the man himself, the urine of a healthy person was supposed to taste just like fig juice. If it didn’t have that sweet but tart taste, well then you were definitely under the weather. So, as well as a more thorough examination of your other bodily fluids, you would also be sent to the nearest temple. After all, any illness was seen as a form of divine punishment, so the Gods needed to be appeased.
Unsurprisingly, treatments were as disgusting as these ancient methods of diagnostics. In most cases, a doctor would prescribe a session of blood-letting to drain the body of ‘bad blood’ – a practice that, to be fair to the Ancient Greeks, remained commonplace right up until the nineteenth century. Meanwhile, mule excrement mixed with wine was regarded as an effective all-round treatment for “woman’s troubles”, while women who suffered a miscarriage were covered in cow dung in a bid to prevent the misfortune from visiting them again.
But while their methods certainly might have been disgusting, were the doctors of Ancient Greece onto something? Written histories from the time often make mention of people living beyond the age of 100. Perhaps Hippocrates and his followers were smarter than we think.