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The Western Revival and Influence of Greco-Roman Medical Texts

The Western Revival and Influence of Greco-Roman Medical Texts


Ancient Greeks and Romans had extensive knowledge of and innovative ideas about medicine. Scientists such as Hippocrates and Galen wrote sophisticated books about medicine between 400 b.c. and a.d. 200. For the next several hundred years, advances in medicine were fairly minimal. Beginning in about a.d. 850, key texts of ancient Greece and Rome were rediscovered by Islamic scientists. The subsequent translation and dissemination of these works throughout western Europe and the Middle East led to a revival of Greco-Roman ideas that influenced medicine well into the Renaissance several hundred years later.


The need to alleviate ills and cure man's diseases has always existed, and ancient scientists made important discoveries about anatomy and physiology. Building upon the knowledge of ancient Egyptians and others, the philosophers of ancient Greece produced sophisticated writings about medicine. Among these scientists was Hippocrates (460-377 b.c.), often called the "Father of Medicine." He lived on the Greek island of Cos and was known for using thoughtful treatments and opposing the use of magic or witchcraft. He originated the ethical standards to which physicians are still held accountable today. His "Physician's Oath"—while not actually written by him—is still administered to new medical practitioners in modified form. Other Greek medical practitioners and teachers, like Herophilus (335-280 b.c.) and Erasistratus (fl. 320 b.c.), are less well known but come from the same intellectual tradition.

Besides Hippocrates, Galen (a.d. 130-200) was another well-known ancient physician whose work survived into later centuries. He was born in what is now Turkey but moved to Rome to practice medicine. He did experiments to further his understanding of the human body and wrote many treatises on medicine, anatomy, and physiology. His major work, Anatomical Procedures, was the standard medical text in western Europe and the Middle East for 1,500 years. Many of his theories, as well as those of Hippocrates, were only overturned when advances in dissection, experimentation, and observation were made.

Both Hippocrates and Galen exerted tremendous influence on medical practice for many centuries. One reason that Hippocrates' ideas were never superseded was that the scientific activity of the Greeks in ancient times decreased when the power and dominance of Athens and other Greek cities faded. Defeated and taken over by the Romans, the Greeks not only lost their independence but also their incentive to engage in innovative thought. Following the work of key Roman thinkers, notably Galen, there was little further innovation in medicine for several hundred years.

About a.d. 850, an Arab physician named Hunayn ibn Ishaq (808-873) became interested in ancient medical literature. The Arab world, revitalized by the religion of Islam after about 650, had conquered the Near East, North Africa, and Spain. This energy fostered the leap to pursue and expand on the knowledge of the ancients in history, geography, science, and medicine. Thinkers such as Hunayn ibn Ishaq translated Galen, Hippocrates, Plato (428-348 b.c.), Aristotle (384-322 b.c.), and others into Arabic or Syriac, a language of the Bible. Thus the Arabic world became heir to ancient Greek and Roman medical ideas. Hunayn studied medicine in Baghdad and became chief physician to the court of the Caliph. In particular, he was fortunate to work in the "House of Wisdom" established by the Caliph al-Ma'mun, a center of learning that emphasized the translation of ancient texts. Hunayn's translations of Greco-Roman texts were widely disseminated throughout the Islamic empire.


Since many original Greco-Roman texts have since been lost, the importance of the translation work of Hunayn and others of his era is hard to overestimate. In the short run, the revival of interest in the Greeks that he influenced helped to spark the prodigious scientific advancements of the medieval Arab world. Building on the knowledge of ancient scientists, Arab scientists made fundamental advances in all areas of science, from astronomy to physics to the life sciences.

In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, European scholars such as Gerard of Cremona (1114-1187) discovered the Arabic translations of ancient Greco-Roman texts and began translating them back into Latin. Thus, these works became the foundation of medical education in early medieval universities like Oxford in England, Bologna in Italy, and the University of Paris. Subsequent scholars who helped preserve and pass on the ideas of these early physicians included Robert Grossteste (1168-1253), the first chancellor of Oxford, who published a number of commentaries on Aristotle and helped draw attention to the newly restored texts of the ancients.

Similarly, influential philosopher Roger Bacon (1220-1292) relied on Latin translations from the Arabic. This drew further attention by Western intellectuals to the large body of Arabic literature and sparked a desire to correct extant versions of ancient literature. Greek texts, when available, were then used to correct Latin versions. Bacon also made observations of his own and was known as the founder of experimental science in the Middle Ages. His Opus Maius of 1267 is a summary of all knowledge to that time.

Another medieval physician who benefited from the preservation of Greco-Roman texts was German thinker Albertus Magnus (1200-1280). He made many contributions to medieval philosophy and was known for discoveries and observations in natural science. His work in botany and zoology was important to the development of those disciplines. Like most other medieval philosophers, he considered Aristotle the greatest philosopher and writer on natural history who ever lived. Magnus wanted to create works that would fill in what was lacking or had been lost of Aristotle's work. The medical writings of Galen and Hippocrates helped him do so.

At the dawn of the Renaissance, Nicholas of Cusa (1400-1464) provided another boost to the recovery of ancient Greco-Roman texts. He was interested in mathematics, science, and philosophy as well as medicine. He believed that knowledge was gained from the study of ancient works and through experiment. He was a collector of manuscripts and recovered many that survived to his day. Not only did he discover the lost comedy plays of Roman playwright Plautus, but in 1426 he also discovered an important work called De Medicina by an ancient Roman medical writer named Celsus. Written in the first century a.d. in Rome, it shows the status of medicine and the level of medical knowledge achieved by the Romans at that time. Romans washed wounds and treated them with antiseptic substances like vinegar and thyme oil. They also performed surgical procedures and did plastic surgery using skin from one part of the body to restore another. Celsus's work also includes the first accounts of heart disease, dietetic treatments, insanity, and the use of ligatures or stitches in the treatment of arterial bleeding.

Along with the greater socio-cultural currents sweeping through Europe, the recovery of key texts by ancient scholars helped fuel the tremendous intellectual and artistic advances of the Renaissance of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. In no field was this more true than in medicine, where the writings of Hippocrates, Galen, and others held enormous sway throughout the Renaissance. The survival of these texts is due in large part to the Arabic translations of Islamic scientists and to the later Latin translations of medieval European thinkers.


Further Reading

Jouanna, Jacques. Hippocrates. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.

Magner, Lois N. A History of Medicine. New York: M. Dekker, 1992.

Sigerist, Henry. The Great Doctors: A Biographical History of Medicine. New York: W.W. Norton, 1933.

Singer, Charles. The History of Biology. New York: Abelard-Schuman, 1959.

Westacott, Evalyn. Roger Bacon in Life and Legend. New York: Norwood Editions, 1953.

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