History

Greek public health

Public health is about avoiding the spread of disease within a particular society - often through providing water to help people keep themselves, their animals and their surroundings clean. The Greek city states did not do this, but the Greek people nevertheless had strong ideas about how to stay healthy.

Overview

The Greeks did not have an extensive public health system, so there were no sewers and no supplies of running water.

Many rich Greeks, however, followed a programme for health. This included keeping themselves at an even temperature, eating properly, washing themselves, cleaning their teeth, going for walks and keeping fit. This was closely linked to their theory of the four humours [Four humours: Four bodily fluids - yellow bile, black bile, blood and phlegm - used in ancient times to analyse and describe people's state of health. ], and changed according to the season. In addition, Pythagoras's theory of the balance of opposites led Greek doctors to advocate 'moderation in all things'.

Hippocrates accepted that ordinary people would be too busy or too poor to follow such a regime, and would therefore be less healthy.

While medicine was still in its early stages, people continued to appeal to the gods for healing at the asklepion [Asklepion: Healing centre of the ancient Greeks, based around a belief in the god Asklepios. People would stay there when they were ill. ]. As time went on, however, these places also became health resorts, with facilities such as a gymnasium, an athletics stadium and baths.

Ruins of the Asklepion of Kos, a temple for the worship of Asklepios, the Greek god of medicine. Thought to have been the world's first hospital.

Ruins of the Asklepion of Kos, a temple for the worship of Asklepios, the Greek god of medicine. Thought to have been the world's first hospital.

Source analysis: Hippocrates on public health

Source A: Programme for health

The care of health begins the moment a man wakes up. After awakening he should not arise at once but should wait until the heaviness of sleep has gone. Then, every day, he should wash his face and eyes using pure water. He should rub his teeth using some fine peppermint powder and taking away any leftover bits of food. He should rub and anoint his head every day but wash it and comb it only occasionally.

After this, people who have to or wish to work will do so, but people of leisure will first take a walk. A young man or middle-aged man should take a walk of about 10 stadia before sunrise. Long walks before meals clear out the body, prepare it for food and give it more power for digesting.

Hippocrates, 'Regimen' (c.500BC)

Source B: Health in summer and winter

In winter, it is best to counteract the cold by eating dry, warming foods such as wheat bread and roast meat. Drink only a little, undiluted wine. Exercise as often as possible. A hot bath is good for you.

In summer, eat smaller amounts of softer, purer food; drink smooth, white, diluted wines. Avoid over-eating and drink a lot. Take lukewarm baths, and take only short strolls after dinner.

Hippocrates, 'A Programme for Health' (c.500BC)

Revision tip

To familiarise yourself with the ideas in this section, go through the sources on the previous page. List all the practices that kept the ancient Greeks healthy, then explain how each practice was a result of Greek ideas about lifestyle, and not as the result of medical ideas.

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