gods and physicians in ancient Greek inscriptions and epigrams

In Greco-Roman antiquity, infirm or sick persons seeking cures went to temples dedicated to the Asclepius, the god of medicine.  These temples, called Asclepeia, displayed inscriptions describing cures.  The inscriptions typically described the name of the person, the nature of the infirmity or illness, and the way in which the person was cured.  Cures often involved sleeping in the Asclepeion and having a dream that provided instructions for a cure (incubation).  Here’s a roughly 2400-year-old inscription from the Asclepeion at Epidaurus:

Ambrosia from Athens, blind in one eye.  She came as a suppliant to the god.  Walking about the sanctuary, she ridiculed some of the cures as being unlikely and impossible, the lame and the blind becoming well from only seeing a dream.  Sleeping here, she saw a vision.  It seemed to her the god came to her and said he would make her well, but she would have to pay a fee by dedicating a silver pig in the sanctuary as a memorial of her ignorance.  When he had said these things, he cut her sick eye and poured a medicine over it.  When day came she left well. [1]

This inscription describes a cure of blindness and skepticism.  It also indicates the god, or temple operatives, looking out for their material interests.  Diogenes the Cynic sought to cure entreaties to Aesclepius:

One day he saw a woman prostrating herself before the gods in an indecent position, and wishing to free her of superstition, according to Zolus of Perga, he came forward and said, “Are you not afraid, my good woman, that a god may be standing behind you?  — for all things are full of his presence — and you may be put to shame?”  He consecrated to Asclepius a fierce ruffian who, whenever people prostrated themselves, would run up to them and beat them up. [2]

The account suggests Diogenes viewing the woman from behind and assimilating the god to himself.  Diogenes made praying for blessing into an invocation for a beating.  In the ancient Greco-Roman world of pervasive gods, humans both sought miracles from gods and ridiculed petitions to them.

sculpture of the god Jupiter de Smyrne, a Roman version of Zeus

Physician similarly generated hope, doubt, question, and ridicule.  Physicians presented themselves as inheritors of the healing powers of Asclepius.  An epigram  from the Milan Posidippus celebrates the healing skill of the physician Medeios, son of Lampon:

Like this bronze which, drawing shallow breath up over
its bones, scarcely gathers life into its eyes,
such were the ones he used to save from disease, that man who discovered
how to treat the dreadful bite of the Libyan asp,
Medeios, son of Lampon, from Olynthos, to whom his father
gave all the panacea of Asclepius’ sons.
To you, O Pythian Apollo, in token of his craft
he dedicated this shriveled frame, the remnant of a man. [3]

Living, speaking sculptures are standard figures in ancient Greek epigrams.  In this epigram, the bronze sculpture figures a shriveled man near to death, but not beyond the reach of Medeios’s healing art.  A Greek epigram from the first century presents a sharply contrasting view of a physician:

The physician Marcus laid his hand yesterday on the stone Zeus, and though he is of stone and Zeus, he is to be buried today. [4]

The living sculpture here is Zeus, the King of the gods and the father of Apollo.  The touch of the physician Marcus kills the stone sculpture of Zeus and causes it to be buried.  That could be interpreted as the reverse of dedicating a sculpture.  An insightful reading of the Medeios epigram suggests that it’s implicitly critical of Medeios’s immoderate claim to skill.[5] A physician treating Zeus, in the form of a stone sculpture not rigidly distinct from the god, is highly immoderate.  The Marcus epigram is consistent with criticism of physicians’ presumption.

Both gods and physicians healed.  Both gods and physicians acted within circumstances of swirling beliefs and doubts.

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[1] From the shrine of Asclepius at Epidaurus, inscription A4, from Greek trans. LiDonnici (1995) p. 89.  On healing shrines in fifth and fourth-century BGC Greece, Nutton (2013) Ch. 7.

[2] Diogenes Laërtius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, Bk. VI.37-38, from Greek trans. adapted from Robert Drew Hicks (1925) and Bing (2009) p. 239.

[3] Posidippus, Epigrams (Pap Mil. Vogl. VIII 309), AB 95, from Greek trans. Peter Bing.  Bing (2009), pp. 217-233, discusses the collection of seven healing epigrams (iamatika) in the Milan Posidippus Papyrus.  He observes that they draw upon the conventions of healing inscriptions (iamata) in Asclepeia.

[4] GA 11.113.  The epigram is attributed to Nicarchus.  Many satirical Greek epigrams directed against physicians exist in the Greek Anthology.  See, e.g. GA 11.112-126, 11.257.  Here’s GA 11.125:

The physician Crateas and the graveyard manager Damon made a joint conspiracy.  Damon sent the wrappings he stole from the grave-clothes to his dear Crateas to use as bandages and Crateas in return sent him all his patients to bury.

The first-century Latin writer Martial also composed epigrams against physicians, as did Ausonius (see his epigrams 4, 80, and 81 in Evelyn-White LCL numbering). Pliny described physicians as greedy, unscrupulous, and deadly to their patients. Those were common themes in ancient satire of physicians. A physician killing a statue of a god is rather more unusual.

Satire on physicians continued in medieval literature. A fragment from Constantine Manasses’s twelfth-century Byzantine novel Aristandros and Kallithea states:

There is nothing more stupid in life than schoolteachers,
did not the sons of doctors run around on earth.

Frag. 25, from Greek trans. Jeffreys (2012) p. 290. “Sons of doctors” means persons with the patronymic Asklepiades (son of Asklepios), i.e. doctors. Id. n. 46. Essentially the same witticism occurs in Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae 666a (Bk 15).

[5] Wickkiser (2013).  Zeus punished Asclepius for bringing a dead man back to life.  Restoring the dead was a sign of the perfect physician. The Libyan asp’s bite was regarded to be incurably fatal.  Claiming to cure its bite was extraordinary.

[image] Jupiter (Zeus) of Smyrna. Third-century marble statue of a male deity, restored as Zeus in 1686. Preserved as accession # Ma 13, MR 255 in the Louvre Museum (Paris). Image thanks to Marie-Lan Nguyen and Wikimedia Commons.


Bing, Peter. 2009. The scroll and the marble: studies in reading and reception in Hellenistic poetry. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

GA: Paton, W.R. 1920. The Greek Anthology with an English Translation. London: William Heinemann (vol. I, bks. 1-6; vol. II, bks. 7-8; vol. III, bk. 9; vol IV, bks. 10-12; vol. V, bks. 13-16). (epigrams indicated GA {bk}.{epigram # within bk})

Jeffreys, Elizabeth, trans. and notes. 2012. Four Byzantine novels: Theodore Prodromos, Rhodanthe and Dosikles; Eumathios Makrembolites, Hysmine and Hysminias;  Constantine Manasses, Aristandros and Kallithea; Niketas Eugenianos, Drosilla and Charikles. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.

LiDonnici, Lynn R. 1995. The Epidaurian miracle inscriptions. Atlanta, Ga: Scholars Press.

Nutton, Vivian. 2013. Ancient medicine. 2′nd ed. London: Routledge.

Wickkiser, Bronwen L. 2013. “The Iamatika of the Milan Posidippus.” The Classical Quarterly. 63 (02): 623-632.

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