Tag Archives: Pythagoras

Ancient astronomy and astrology

by Tim Harding

(An edited version of this essay was published in The Skeptic magazine, December 2013, Vol 33 No 4. The essay is based on a talk presented to the Mordi Skeptics in October 2013).

Today, there are distinct boundaries between the modern science of astronomy and the pseudoscience known as astrology.  But in ancient times, these boundaries were not so clear.  Both fields of study used a common set of astronomical observations – but for different purposes.  The practical purposes of ancient astronomy were celestial navigation and the development of calendars of seasonal dates and events (such as the flooding of rivers) for the planting of crops.  In contrast, the purpose of astrology was to interpret celestial phenomena as signs of divine communications.

Long before the invention of the telescope, ancient observations and predictions could only be of celestial objects visible to the naked eye.  This restricted astronomical and astrological studies to the stars, the Sun, the Moon and five planets – Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.  (The Earth was not counted as a planet until much later).

Prehistoric stone observatories

In some locations, early cultures assembled stone structures that are thought to have astronomical observations as one of their purposes.  The most well-known of these structures is Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England, which commenced construction around 3100BCE and went through several building phases.  As there are no written records to go by, there are several theories as to various religious, mystical and other purposes of Stonehenge.  One of these theories has been proposed by well-known Victorian skeptic Dr. Lynne Kelly. Lynne’s PhD thesis was about the use of structures like Stonehenge as mnemonic aids, to ensure that the oral knowledge of the culture is retained and passed on to succeeding generations. The layout of Stonehenge also includes a celestial observatory function, which would have allowed the prediction of eclipse, solstice, equinox and other celestial events important to a contemporary religion.


Drawing of Stonehenge in midsummer (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

One of the world’s earliest known archeo-astronomical devices is a stone circle at Nabta Playa, in southern Egypt on the Tropic of Capricorn.  The site is between 6,000 and 6,500 years old, or about 1,000 years older than Stonehenge.  Two pairs of upright stones stand directly across the circle from each other, defining a view that would have marked sunrise at the summer solstice, this providing the beginnings of a prehistoric calendar.

Early Egyptian astronomy and astrology

The Ancient Egyptian calendar year was 365 days long, divided into 12 months of 30 days each, plus five extra days at the end of the year.  This was one quarter of a day shorter than solar year, leading to the problem of a ‘wandering year’ requiring frequent astronomical correction.  Observation of stars was important in predicting the annual flooding of the Nile, for the allocation of resources to the planting of irrigated crops. Early Egyptian astronomy was intertwined with astrology.  The Sun was believed to be a major god named Ra, representing light, warmth, and growth.  Ra was thought to travel on two solar boats – one on his journey through the sky during the day and the other in a river flowing underneath the flat Earth from west to east at night.


Ra, the Egyptian sun god (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Most Egyptologists believe that the Great Pyramid of Giza was built as a tomb for fourth dynasty Egyptian Pharaoh Khufu (Cheops in Greek) over a 10 to 20-year period concluding around 2560 BCE, although other dates have been suggested.  One theory is that this pyramid was carefully aligned towards the northern pole star, which at the time was Thuban, but is now Polaris due precession of the Earth’s rotational axis.

Ancient Mesopotamia

The ancient region known as Mesopotamia comprised the plains of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, in what is now Iraq, plus parts of Syria, Turkey and Iran.  The lower part between the rivers was known as Sumer, with Babylon, Uruk and Ur as its major cities.  The significance of this region is that it was the cradle of astronomy and astrology as organised fields of study.


The ancient region known as Mesopotamia (in light shading) Source: Wikimedia Commons

Sumer was also the birthplace of writing, in the form of cuneiform clay tablets dating from the mid 4th millennium BCE.  These tablets provide us with the first written evidence of astronomy and astrology in the West, albeit in a fragmentary state. From these tablets we know that the Babylonians developed a sexagesimal (base 60) numerical system, resulting in our current 60 minute hour, 24 hour day and 360 degree circle.  The Babylonians were the first to recognize that astronomical phenomena are periodic and to apply mathematics to their predictions.  They developed the idea of a 7 day week and a 12-month calendar based on cycles of the Moon; together with the seasons of summer and winter.  The Babylonians also measured the variation in day length over a year. At around 1800BCE, the first star catalogues were compiled.

The Babylonian astronomers noticed that a few ‘stars’ (later called planets) wandered in relation to other fixed stars and even retrograded in their motions.  These movements were confined to a narrow belt at an angle of about 23 degrees to the equator.  This belt – the Zodiac – was divided into 12 sections, and each section was named after a constellation of fixed stars in the neighbourhood.  The Zodiac also became one of the important features of western astrology. In this early period astronomy consisted of observations, calculations and predictions of events such as solstices and eclipses.  As such, astronomy at this stage was like a branch of applied mathematics plus a database of observations.  There were no cosmological theories to tie all the observations and calculations together and to try and rationally explain them.  This explanation vacuum was instead filled by astrology, which claimed to interpret celestial events as religious or mystical omens.

The Enuma Anu Enlil (c.1600BCE) is a major series of 68 or 70 tablets dealing with Babylonian astrology.  Substantial collection of omens, estimated to number between 6500 and 7000, interpret a wide variety of celestial and atmospheric phenomena in terms relevant to the king and state (known as ‘mundane astrology’).  For example, a typical astrological report to the king reads:

‘If the moon becomes visible on the first day: reliable speech; the land will be happy. If the day reaches its normal length: a reign of long days. If the moon at its appearance wears a crown: the king will reach the highest rank.’

Movements of the Sun, Moon and five planets were regarded as representing the activity of the gods in question.  Evil celestial omens attached to any particular planet were therefore seen as indications of dissatisfaction or disturbance of the god that planet represented. The Venus tablet of Ammisaduqa (Enuma Anu Enlil Tablet 63) refers to the record of astronomical observations of Venus, as preserved in numerous cuneiform tablets dating from the first millennium BCE.

Venus Tablet of Ammisaduqa

Venus tablet

Source: Wikimedia commons

During the 8th and 7th centuries BCE, Babylonian astronomers developed a new theoretical approach to astronomy.  They began to develop an internal logic within their observational data systems to improve their predictive power.  This was an important contribution towards the development of astronomy from a database to a science.  Some scholars have thus referred to this new approach as the first scientific revolution. The new scientific approach to astronomy was adopted and further developed in Greek astronomy.  This process was considerably helped by the conquest of Babylon by Alexander the Great in 331 BCE.  According to the late classical philosopher Simplicius of Cilicia (c.490CE – c.560CE), Alexander ordered the translation of the Babylonian historical astronomical records under supervision of his chronicler Callisthenes of Olynthus, who sent them to his uncle Aristotle in Athens.  Aristotle was also the teacher of Alexander until the age of 16 – what a small world!

Ancient Greece

The name ‘planet’ comes from the Greek term planētēs, meaning ‘wanderer’.  The names of individual planets (within our solar system) are all drawn from Greek mythology, although they have Romanised names outside of Greece. References to identifiable stars and constellations appear in the writings of Homer and Hesiod, in the 7th or 8th centuries BCE.  However, the first Greek attempts to rationally explain the structure and behaviour of the cosmos date from the period 600-450BCE.  The anomalies in the motions of the planets bothered the early Greeks, who were culturally inclined to try to find rational physical explanations for them.

Pythagoras of Samos (c. 570 BCE – c. 495 BCE) was an Ionian Greek philosopher and mathematician who founded a philosophical movement known as the Pythagoreans.  Amongst other things, Pythagoras was the first to think that the Earth was spherical rather than flat; and that the Morning Star and the Evening Star are identical (they are both the planet Venus). Astronomy was listed by the Pythagoreans among the four mathematical arts (along with arithmetic, geometry, and music). One of these Pythagoreans was Anaxagoras (c. 510 – 428 BCE), who discovered that the Moon shines by reflected light from the Sun and gave the correct theory of lunar eclipses (i.e. the Earth is blocking the light from the Sun to the Moon). These eclipses provided the conclusive arguments in favour of the Earth being spherical.  The Pythagoreans also regarded the Earth as one of the planets.

Herakleides of Pontus was a Pythagorean who lived in the 4th century BCE and studied under Plato.  Herakleides discovered that Venus and Mercury revolve around the Sun. He also held that the Earth rotated on its own axis every 24 hours, which accounted for the apparent procession of the stars across the night sky, but did not explain the retrograde motion of the planets.  By now, these anomalous planetary motions had become the central problem of astronomy and cosmology. Plato encouraged Eudoxus of Cnidus (c. 410 BCE – c. 347 BCE) to develop a two-sphere model with the Earth at the centre, and the planets occupying a separate sphere to the stars, similar to that shown by the following diagram. two sphere model

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Aristarchus of Samos (310 BCE – ca. 230 BCE) has been called ‘the Greek Copernicus’ because he proposed a heliocentric model of the cosmos, with the Sun at the centre instead of the Earth, about 1800 years before Copernicus did.  Aristarchus also calculated the sizes of the Sun and Moon, as well as their distances from the Earth in Earth radii.   Aristarchus’s working drawings of the relative sizes of the Sun, Earth and the Moon are shown below. Aristarchus drawing

Source: Wikipedia Commons

The radius and circumference of the Earth were first calculated (but slightly underestimated) by Eratosthenes of Cyrene – c.276-c.194 BCE.  He was a mathematician, poet, music theorist and inventor of the  discipline of geography, including the terminology used today.  Unfortunately, Aristarchus was unable to persuade his contemporary colleagues of the merits of his theory, which was largely forgotten until rediscovered by Copernicus in the 16th century CE.  Seleucus of Seleucia (b.190BCE) was the only Greek Babylonian philosopher to support heliocentric model of planetary motion. He also correctly theorized that tides were caused by the Moon, a theory that was overlooked by Galileo 1700 years later.

Hipparchos of Nicaea (c. 190 BCE – c. 120 BCE) was a Greek astronomer, geographer, and mathematician of the Hellenistic period.  He is considered the founder of trigonometry but is most famous for his incidental discovery of precession of the equinoxes.  He compiled a star catalogue recording the position and brightness of the stars, which was used by astronomers for centuries afterwards. As a result of the non-acceptance of Aristarchus’s heliocentric model, subsequent Greek astronomers persisted with trying to reconcile the anomalous movements of the planets with a geocentric model of the cosmos.

Apollonius of Perga (c. 262 BCE–c. 190 BCE) introduced two new mechanisms: the eccentric deferent and the epicycle, which are illustrated in the diagram below. Claudius Ptolemy of Alexandria (c. 90CE – c. 168CE) was a Greco-Roman mathematician, also known as an astronomer, geographer and astrologer.  Ptolemy explained how to predict the behavior of the planets by introducing the equant. Below is a simple illustration showing the basic elements of Ptolemaic cosmology.  It shows a planet rotating on an epicycle which is itself rotating around a deferent inside a crystalline sphere. The center of the system is marked with an X, and the earth is slightly off of the center.  Opposite the earth is the equant point, which is what the planetary deferent would actually rotate around.

Ptolemy model

Illustration showing the basic elements of Ptolemaic cosmology (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Ultimately, these attempts at retrofitting cosmological theory to seemingly endless observational anomalies became too much.  Dislike of the equant, on top of the deferent and the epicycle, was a major motivation for Copernicus to construct his heliocentric system after the scientific renaissance some 1500 years later. Although astrology was not as popular in ancient Greece as it was in Egypt and Mesopotamia, belief in astrology continued through the Roman period and the Middle Ages.  Through most of its history, astrology was considered a scholarly tradition. It was accepted in political and academic contexts, and was connected with other studies, such as astronomy, alchemy, meteorology, and medicine.  At the end of the 17th century, new scientific concepts in astronomy and physics (such as heliocentrism and Newtonian mechanics) called astrology into question.[1] Astrology thus lost its academic and theoretical standing, and common belief in astrology has since largely declined.


Brown, D (2000) Mesopotamian Planetary Astronomy-Astrology Bandhagen: Styx Publications.

Evans, James (1998). The History and Practice of Ancient Astronomy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hermann Hunger, ed. (1992). Astrological reports to Assyrian kings. State Archives of Assyria 8. Helsinki: Helsinki University Press

Koestler, A (1959) The Sleepwalkers (Danube Edition 1968) London: Hutchinson.

Kuhn, T.S. (1962) The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (3rd ed. 1996) Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Leverington, D. (2003). Babylon to Voyager and beyond: a history of planetary astronomy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Russell, B. (1946) History of Western Philosophy (2nd edition 1961). London: George Allen & Unwin.

Toulmin, S. and Goodfield, J. (1961) The Fabric of the Heavens: The Development of Astronomy and Dynamics Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Wightman, W.P.D. (1951, 1953) The Growth of Scientific Ideas, Yale University Press.

Endnotes [1] Rational arguments that the claims of astrology are false include firstly, because they are incompatible with science; secondly, because there is no credible causal mechanism by which they could possibly be true; thirdly, because there is no empirical evidence that they are true despite objective testing; and fourthly, because the star signs used by astrologers are all out of kilter with the times of the year and have been so for the last two or three thousand years.

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Filed under Essays and talks

Some Origins of Western Quackery

 By Tim Harding

             (An edited version of this essay was published in The Skeptic magazine, September 2013, Vol 33 No 3 p.16. The essay is based on a talk presented to the Mordi Skeptics in April 2013 ).

‘By definition, alternative medicine has either not been proved to work or has been proved not to work. You know what they call alternative medicine that has been proved to work? Medicine.’ – Tim Minchin

A corollary of Tim Minchin’s rhetorical question might be ‘What should we call alternative medicine that has been proved not to work?’  I recently asked this question at my local Skeptics in the Pub meeting, eliciting an immediate and resounding chorus of ‘Quackery!(When you think about it, if the part of ‘alternative medicine’ that works is medicine, and the part that doesn’t work is quackery, there is nothing left in the category of ‘alternative medicine’).

On his Quackwatch web site, Dr. Stephen Barrett defines quackery as ‘the promotion of unsubstantiated methods that lack a scientifically plausible rationale’.  This definition includes questionable ideas as well as questionable products and services, regardless of the sincerity of their promoters.  In line with this definition, Barrett reserves the word ‘fraud’ only for situations in which deliberate deception is involved.

So where did quackery come from?  The word ‘quack’ derives from the archaic word ‘quacksalver’, of Dutch origin, literally meaning ‘hawker of salve’.  The quacksalvers sold their wares on the market by shouting in a loud voice.  In the Middle Ages, the word ‘quack’ meant ‘shouting’.  These days, we tend to associate quackery with dodgy products and practices from the nineteenth century such as snake oil, miracle hair tonics, magnetic bracelets and homeopathic remedies.  But the origins of western quackery actually go back much further – to the cradle of western civilisation in ancient Greece and Rome.

In those ancient times, scientific experimental methods had not yet been developed – let alone clinical trials.  Medical observations were largely confined to patients as individuals rather as a cohort or group.  Ancient physicians were not much better than naturopaths when it came to empirical evidence.  Without scientific data from treatment groups versus control groups, it was difficult to know which treatments worked and which didn’t.  As a result, there was no clear dividing line between medicine and quackery.  Ancient ‘medicine’ consisted of a mish-mash of well-meaning but misguided treatment by physicians and surgeons, faith healers, herbal remedies, aromotherapy, other superstitions – and even sorcery or magic. Sounds familiar? That’s right – many of these weird ancient beliefs have carried through to the quackery of today as a legacy of the vast Roman Empire.

Ancient Greek medicine

The first notable Greek physician may have been the poet Homer in the 7th or 8th centuries BCE.  In his Iliad, Homer describes various medical techniques such as the extraction of arrows, the treatment of wounds, the application of dressings and the dispensing of soothing drugs.  The Homeric poems provide a glimpse of ancient medical ideas and practices long before the formal documentation of medical literature.  It is significant that practical medical treatment appears to have been provided in this early period, probably as a matter of military necessity, so that wounded soldiers could be saved to fight another day.


Reliance on the gods or faith healing seems to have come later, to some extent in parallel with advances in medical treatment.  The god of healing, Asklepios, had a shrine at Epidaurus in southern Greece, where miraculous recoveries were said to have been made by the sick and lame by sleeping in the temple overnight.  A Greek lyric poet from Thebes named Pindar (c.522– c.443 BCE) wrote:

‘[Asklepios] delivered all of them from their different pains, tending some of them with gentle incantations, others with soothing potions, or by wrapping remedies all around their limbs, and others he set right with surgery.’

The following picture is of a cast showing a physician examining a patient while Asklepios stands nearby holding the symbol of medicine, a snake coiled round a staff.


There were also apothecaries who harvested herbs and prepared drugs, accompanying their ministrations with important rituals and incantations.  Theophrastus (c.371 – c.287 BCE), who was a student of Aristotle, described some of these weird rituals in his History of Plants:

‘They say that the peony, which some call glykyside, should be dug up at night, for, if a man does it in the day-time and is observed by a woodpecker while he is gathering the fruit, he risks the loss of his eyesight; and if he is cutting the root at the time, he gets a prolapsed anus’.

‘One should draw three circles around mandrake with a sword, and cut it with one’s face to the west; and at the cutting of the second piece one should dance around the plant and say as many things as possible about the mysteries of love’.

On the other hand, the medical literature subsequently found in Greece differs markedly from that found elsewhere.  It includes reasoned arguments and debates, reflecting an intellectual openness consistent with Greek philosophy, rather than medicine as some sort of secret mystical art.  The links between medicine and philosophy can be traced back to Parmenides, Empedocles and even Pythagoras, whose ideas on appropriate living included a ban on eating beans!

Athens was one of the first city states to employ a publicly funded physician as a more rational alternative to traditional folk medicine.  Other Greek cities also maintained a public physician as well as several private practitioners.

The Greek historian Herodotus tells the tale of the early Greek physician Democedes of Croton, who started his career in the civil service of Athens and Aegina.  In 522 BCE, Democedes was captured by the Persians and sent to Susa.  The Persian King Darius once sprained his ankle while he was hunting, and his Egyptian doctors seemed to make it worse.  Darius then summoned Democedes, who was able to heal the ankle using Greek remedies.  Democedes was richly rewarded and hired as a physician of the Persian court.  Darius’s wife, Atossa, later had a breast ulcer.  When Democedes cured her ulcer, he was allowed to visit Greece as a reward.

Schools of medicine had existed for some time in various regions of Greece, most notably on the island of Kos, associated with the famous name of Hippokrates, a younger contemporary of Herodotus.  Hippokrates’ contribution to medicine is best remembered today by the ethical oath bearing his name.  Very little is known of Hippokrates himself, or how much of the Hippokrates medical treatises he personally wrote.  Hippokrates is cited in later works by Aristotle and Plato; but the Greek habit of composing imaginary speeches or letters by famous people from the past gradually blurred the distinction between the genuine and the false.  The following references to Hippokrates are actually references to the large body of medical literature bearing his name, the Hippokratic Corpus.

Hippokrates attempted to put medical diagnosis and treatment on a rational basis.  He viewed the human body as an organism whose parts must be understand as a whole.  Hippokrates thought that human physiology was comprised of four fluids or ‘humors’: blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile, corresponding to the four inanimate elements of earth, air, fire and water, as shown in the diagram below.

Four humours

Disease was thought to result from an imbalance of these humors, resulting in a disturbance of the natural harmony and order of the world so important to Classical Greek thought.  Hippokrates also placed emphasis on prognosis as well as diagnosis, so that the course of an illness could be predicted.  The more familiarity a physician showed with a disease, the more confidence his patients would have in him.  Prognosis also had practical benefits in planning the medical interventions that would be needed at different times.

In the absence of the modern germ theory of infectious disease, the danger to health from overcrowding within the Long Walls of Athens was not foreseen, resulting in a devastating plague in 430BCE.  Thucydides did not attempt to explain the reasons for the plague, but in the prognostic tradition of Hippokrates, he tried to describe its symptoms and effects so that if it struck again it could be recognised.

Active medical interventions included cauterisation and blood-letting, as well as surgery, the rectification of dislocations and the setting of bone fractures.  Other therapies included cupping, special diets, herbal remedies, potions, purgatives and exercises, consistent with the idea of ‘bringing the body back into balance’.  One rather spectacular treatment often performed in public was succussion, where the patient would be tied upside down to a ladder and then repeatedly dropped from a height of several feet as illustrated below.


It is unclear what succussion was supposed to achieve, but it is worth noting that succussion is a word still used by homeopaths to describe a shaking step in the preparation of their water doses.  The founder of homeopathy, Samuel Hahnemann falsely believed that succussion activated the ‘vital energy’ of the diluted substance and made it stronger.

The rise of quackery in Rome

Traditional Roman medicine was initially an amateur activity using simple home remedies based on easily available agricultural ingredients such as wool, eggs and the humble but miraculous cabbage.  Cato the Elder wrote in his treatise On Agriculture:

‘For those who are troubled by colic, cabbage should be steeped in water…. ‘

‘Now as to patients for whom urination is painful or dribbling. Take cabbage, put in boiling water, boil briefly till half cooked…. ‘

‘If any sore or cancer develops in the breasts, apply ground cabbage …’

‘In case of dislocation, foment with hot water twice a day and apply ground cabbage: it will soon cure it…’

The Romans were a highly superstitious people.  For instance, the Roman Senate only sat on ‘auspicious days’.  In around 78 CE Pliny the Elder wrote in his Natural History:

‘I find that a bad cold in the head clears up if the sufferer kisses a mule on the nose.’

‘Some people keep a weasel’s heart in a small silver container, for swollen glands.’

The number three was regarded as a ‘lucky number’.  An anonymous Roman inscription reads:

‘To Julian who was spitting up blood and had been despaired of by all men the god revealed that he should go and from the threefold altar take the seeds of a pine cone and eat them with honey for three days. And he was saved and went and publicly offered thanks before the people’

Later Roman culture was greatly influenced by the ancient Greeks in many things, including philosophy, literature, art, science and medicine.

Galen of Pergamon (c. 129-200 CE) was a leading surgeon, physician, and philosopher of Greek origin.  In 162 CE, he established a large and successful practice in Rome, where he attended the Emperor Marcus Aurelias.  Amongst his voluminous works was a short essay entitled That the Best Physician is also a Philosopher, where he urged physicians to emulate Hippokrates and to embrace logic and rationality:

‘What reason, then, remains why the doctor, who practises the Art in a manner worthy of Hippocrates, should not be a philosopher? For since, in order to  discover the nature of the body, and the distinctions between diseases, and the indications for remedies, he must exercise his mind in rational thought, and since, so that he may persevere laboriously in the practice of these things, he must despise riches and exercise temperance,  he must already possess all the parts of philosophy: the logical, the scientific, and the ethical’.

Consistent with this approach, Galen saw the bodies of living things and their various parts as designed and operated by a craftsman-like nature with a purpose in mind; thus an important key to anatomical and physiological knowledge is an understanding of nature’s purposes.  This form of ‘intelligent design’ has been described as a teleological view of biology by modern reviewers of Galen’s writings.  Galen held that nature rules the body from three anatomical centres – the liver, the heart and the brain (in contrast to the Aristotelian view that all faculties are centred in the heart).  He claimed that human physiology can be explained by the principal activities of nature, which are genesis, growth and nutrition.

Like Hippokrates, Galen believed in the need for the ‘four humors’ to be in balance: blood, black bile, yellow bile and phlegm.  He thought that the human body had three physiological spheres: the nutritive, the vital and the logical.  According to Galen, stomach cooks food to what was called ‘chyle’ and sends it to the liver.  The liver adds ‘natural spirit’ and sends it to other organs and the heart.  The heart adds ‘vital spirit’ and sends it to the brain.  The brain adds what was called ‘pneuma’ and sends to the body through nerves.  Such views were the likely origin of the modern naturopathic belief in ‘vitalism’ that persists today.  Naturopathy posits that a special energy called ‘vital energy’ or ‘vital force’ guides bodily processes such as metabolism, reproduction, growth, and adaptation.  Such energies and forces are unknown to modern science.

For religious reasons, there was little or no dissection of human corpses in ancient Rome.  Nevertheless, Galen believed in the supreme importance of anatomy, so he regularly performed dissections on animals.  Although he was conscious of the limitations of extrapolating from animals to humans, he did express some erroneous views about human anatomy, such as the following description by Galen in his work On the Usefulness of Parts of the Body:

‘All the parts, then, that men have, women have too, the difference between them lying in only one thing, which must be kept in mind throughout the discussion, namely, that in women the parts are within [the body],   whereas in men they are outside, in the region called the perineum. Consider first whichever ones you please, turn outward the woman’s, turn inward, so to speak and fold double the man’s, and you will find them the   same in both in every respect’.

Women were treated by male physicians and the gynaecological treatises of the Hippokratic Corpus were almost certainly written by and for men.  Part of the deficiency of observational evidence stems from the failure of male medical writers to speak to women about their illnesses.  Women were traditionally presented as being incapable of knowing what was wrong with them or telling a doctor if they did know.  Galen’s teleological view of biology also appears to have influenced his attitudes towards women:

‘So too the woman is less perfect than the man in respect to the generative parts. For the parts were formed within her when she was still a foetus, but could not because of the defect in the heart emerge and project on  the outside, and this, though making the animal itself that was being formed less perfect than one that is complete in all respects, provided no small advantage for the race; for there needs must be a female. Indeed,  you ought not to think that our creator would purposely make half the whole race imperfect and, as it were, mutilated, unless there was to be some great advantage in such a mutilation’.

These biased attitudes impacted wider Greek and Roman society.  For example, it was believed, on false medical grounds, that a man’s seed was most potent when he was about 30 years of age; and a woman’s body best suited for childbirth when she was still a teenager.

The medical theories of ancient Greece and Rome formed the foundation of Western medicine for centuries, even if they were eventually rejected.  The main reasons for this rejection were the development of empirical scientific methods after the Renaissance; coupled with advances such as the invention of the microscope and the germ theory of infectious disease.  Whilst there were observations of individual patients, there is no evidence of any organised medical experiments being conducted in ancient Greece and Rome, let alone clinical trials.  In some ways, the Greek philosophical traditions of logic and reasoning held back a more empirical scientific approach to medicine.  Instead of conducting practical experiments on illnesses, ancient Greek and Roman physicians became diverted into a search for the underlying purposes of diseases – a relatively fruitless ‘search for meaning’ rather than for empirical evidence.  This mystical and unscientific approach is one of the hallmarks of quackery today.


 Ancient Sources

Aristotle On the Generation of Animals excerpt translated by A.L. Peck.  Published online http://www.stoa.org/diotima/anthology/wlgr/wlgr-medicine339.shtml

(Accessed 20 September 2012)

Galen That the Best Physician is also a Philosopher translated by Brain, P., 1977, “Galen on the ideal of the physician”, South Africa Medical Journal, 52: 936–938.

Galen On the Usefulness of Parts of the Body excerpt translated by M.T. May.  Published online http://www.stoa.org/diotima/anthology/wlgr/wlgr-medicine351.shtml

(Accessed 20 September 2012)

Herodotus The Histories R.B. Strassler (ed), The Landmark Herodotus, Quercus, London, 2008.

Thucydides A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War, R.B. Strassler (ed), The Landmark Thucydides, Free Press, New York, 1996.

Modern Sources

Brain, P., 1986    Galen on Bloodletting: A Study of the Origins, Development and Validity of his Opinions, with a Translation of the Three Works Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Flaceliere, R., 2002    Daily Life in Greece at the Time of Pericles. Phoenix Press, London.

King, H., 1995    ‘Medical texts as a source for women’s history ‘  in The Greek World Anton Powell (ed.) Routledge, London and New York.

Martin, T. R., 2000    Ancient Greece – From Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times, Yale University Press, New Haven and London.

Nutton, V., 2004    Ancient Medicine Routledge, London and New York.

Pagel, W., 1970    Book Review of Galen and the Usefulness of Parts of the Body in Medical History/ Volume14 / Issue04 / October 1970, 406-408.  Published online: 16 August 2012

Roberts, J.W., 1998    City of Sokrates: An Introduction to Classical Athens (2nd edition), Routledge, London.

Roebuck, C., 1966    The World of Ancient Times Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York.

Waterfield, R., 2004    Athens – A History, Macmillan, London, Basingstoke and Oxford.

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