Despite not knowing any where near as much as we do about medicine and diseases, ancient societies did have their own ways of diagnosing and treating illnesses. Most were completely ridiculous and probably made matters much, much worse, however some of their beliefs and techniques were actually quite effective. With an underlying belief (or perhaps fear) of the Gods, the people of the ancient world very often used prayer and sacrifice to treat or prevent illnesses. The belief that disease and illness was a form of punishment from the gods and goddesses was held throughout an extensive period of history, right up until the late middle ages. The belief in magic had a huge impact on medicinal practices in both ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman medicine, and it is thought today that the genuine belief in these cures often had a placebo effect on those treated.
What did they do when they were poorly?
Some of the oldest documented medicinal practices come from the Egyptians, who from as far back as the 6th century BC, were very advanced for their time. People of wealth and power from other empires have been known to have visited Egypt to record their methods. They knew the importance of certain foods, and used the plants around them to treat illness. Translations of hieroglyphs written on papyrus show that people living in this period even kept records of their recipes, perhaps to be passed on to others to share their cures and treatments.
The Egyptians are thought to have believed that the body had certain channels, which carried air, water, and blood throughout the body, which was closely compared to the river Nile, which their civilization was heavily based around. Amulets were popular in Egypt, which could have a number of different functions, for example an amulet depicting a certain animal was believed to give the wearer the properties of that animal, for example strength. Alternatively, amulets were worn to protect the wearer against evil spirits, which they believed caused illnesses and sometimes, even death.
The ancient Greeks, particularly in the classical period, and were known to have built the foundations of our modern understanding of science, including medicine. Hippocrates is referred to today as the ‘founding father’ of modern medicine, and his influence on the subject is still referred to today, with physicians having to take the ‘hippocratic oath’ before serving in a medical career. The oath was originally of a religious nature, however in the modern day it essentially is a legal oath pledged to do no harm to the patient. Before Hippocrates, it was forbidden to dissect a human body, even with the intention of learning about how it works, which limited knowledge of how the human body worked, and lead to some rather strange beliefs about how to heal it. Ancient Greek society, being hugely religious, believed that diseases were a form of punishment from the Gods, and believed that making sacrifices and receiving potions in the temple of Asclepius, the God of medicine, would alleviate their illnesses. Although they were a largely religious society, the ancient Greeks did have many remedies for illnesses that were based around proof and knowledge of them having a positive effect. They believed that the body had four humours, which they had to keep in balance to remain healthy by balancing out opposite substances within the body. Blood letting was a popular treatment, as they thought that having too much blood would cause their body to become imbalanced and unwell. Physicians are known to have used leeches, or just slice the skin open in an attempt to cure their patients. This surprisingly remained a common practice right up until the late-medieval period. Mercury, now known to be toxic, was used as a common medicine; some believed that consuming this could lead to immortality, however the truth is quite the opposite. When the Athenian Empire was at war during the fourth century BC, a horrific plague epidemic diseased the city-state. The disease affecting and killing people regardless of their dedication to the Gods caused people to lose faith in the Gods, and felt betrayed by them. This was perhaps a cause for the move towards science based treatment of illnesses rather than just using spiritual methods to cure diseases.
The Romans were the first known society to establish formal hospitals, as many became ill due to the injuries suffered in war. Rome was a hugely militaristic society; defending their city and expanding their empire required many soldiers, some of whom (quite a lot) were injured. The Romans had access to the abundance of medicinal and scientific information which was stored at the library of Alexandria in Egypt. Tragically, this was burned down by Julius Caesar in 48BC (accidently, although still awful as imagine how much more we could know about science if that information wasn’t lost!!!! I am very upset about this!!!). The Romans, alike to the Greeks, used logic and scientific methods to identify and treat most illnesses and injuries. For the poor however, there was hardly any affordable medical care aside from spiritual and herbal healing. One of the more disturbing examples of Roman medicine was the act of ingesting human remains in order to cure illnesses. They believed that consuming the remains of those who had died in gladiatorial battles could have healing properties.
Knowing that diseases are caused by infectious germs, rather than a vengeful God, is rather useful. The ancient world, despite its religious and spiritual attempts at curing illnesses, was in some cases, not for off, or even successful in treating illnesses.