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Hellenistic Health & Miraculous Cures

Updated: Jan 12, 2023

If you are intrigued about the ancient methodologies of healthcare and its accomplices, this blog will be the medicine that the high priest of Asclepius prescribed just for you. Let's start with a wonderful book recommendation that follows a new priest during the final moments of Hellenistic era Greece; The New Achilles by Christian Cameron.

When you read this book get ready to be thrown into the fictional clutches of Hellenistic era Greece, every chapter is filled with captivating tales leaving readers thirsting for more. Will the last of the Achaeans set aside their differences and fight to the end? If you like the tales of Homer and the conquest of Alexander the Great, get an inside scoop on how the last of the Greeks try to save their civilization from greedy neighboring nations.

(Tap image to read more book reviews on Goodreads)

To better understand how doctors of antiquity and their sanctuaries operated, I will review an ancient text from late fourth century B.C. on the miraculous cures at Epidaurus. The main task of this text analysis is to closely analyse the motivation, purpose and significance of this ancient Hellenistic document within its socio-political and cultural context of ancient Greece.

The endeavors of Alexander the Great had a strong influence on the forthcoming historical events. Alexanders death in 323 BCE gave impetus to the establishment of a new era in Greek antiquity. 323BCE is believed to be the start of the Hellenistic age that spanned up to the Roman obliteration of the Ptolemaic dynasty in 30 BCE.[1] The glory days of Greek antiquity were long gone before the emergence of the Hellenistic era; the legacy of Alexander the Great gave the Hellenistic period its heterodox cultural and political concept of unity and logic.[2] During the Hellenistic period, writing flourished thus giving modern historians a reduced volume of biased perspectives, enabling them to obtain a more diverse outlook on historical events. The lack of a ruling literary source did not cause a rift in the documentation of Hellenistic history, it allowed historians to explore and examine other forms of ancient documentation.[3] Due to the inadequacy of a dominate text, the study of epigraphy is more vital for historians specializing in the Hellenistic age. Epigraphs can deviate from small markings on a pot to a lengthy document inscribed in temples.[4] Any form of epigraph is beneficial to modern historians in grasping a deeper understanding of the socio-political and cultural context of an ancient civilization. The Hellenistic Greeks were keen on inscriptions, there passion is evident in the plethora of epigraphs found throughout their cities.[5] Inscriptions help identify the cities characteristic and way of life, Erskine states that “inscribed stones are symbols of civic life and part of the physical mark-up of the city”.[6] Majority of these inscriptions are not intended for public presentation, they consist of civic decrees, treaties and letters to kings.[7] The document under analysis does not distinguish with the private Hellenistic epigraphs; this inscription appears to be for public display.

The inscription under observation is from the late fourth century and was found on a stelae in the sanctuary of Asclepius at Epidaurus.[8] The inscriptions are declarations of the miraculous cures that took place in the temple of Asclepius; the stelae are littered with a list of people’s names cured by the god Asclepius explaining the disease suffered and cure process. The specific text under examination addresses four different cases of people suffering from different ailments. The author of the text is unknown, but it is evident that they were inscribed for public exhibition. The objective of this analysis is to conceptualize the purpose of the inscriptions in the Hellenistic period and to identify its usefulness in helping historians understand the Hellenistic political, social and cultural framework.

Before dissecting the Epidaurian text and excavating for a close analysis, it is important to understand the ancillary information surrounding the inscription and it purpose of its construction. The cure inscriptions were found in the sanctuary of Asclepius at Epidaurus, located on the southern coast of the Saronic Gulf in the Argolic Acte.[9] It is believed to be the mother-city of worship to the god Asclepius who had numerous sanctuaries due to his Pan-Hellenic reputation of healing.[10] Epidaurus it credited for having the most extensive collection of surviving cure inscriptions; which is where the “The Miraculous Cures at Epidaurus” document originated from.[11] Since there is no other form of documentation or evidence on the cures that took place within the sanctuary, historians rely heavily on the surviving four fragmented tablet epigraphs from Epidaurus.[12] The Greek traveller Pausanias lived during the reign of Roman emperors Hadrian to Marcus Aurelius, accounted that “six (steale) remined, but of old there were more”.[13] The engraved tablets were strategically situated outside the temple for sick pilgrims to easily read the miracles that took place in the sanctuary; there was believed to be forty-three columns adorned with decreed cures.[14] The temple at Epidaurus is accredited to being the oldest of Asclepius’ sanctuaries, but the gods establishment was an abrupt occurrence that happened around the fifth century and developed rapidly in the Hellenistic period.[15] Alexander ended the old traditions of the Greeks and the Hellenistic Greeks embraced the concept of “new”.[16] During this period there was also an expeditious raise in the number of people wanting to receive divine honors.[17] This could be a factor to the expansion Epidaurus experienced in 300BCE with the shifting cultural change imposed by Alexander.[18] Asclepius is a ‘new’ god to the pantheon of Greek gods, originally a mortal physician later transformed into a God for his miraculous technique; Asclepius special identity can be related to the miraculous conquest of Alexander.[19]

Both Alexander and Asclepius were mortals transformed into immortals, and the concept of Asclepius being a new healing god seduced the Hellenistic Greeks to connect with divinity in attempts to decay old belief.[20] The temple was located several miles away from the town to isolate the ‘sick’ visitors from the town and to entrust a sacred area for the god.[21] Ailing guests ventured to Epidaurus in hopes of miracle healing by the god through his divine intervention and dream oracles.[22] People traveled from far and wide in hopes that their commitment to the god will result in a solution to their ailment and heal them of their suffering.[23] With emergence of the ‘new’ healing god and Asclepius’ many sanctuaries and shrines, its purpose was to provided the Hellenistic world with a notorious awareness of purification and power.

The subject matter of the inscription under observation deals with ancient healing methods through divine intervention in dreams. Four different cases are mentioned in the inscription; it described each of the individuals a miraculous cure process through the dream healing abilities of Asclepius. Edelstein notes that Asclepius sanctuaries successful dream healing powers were the driving force of his raise to fame in antiquity.[24] His Pan-Hellenic fame attracted patients to make extensive pilgrimages to the isolated shrines. Once at the sanctuary they underwent a purification process which would enable them to encounter a form of the god while dreaming in the sanctuary and hope to awaked miraculously cured.[25] The purification process was crucial to advance further in curing aliment and experiencing a successful divine intervention. Purification held great value to the sanctuary; there was an inscription found in the temple which stated that “pure must be he who enters the fragrant temple; purity means to think nothing but holy thought”.[26] One can view the process of purification as a fresh start to a new state of mind. The concept of ‘new’ was a vastly projected method of thinking for people in the Hellenistic period. The notion of having a fresh mind along with encountering a divinity at the sanctuary fascinated Hellenistic inhabitants which encouraged Asclepius growing fame. Although people where cured within the sanctuary, it was not a hospital; there was no medical art being practiced within.[27] The arrangement of the sanctuary emulated more of a health resort/spa then a modern-day physician office.[28] The procedures done at the sanctuary emphasized ones “rehabilitation through sleep”.[29] The treatment of the patients was a spiritual manner through the process of faith-healing by a god which in ancient times was the best procedure to endure.[30] Due to gullibility, patients submitted to their religious faithfulness and followed through with the purification process.[31]

The process probably corrupted their ailing minds and sent them into a state of delirium to experience a method of divine intervention. Whatever the outcome of the dream it was then interpreted by a sanctuary priest which educated the patient on the meaning of the vision.[32] With the new-found knowledge the patient was told to proclaim the dream on a tablet and leave a form of payment or votive.[33] This is troubling for historians because the patients in their submissive state probably did not get a chance to conceptualize what they experience. They were told what to believe and then document the prescribed outcome given by priests interpretation.

This now address the intended audience of the inscriptions; if the pilgrims are reading the decree of cures by the priests, then it must be compromised information made by the institution to persuade the audience to believe in the success of the miraculous cures. The inscriptions of Epidaurus are an ancient form of propaganda and power in the Hellenistic age. The patients are induced to believe that they were visited by a god and cured of their ailment through the interpretation of the sanctuary priests.[34] Nutton explained that it was this Epidaurian propaganda that helped the rapid spread of Asclepius shrines in the Hellenistic age.[35] People in search for a solution or a cure came to the shrine for answers. The inscription would also help turn any sceptics into believers.[36] A theme found within the text of the epigraph under observation, is the gods ability to confound it detractors. The text explains the skeptical nature of some patients and the god’s aptitude in restoring their health and faith. Asclepius was a model of a divinity which is a “key resource for the negotiation of power”.[37] One cannot surpass or question the supreme power of divinity regardless of the form it comes in. Asclepius was the “par excellence of healing” and held a monopoly on the Hellenistic world.[38] In order for one to obtain well-being, it was done by the will of the gods.[39]

The dissemination of Asclepius shrines in the Hellenistic era can be linked to two occurrences of the remote past. The first event is a factor to the spread of Asclepius and his texts but not a leading contender. A few years earlier Athens experienced a plague that devastated the city-state but not much more is known of it.[40] The occurrence of this event made people sought other alternative for health, deviating from their local deities in search of a more powerful figure.[41] Asclepius is unique to other Greek gods because unlike the other who personify and have multiple functions, Asclepius solely specializes in healing and nothing else.[42] As mentioned before Alexander the Great impression can be seen through numerous features in Hellenistic antiquity, including the spread of Asclepius sanctuaries. Alexander once visited the Epidaurus to give offering to Asclepius; this could have attracted people of the Hellenistic period to flock to the sanctuary to connect with the most influential man of the historical period and encounter the divine powers of Asclepius.[43] Edelstein summarized the dissemination of Asclepius in a perfect way, he said that the ancients idolize good body well-being and are in constant fear of disease which is what prompted their adherence to Asclepius and his documentation.[44]

This document analysis has identified the political, social, and cultural purpose of the “Miraculous Cures at Epidaurus” inscription. Politically is was a form of propaganda to gain power in the Hellenistic world, in this era Macedonians and Greeks were explicitly drawn to power.[45] Socially it was to purify one’s self from the corrosions of life. Through the purification of Asclepius, it “washed away the strains, faults and impieties of everyday life” giving patients a new fresh start.[46] Culturally it was to connect with Alexander the Great the father of the Hellenistic world and be in favor of the god Asclepius for good well-being. Epidaurus had a long history with Asclepius and healing, its reputation and sacred area had reputation sowed in the roots and soil of the area.[47] It was Alexander who rejuvenated the old sanctuary while establishing new meaning and significance to the Hellenistic age. In the words of Mephistopheles,

Bleibt stets von gleichem Schlag Und ist so Wunderlich als wie am erstem Tag.[48]

It always remains the same below but is as whimsical as something is on its first day. Epidaurus continues to amuse and entice modern historians with its miraculous cure inscriptions that generate a whimsical environment.

References: [1] Ferguson (2016), Encyclopedia Britannica 2017. [2] Erskine (2005), 9. [3] Chrubasik (2018), CLA 362 Lecture. [4] Drake (2003), Encyclopedia of Library and Information Science. [5] Erskine (2005), 9. [6] Erskine (2005), 10. [7] Erskine (2005), 9. [8] Austin (2006), 269. [9] Lanfond (2006), Brills New Pauly “Epidaurus”. [10] Nock (Jan 1950), 47. [11] Nutton (2012), 109. [12] Di Nino (2008), 168. [13] Pausanias II.27.3. [14] Kilby (1979), 32. [15] Robinson (1978), 531, [16] Erskine (2005), 10. [17] Erskine (2005), 416. [18] Erskine (2005), 462. [19] Diller (1950) 48. [20] Nutton (2012), 104, Nock (1950), 48. [21] Nutton (2012), 108. [22] Lanfond (2006), Brills New Pauly “Epidaurus”. [23] Kilby (1979), 34. [24] Edelstein (1945), II: 139. [25] Morris (2007), 422. [26] Edelstein (1945), I: 318. [27] BMJ (1901), 1489. [28] Walsh (1925), 40. [29] Kilby (1979), 35. [30] BMJ (1898), 1606. [31] BMJ (1901), 1489. [32] BMJ (1901), 1489. [33] BMJ (1898), 1606. [34] BMJ (1901), 1489. [35] Nutton (2012), 109. [36] Kilby (1979), 34. [37] Erskine (2005), 463. [38] Nutton (2012), 110. [39] Nutton (2012), 110. [40] Nutton (2012), 145. [41] Nock (1950), 47. [42] Nutton (2012), 111. [43] Nock (1950), 49. [44] Edelstein (1945), II: 194. [45] Erskine (2005), 463. [46] Nutton (2012), 113. [47] Nock (1950), 47. [48] BMJ (1898), 1607.


Austin, Michel M. (ed. 2006), The Hellenistic World from Alexander to the Roman Conquest: A Selection of Ancient Sources in Translation, Cambridge.

BMJ. “Faith-Healing in Ancient Greece”, The British Medical Journal 1.1955 (Jun. 18, 1898): 1606-1607.

BMJ. “Medicine in the Time of Aesculapius”, The British Medical Journal 2.2133 (Nov. 16, 1901): 1489-1490.

Chrubasik, Boris. “Alexander the Great and the Hellenistic World Introduction.” Lecture, University of Toronto, Mississauga, ON, September 7, 2018.

Diller, Audrey. “Reviewed Work: Asclepius: a collection and interpretation of the testimonies”, The History of Science Society 37.1/2 (May 1947): 98.

Di Nino, Margherita. “Asclepius’ Cult at the Court of the Ptolemies”, Frans Steiner Verlag 2 (2008): 167-187.

Drake, Miriam A. (2003). Encyclopedia of Library and Information Science. Dekker Encyclopedias Series. 3. CRC Press. ISBN 0-8247-2079-2.

Edelstein, Emma J., and Ludwig Edelstein. 1945. Asclepius: a collection and interpretation of the testimonies. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press.

Erskine, Andrew (ed. 2005), A Companion to the Hellenistic World, Oxford.

Ferguson, John. Hellenistic Age. Encyclopædia Britannica, 2013. Retrieved 27 May 2013.

Kilby, Emelia-Louise. “A Cock to Asclepius”, University of Illinois Press 6.2 (Summer 1979): 28-36.

Lafond, Yves (Bochum), “Epidaurus”, in: Brill’s New Pauly, Antiquity volumes edited by: Hubert Cancik and , Helmuth Schneider, English Edition by: Christine F. Salazar, Classical Tradition volumes edited by: Manfred Landfester, English Edition by: Francis G. Gentry. Consulted online on 18 October 2018

Morris, David. “Un-Forgetting Asclepius: An Erotic’s of Illness”, The John Hopkins University Press 38.3 (Summer 2007): 419-441.

Nock, Arthur. “Reviewed Work: Asclepius: a collection and interpretation of the testimonies”, Classical Philology 45.1 (Jan 1950): 45-50.

Nutton, Vivian. 2012. Ancient Medicine. London: Routledge. Accessed October 19, 2018. ProQuest Ebook Central.

Pausanias II.27.3. Consulted online on 16 October 2018

Robinson, Alice. “The Cult of Asklepius and the Theatre”, The John Hopkins University Press 30.4 (Dec 1978): 530-542.

Walsh, James. “The Church and Cures”, Catholic University of American Press 11.1 (April 1925): 38-55.

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