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Athenian and Roman Plagues – Part 1

April 3, 2013

I have been undertaking the first stage of my research today for my essay on Ancient Medicine. The focus of my essay will be the introduction of the cult of Asclepius during the plagues in Athens and Rome.

There is so much material on this subject but a few highlights from today are;

Thucydides (The Peloponnesian War 2.47) notes that any attempt to address the plague at first did not work;

‘Neither were the physicians at first of any service, ignorant as they were of the proper way to treat it, but they died themselves the most thickly, as they visited the sick most often; nor did any human art succeed any better. Supplications in the temples, divinations, and so forth were found equally futile, till the overwhelming nature of the disaster at last put a stop to them altogether. ‘

With a new illness, when following Hippocratic methodologies, observations needed to be undertaken before a ‘scientific’ cure could be applied. Time was needed but unfortunately the diseases was swift.

I found an excellent metaphor for the movement of the disease in Ovid’s Metamorphoses;

‘At the same time the diseased infection reached our needed springs and pools, thousands of serpents crawling over our deserted fields, defiled our rivers with their poison.’

One of Asclepius’ sacred animals was the snake and was regularly used for healing. I believe the Ovid, in using the snake in his metaphor, demonstrates the close relationship between good and bad health.

Finally, Clemens Alexandrinus Stromateis (5.1.13) advises that above the entrance to the Temple at Epidauraus was inscribed ‘Pure must be he who enters the fragrant temple; purity means to think nothing but holy thoughts’. This indicates that those who did not believe were not welcome and that part of the healing process was a positive spiritual energy.

Bibliography

Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Thucydides The Peloponnesian War can both befound via the Perseus link in the Classics Resources section of my blog

Clemens Alexandrinus Stromateis is taken from Edelstein, E.J and Edelstein, L. Asclepius Collection and Interpretation of the Testemonies London: John Hopkins University Press, 1945.

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