Ancient Medicine

From Mesopotamia to Rome

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Laura M. Zucconi
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Eerdman's Publishing
    , August
     400 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Laura M. Zucconi’s Ancient Medicine: From Mesopotamia to Rome reads as both a tightly organized reference book and a fresh analysis of ancient history—religious history, in particular. The author is aware of the fluid nature of historical research and, throughout the text, notes how further research of a particular subject would be beneficial. Starting with a discussion in the introductory chapter, the elements of Zucconi’s analysis that will undoubtedly stand the test of time include the notion that, prior to Greek medicine, health was more of a communal concern than an issue related to individual bodies. And “community” here includes the community of divine beings. Ancient human bodies were understood as having a symbolic, and sometimes even a symbiotic, relationship to gods, ancestors, and other spirits, effectively encoding that culture’s cosmology onto human body parts. “For some cultures . . . organs such as eyes are not fully under control of the individual but exist as independent entities that tacitly agree, symbiotically, to work with the individual” (5). As ritual specialists, the job of ancient healers was therefore appeasement of the gods, directly or through intermediary spirits, and the reintegration of unhealthy persons back into the community of gods and humans. Healers may have used herbs and, occasionally, skull-boring instruments, but incantations, offerings, divination, and sympathetic magic were more important to ancient medicine, and community rather than individual health was paramount.

After the introduction, each remaining chapter is a survey and analysis of medicine from particular periods and cultures: Mesopotamian, indigenous Egyptian, Canaanite, Hittite, classical Greek, Hellenistic, Ptolemaic Egyptian, Etruscan and Roman, Second Temple and early rabbinic, and Persian. The choice to leave Elamite culture out of the study can be forgiven, as the language was not fully deciphered until late 2020. Each chapter is generally divided into sections covering: location and history; religion and culture (cosmology and a survey of the deities associated with healing); a survey of textual and archeological sources; a survey of cultural concepts related to anatomy and physiology, disease etiology, and restoration of health; disease, trauma, disability, and conditional states (the latter which, where applicable, discussed that culture’s understanding of gender fluidity), and finally the types and roles of healers. In the Greek and Roman sections, profiles of individual healers are also provided. Artworks, artefacts, architecture, similes and metaphors employed by the cultures, and other data are examined by the author for clues about these topics.

Ancient healers sought to maintain the cohesion between their human community and the community of their respective pantheons. Apotropaic charms and other “charged substances” as well as oral rites and other physical rites were common. Gods were often the source of a disease as well as the provider of its cure. For Hebrew prophets, disease etiology was a branch of the Mosaic covenant, and healing “depends upon demonstrations of obedience from the patient” (144). For Egyptians and others, such obedience was also understood as restorative, but less mechanistically, in that the gods were not bound to respond to such obedience, however sincere or perfectly ritualized.  

Greek and Roman cultures mark a departure in medicine. Although dissection and vivisection were forbidden, Herophilus and Erasistratus managed to perform such studies on humans in the 3rd century BCE. Writing an extensive catalog of medical texts, Galen (born in Pergamum in 129 CE) continued the demythologization of medicine that began in classical Greece, and Rufus of Ephesus (ca. 1st century CE) was the first to ask his patients questions about their conditions—a tactic Zucconi relates to the method of dialog employed by Plato and other philosophers.

As with any general history, the author must make choices that cannot satisfy every whim of the reader. But, through the neat organization of Zucconi’s work, two things shine. First, the philological, anthropological, and archeological expertise of the author is brought to bear on nuanced analyses of the data (e.g., “Lucan’s literary construction depends on the eyes having a relationship with the Roman citizenry also witnessing the destruction of civil wars” [295]). And, secondly, a wealth of details is woven together. The Mesopotamian namburbi ritual, in which a pot with the name of a disease written on it is smashed, mythological explanations of gum disease, the earliest doctor’s notes, the incubation dream ritual undertaken in a classical Greek asklepieion, and hundreds of other fascinating topics are included. From these details a refreshing perspective on ancient history and religion can be discovered.

About the Reviewer(s): 

David Belcheff is an independent scholar.

Date of Review: 
February 16, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

 Laura M. Zucconi is professor of historical studies at Stockton University, Galloway, New Jersey, and a visiting fellow at the University of Cambridge.


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