BA Ancient History and Archaeology

Year of entry: 2024

Course unit details:
Ancient Medicine

Course unit fact file
Unit code CAHE20382
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 2
Teaching period(s) Semester 2
Available as a free choice unit? Yes


History of medicine from 800BC to AD600

This course looks at the roots of ‘Western’ university medicine. These roots lie in the Graeco-Roman medical traditions. We will investigate both the development of the theoretical underpinnings of medicine as they develop over time, as well as the practical and social aspects of the dispensation of healthcare within a constantly changing environment. Humoral pathology as developed by Hippocrates and Galen continued to be the scientific framework of medical theory until the nineteenth century, and we will investigate why it was so attractive to generations and generations of physicians. Divergent voices, however, will also be heard.

The focus will be on the Graeco-Roman world. How did ‘rational’ medicine emerged in a highly religious environment? Hippocrates, the so-called father of medicine, and the writings within the Hippocratic corpus will come under scrutiny, as well as the medical tradition of Alexandria, where major anatomical progress was made (partly as a result of vivisection of convicted criminals). We will look at medicine in the Roman world, notably at the emergence of different schools such as Methodism, and ask ourselves how Galenism was able to eradicate most alternative medical theory. Finally the medical institutions and practices in Late Antiquity will come under scrutiny


This course unit aims to provide an awareness of the main political, social, intellectual and cultural developments of the last centuries of the Roman Empire, along with introduction to a significant selection of the primary sources on which our understanding of these events depends, and a number of key debates among modern scholars.

Knowledge and understanding

By the end of this course students will have and be able to show:

  • Awareness of how medical theories and practices developed in the Graeco-Roman tradition;
  • Understanding of the main developments in how people conceived of health and illness
  • Awareness of key theories and scholarly controversies regarding the medicine and healthcare in the Graeco-Roman tradition;
  • Familiarity with a range of types of ancient source material, and an awareness of the value and limitations of different kinds of ancient evidence.
  • An ability to use the textual, archaeological, palaeopathological evidence
  • An awareness of the problems of intellectual, social, and medical history

Intellectual skills

By the end of this course students will be able to:

  • show knowledge of the period;
  • examine and synthesise the evidence;
  • conduct sustained individual inquiry into different aspects of the course;
  • construct a cogent and persuasive idea of ancient medicine

Practical skills

  • Ability in close and critical reading of primary sources and secondary scholarship;
  • Ability to formulate and refine interpretative questions;
  • Ability to write a clear and logical interpretative argume

Transferable skills and personal qualities

  • construct an argument in written and oral form;
  • pose questions about issues;
  • assimilate and summarise evidence;
  • locate and retrieve relevant information from primary sources;
  • present results in a professional manner with appropriate reference to sources and modern published scholarship;
  • use e-resources and gain knowledge of research methods and resources;
  • manage time and resources; · engage in critical discussion.
  • evaluate sources and arguments for bia

Employability skills

· Ability to interpret sources and arguments accurately; · Ability to evaluate sources and arguments for bias; · Ability to provide a clear and articulate written assessment of sources considered; · Ability to provide a clear and logical analysis of interpretative problems; · Ability to offer well-evidenced recommendations.

Assessment methods


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Feedback methods

Written feedback on summative assessment (see above); all summative coursework feedback is designed to contribute formatively towards improvement in subsequent assignments

Recommended reading

William Bynum, The History of Medicine: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: OUP, 2008) H. King, Greek and Roman Medicine (Bristol: Bristol Classical Press, 2001)

A. Cruse, Roman Medicine (2nd ed., Stroud: Tempus, 2006)

V. Nutton, Ancient Medicine (2nd edition; London: Routledge, 2013)

Peter E. Pormann, Cambridge Companion to Hippocrates (Cambridge: CUP 2018)

——, Hippocratic Commentaries in teh Greek, Latin, Syriac and Arabic Traditions (Leiden: Brill, 2021)

Ph. J. van der Eijk, Medicine and Philosophy in Classical Antiquity: Doctors and Philosophers on Nature, Soul, Health and Disease (Cambridge: CUP, 2005)

R. Flemming, Medicine and the Making of Roman Women (Oxford: OUP, 2000

Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Lectures 22
Seminars 11

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Peter Pormann Unit coordinator

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