BA Ancient History and Archaeology

Year of entry: 2024

Course unit details:
Ancient Medicine

Course unit fact file
Unit code CAHE30382
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 3
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 devel-opments 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:

· Critical awareness of how medical theories and practices developed in the Graeco-Roman tradition;

· Ability to reflect on the different medical theories in circulation, and their respective strengths and weaknesses

· In-depth understanding of the developments in how people conceived of health and illness, including in the areas of anatomy, physiology, deontology, nosology, and epistemology;

· Critical engagement with theories and scholarly controversies regarding medicine and healthcare in the Graeco-Roman tradition, including the debates about the dating of the Hippocratic corpus, the presence of vivisection in Alexandria, the role of commentaries in the shaping of Galenism, the rise of hospital provisions, the spread of epidemic and pandemic diseases, and the enduring legacy of classical medicine;

· Familiarity with a wide range of types of ancient source material, both textual and material, and a de-veloped critical awareness of the value and limitations of different kinds of ancient evidenc

Intellectual skills

By the end of this course students will be able to:
· show detailed knowledge of the period;
· examine critically and synthesise the evidence;
· conduct sustained individual inquiry into different aspects of the course;
· construct a cogent, persuasive, and sophisticated 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 argument that displays significant sophisticatio

Transferable skills and personal qualities

  • construct an argument in written and oral form;
  • pose questions about complex issues;
  • assimilate and summarise large quantities of 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 bias

Employability skills

The course involves a large number of important employment skills, most notably an ability to analyse and examine complex information, an ability to synthesise an argument in a cogent form, the ability to collaborate with experts in different fields, the retrieve information from complex sources and present it in a compelling and cogent fashion.

Assessment methods

Assessment taskFormative or SummativeWeighting within unit (if summative)
commentaries Formative 




Assessment task


Feedback methods

Feedback method

Formative or Summative

Written feedback


Oral feedback



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 Na-ture, 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
Independent study hours
Independent study 167

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Peter Pormann Unit coordinator

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