WTF is Wellness? Part 2: The Greco-Romans

WTF is Wellness? Part 2: The Greco-Romans

Next up in our history of wellness is a man you’ve probably heard of: Hippocrates. 

Born around 460 BC and widely known as the Father of Modern Medicine, his ideas dramatically changed the way that Greece, then Rome, then Europe as a whole, viewed wellness.

Prior to Hippocrates, the general understanding of illness was that it was divine. Essentially, if you were ill, this was some kind of punishment from the God(s).

Shamanistic style healing was commonplace, as was trepanning which was about as useful as a hole in the head.

In fact, it was exactly as useful as a hole in the head – as that’s what they did, ostensibly to release the evil spirits supposedly contained inside of people.

Hippocrates' key idea was that illness was not borne solely from God, for if the illnesses were to stem from the divine then they would be totally unaffected by any earthly treatments. As such, disease and illness must either come from an issue with the person themselves or the lifestyle/ environment they immerse themselves in.

“If you are not your own doctor, you are a fool.” - Hippocrates

His ideas essentially highlighted a correlation between the universe and the individual. That is to say, the materials that make up the universe also make up humans.

In extension of this connection, illness occurred as a result of real-world imbalances, as opposed to some kind of magical punishment. Hippocrates posited that humans contained four internal humours (liquids): phlegm, blood, yellow bile (vomit) and black bile (diarrhoea). Each of these humours had an accompanying element attached: earth, fire, water and air.

A proper balance of these four humours led to eukrasia (wellness) and an imbalance led to dyskrasia (illness). Much like the Indian and Chinese who predated him, Hippocrates didn’t believe that disease was singular in the way we do today, i.e. being diagnosed with pneumonia. Rather, disease was a “holistic phenomenon of bodily equilibrium.” (Frank Snowden, Yale).

“Before you heal someone, ask him if he's willing to give up the things that make him sick.” - Hippocrates

Hippocrates was still a pious man, he just didn’t believe that illness was a punishment by the Gods. He was a devout follower of Asclepius, the Greek god of healing; so much so that he invented the notion of temple medicine whereby individuals would visit temples devoted to Asclepius in order to practise ideas of wellness.

These shrines were the earliest examples of hospitals and spas, where individuals who were feeling unwell would attend, to receive advice from medical practitioners in order to improve the way they felt.

Suggested remedies for dyskrasia included much of the gamut of modern wellness: diet alteration; increased exercise; more sleep; and more time spent in nature.

Hippocrates also introduced the idea of case history for those he treated. He was fastidious in his records, noting down anecdotes from the patient, like family history as well as the environment they lived in.

Understanding that these factors was crucial to the process of understanding illness. He would also take patient's pulses, listen to their body and examine their urine. It was a truly holistic approach to improving an individual’s wellness.

 “It’s more important to know what sort of person has a disease than to know what sort of disease a person has.” - Hippocrates

Individual is the operative word in Hippocrates’ understanding of what caused illness. By keeping records of the patient’s experience, subsequent practitioners could build on the knowledge of those that came before them, and could continue to improve the process of treating individuals.

Physicians who followed Hippocratic ideas didn’t involve themselves in addressing a person’s physicality beyond setting bones, lancing abscesses and letting blood – the internal body was somewhat off limits beyond inspection. To quote him directly, “the greatest medicine of all is teaching people how not to need it.”

There’s so much more that could be said regarding Hippocrates, but it’s 2023 and in the interest of brevity we’ll up the pace to explain the following… 1500 years.

“If we could give every individual the right amount of nourishment and exercise, not too little and not too much, we would have found the safest way to health.” - Hippocrates

Enter: a man named Galen.

Born in Greece but a significant figure in the Roman Empire, Galen has a monumental role in the dissemination of Hippocratic ideas outside of Greece. Born around 129 AD, he was an ardent follower of Hippocrates, believing that his insights into medicine and wellness were near perfect and needn’t be expounded upon… by anyone other than him.

Long story short, Galen noted in one of his many books that the human body was so perfectly put together that it must be proof of the existence of God.

When the Roman Empire fell around 470 AD, the Christian Church filled the power vacuum. They found Galen’s texts and, enamoured by his notion of God’s perfection poured into human form, they adopted Galen’s, and by proxy Hippocrates’, notions of wellness into their burgeoning culture.

As a result, the Hippocratic ideas of humourism, exercise, diet and everything in between were adopted as the foundations of healthcare throughout the Christian empire, leading to the general acceptance of his ideas until around 1600 AD.


Whew, what a history lesson for you. We’d really encourage you to do some of your own research into Hippocrates, Galen and the Christian Church’s veneration with their ideas, as there’s a veritable treasure trove of interesting tidbits to unearth for yourself.

Next time we’ll jump into what might as well be the modern day: the late 1800s.

Hope you’ll join us for the journey.


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