Byzantine medicine

Byzantine medicine is the medicine practiced in the Byzantine Empire from about 400 AD to 1453 AD. It drew largely on Ancient Greek and Roman knowledge. However, Medicine was also one of the few sciences in which the Byzantines improved on their Greco-Roman predecessors. As a result, Byzantine Medicine had a significant influence on Islamic medicine and the Western rebirth of Medicine during the Renaissance.

Byzantine physicians often compiled and standardized medical knowledge into textbooks. These books tended to be elaborately decorated with many fine illustrations, highlighting the particular ailment. The Medical Compendium in Seven Books, written by the leading physician Paul of Aegina, is of particular importance. The compendium was written in the late seventh century and remained in use as a standard textbook for 800 years.

Late antiquity witnessed a revolution in the medical scene and many sources mention hospitals in passing (although their own history in the Military sense can be drawn back to Imperial Rome and beyond). Constantinople doubtless was the center of such activities in the Middle Ages, owing to its geographical position, wealth and accumulated knowledge.


Arguably the first Byzantine Physician was the author of the Vienna Dioscurides manuscript, created for the daughter of Emperor Olybrius around 515. Like most Byzantine physicians, he drew his material from ancient authorities such as Galen and Hippocrates, though this is not to say that Byzantine Physicians did not make corrections to the 'fathers of Medicine' or make original contributions. Oribasius, perhaps the greatest Byzantine compiler of medical knowledge, frequently made revisions noting where older methods had been incorrect. Several of his works, along with many other Byzantine physicians, were translated into Latin, and eventually, during the Enlightenment and Age of Reason, into English and French.

Another Byzantine treatise, that of the thirteenth century Nicholas Myrepsos, remained the principal pharmaceutical code of the Parisian medical faculty until 1651, while the Byzantine tract of Demetrios Pepagomenos (thirteenth century) on gout was translated and published in Latin by the great post-Byzantine humanist, Marcus Musurus, in Venice in 1517. Therefore it could be argued that previous misrepresentations about Byzantium being simply a 'carrier' of Ancient Medical knowledge to the Renaissance are completely factually wrong. It is already known for example that a late twelfth century Latin physician at Salerno (Roger of Salerno), was influenced by the treatises of the Byzantine doctors Aetius and Alexander of Tralles as well as Paul of Aegina.

The last great Byzantine Physician was Actuarius, who lived in the early 14th Century in Constantinople. His works on Urine laid much of the foundation for later study in that field. However, from the latter 12th Century to the end in 1453, there is very little outpouring in medical knowledge, largely due to the turmoil the Empire was facing on both fronts, following its resurrection after the Latin Empire and the dwindling population of Constantinople due to plague and war. Nevertheless, Byzantine medicine is extremely important both in terms of new discoveries made in that period (at a time when Western Europe was in turmoil), the careful protecting of Ancient Greek and Roman knowledge through compendiums as well as the revision of it and finally, the effect it had in transferring knowledge to both Renaissance Italy and Arabia.


An important contribution of Byzantium is arguably the fact that it was the first Empire in which dedicated medical establishments - usually set up by individual Churches or the State, which parallel modern Hospitals in many way, flourished. Although similar establishments existed in Ancient Greece and Rome, they differed in that they were usually either institutions for Military use, or places were citizens went to die in a more peaceful way. Medical Institutions of this sort were common in Imperial Cities such as Constantinople and later Thessaloniki.

The first hospital was built by Basil of Caesarea in the late fourth century, and although these Institutions flourished, it was only throughout the 8th and 9th Centuries that they began to appear in Provincial Towns as well as Cities, (although Justinian's subsidization of private physicians to work publicly for six months of the year can be seen as the real breakthrough point). Byzantine Medicine was entirely based around Hospitals or walk-in dispensaries which formed part of the Hospital complex, there was a dedicated hierarchy including the Chief Physician (archiatroi), professional nurses (hypourgoi) and the orderlies (hyperetai).

Doctors themselves were well trained and most likely attended the University of Constantinople as Medicine had become a truly scholarly subject by the period of Byzantium (despite the prominence of the great physicians of antiquity, its status as a Science was greatly improved through its application in formal education (particularly in the University of Constantinople). This rigidity through professionalism (similar to the professionalism exhibited in the Byzantine Civil Service) bears many hallmarks of today's modern Hospitals, and comparisons are nearly always made by modern Scholars studying this particular field. Thus, we know that in the twelfth century, Constantinople had two well organized hospitals staffed by medical specialists (including women doctors), with special wards for various types of diseases and systematic methods of treatment.


Christianity always played a key role in the building and maintaining of Hospitals, as it did with most other areas of the Empire. Many Hospitals were built and maintained by Bishops in their respective prefectures. Hospitals were nearly always built near or around Churches and great importance was laid on the idea of healing through salvation - When medicine failed doctors would always ask their patients to pray, after the Iconoclastic problems had been resolved, this usually involved symbols of saints such as Saints Cosmas and Damien, who were killed by Diocletian in 303, and were the patron saints of medicine and doctors.

Christianity also played a key role in propagating the idea of charity, medicine was made, according to Gary Ferngren, accessible to all and... simple. This idea, combined with the vast resources Byzantine physicians had at their disposal was one of the first times in History that a state has actively sought to expend resources on a public healthcare system.


* John Scarborough, ed., "Symposium on Byzantine Medicine", "Dumbarton Oaks Papers" 38 (1985) ISBN 0-884-02139-4 (not seen)
* Owsei Temkin, "Byzantine Medicine: Tradition and Empiricism", "Dumbarton Oaks Papers" 16:97-115 (1962) [ at JSTOR]

See also

* Paul of Aegina
* Medical Compendium in Seven Books
* Islamic medicine
* Vienna Dioscurides
* Medieval medicine
* History of medicine

External links

* [ Vienna Dioscuride]
* [ Deno Geanakoplos]
* [ Paul of Aegina: Epitome - On The Fracture of the Thigh and Nose]

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