By Christopher Hoolihan
CADUCEUS: A Humanities Journal for Medicine and the Health Sciences, Vol.9:1 (1993)
Introduction: From the fifth century B.C. to the twilight of classical civilization a thousand years later, a long succession of medical systems came and went. Their theoretical bases and their frequent contentions need not concern us here. What was common to them all, however, was a reliance on nature’s generous provision of substances that were thought either to maintain health or to restore health once lost.
Common to them all was a universal regard for the medical uses of wine. Even before the Hippocratic era, wine had become an inseparable part of what we now term Graeco-Roman medicine. In the medical literature of Greece and Rome, no natural substance played a greater part in regimen ans in therapeutics than the fermented juice of grapes. What was the therapeutics of the ancients?
In Graeco-Roman medicine it consisted of surgery, pharmacology, and “regimen.” The surgical repertoire was limited. Abdominal surgery, for instance, was unheard of; but surgical procedure was extensive (and effective), running the gamut from amputation on the battlefield or in the arena, to the finer touches of cataract depression.
Pharmacopeias of the classical medical tradition boasted a wide variety of weapons, though they mostly fired blanks. Lacking methods to determine the phamiacodynamics of their many remedies, no one really knew just how effective, or ineffective, their materia medica actually was; and so, in the spirit of the age, they relied on the testimony of a long and authoritative tradition.
Without detracting from the surgical accomplishments of the Greeks and Romans, or from their occasional pharmacologic successes, the most effective part of classical therapeutics was its devotion to Regimen. Regimen was that part of medicine given to consideration of how one ought io conduct one’s life, either to maintain health or to restore health lost to illness. Regimen gave detailed attention to such aspects of daily living as diet, exercise, sleep, and bathing. It was continually adjusted to take into account the variations that place, climate, and the seasons make on the human constitution.