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In ancient medicine of Greece and Rome, aging was viewed as a disease. As a disease, it was thought that it could be “cured” or perhaps even prevented.

The most prolific of ancient writers on the topic is Aelius Galenus (129 AD – c. 200/c. 216), usually Anglicized as Galen and better known as Galen of Pergamon. He was a Greek physician, surgeon and philosopher in the Roman Empire.

Galen influenced the development of various scientific disciplines, including anatomy, physiology, pathology, pharmacology, and neurology, as well as philosophy and logic.

Galen did not see aging as a disease. In his treatise Hygiene, we find the only surviving classical study of gerontology which Galen viewed as a natural process.

During the three centuries from Homer to Hippocrates, views of human aging and longevity evolved in a socio-cultural sense. The physicians of that time began to believe that the aging process could be influenced by natural factors, such as environmental influences and lifestyle.

It was radical to think that an individual has any choice in health and aging  when beliefs in the primacy of the supernatural, and that the gods could predestine one’s life. Could you defy the gods by changing your diet?

I don’t expect readers to dig into Galen’s Hygiene , but I found a number of articles about it online and about his views of aging. Some of those views still make sense today.

Galen’s understanding of medicine was influenced by the then-current theory of humorism. The Four Humors were black bile, yellow bile, blood, and phlegm. That theory goes back to ancient Greek physicians such as Hippocrates.

A more modern term we might attach to Galen’s approach would be to say he thought of ageing holistically. His writing shows that he thought this lifelong process had a number of stages. Three of those stages were crucial to health and a longer life: the first seven years of life, maturity and old age proper.

He also believed that rather than a generalized approach, a person’s aging path is highly individual. There are many possible health outcomes at each stage.

He believed that those first seven years were the basis for a robust old age.

I dipped into a library copy of the biography The Prince of Medicine and learned that Galen’s theories dominated and influenced Western medical science for more than 1,300 years.

When he wrote Hygiene, he was at the peak of his career, as physician to the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius.

He was not totally “modern” in his views. He did adhere to the concept of humours which was based on bodily fluids. He believed in the curative properties of “divinely-inspired” dreams. He developed treatments based on herbs and spices, which he tested on fellow physicians. Some of those would be viewed today as questionable, while some are probably still used.

In his time, there was a religious taboo on the dissection of corpses. Galen studied anatomy through skeletons exposed in flooded cemeteries, and while treating the wounds of gladiators. He was known for some rather gruesome anatomical demonstrations on animals, such as public vivisections of live Barbary macaques (monkeys) to demonstrate the function of nerves.

Galen is thought to have lived to age 80 – a long life in that time. What would be Galen’s “anti-aging” regime?

He advocated walking and moderate running.

He saw health benefits of a simple diet involving gruel (oat, wheat or rye flour, or rice, boiled in water or milk), raw honey, vegetables and fowl.

He suggests as suitable for the elderly, “yellow wines… always choose the thinnest in consistency.”

He was not a proponent of the strong purges and bloodletting of that time, but encouraged gentle massage for kidney and bladder problems.

He would have appreciated the modern approach to preventative

Hygiene became part of the Western medical curriculum by 500 AD. His output was prodigious. He may have produced more work than any author in antiquity, rivaling Augustine of Hippo. In fact, his surviving texts represent nearly half of all the extant literature from ancient Greece.

It was said that Galen employed twenty scribes to write down his approximately 500 treatises, amounting to some 10 million words. About 3 million words survive today.


Archimedes palimpsest

How do you read a two-thousand-year-old manuscript that has been erased, cut up, written on and painted over?

The manuscript in question is of great importance to the history of science. It is the Archimedes Palimpsest. This thirteenth century prayer book contains erased texts from earlier centuries including two treatises by Archimedes that can be found nowhere else. Those two are The Method and Stomachion.

Archimedes was a Greek mathematician, physicist, engineer, inventor, and astronomer.Among his advances in physics are the foundations of hydrostatics, statics and an explanation of the principle of the lever. He is credited with designing innovative machines, including siege engines and the screw pump that bears his name. Modern experiments have tested claims that Archimedes designed machines capable of lifting attacking ships out of the water and setting ships on fire using an array of mirrors. Archimedes is generally considered to be the greatest mathematician of antiquity and one of the greatest of all time. He used the method of exhaustion to calculate the area under the arc of a parabola with the summation of an infinite series, and gave a remarkably accurate approximation of pi.He also defined the spiral bearing his name, formulae for the volumes of surfaces of revolution and an ingenious system for expressing very large numbers.


Archimedes Thoughtful by Fetti (1620)

What is a palimpsest? In this case, a 10th-century scribe in Constantinople (present day Istanbul) copied the Archimedes treatise in the original Greek onto parchment. In the 13th century, a monk erased the Archimedes text, cut the pages along the center fold, rotated the leaves 90 degrees and folded them in half. The parchment was then recycled, together with the parchment of other books, to create a Greek Orthodox prayer book. This process of erasing and reusing parchment is called palimpsesting.

This prayer book is the kind of artifact that we expect to find in museums so that the public can see and learn from them.  Unfortunately (though it will turn out to be fortunate), the manuscript sold at auction to a private collector in 1998. Thankfully, the new owner deposited the manuscript at The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland  where it has gone through conservation, imaging and scholarship.

The Archimedes Palimpsest project has revealed in revealing the erased text information about Archimedes and the ancient world. These new texts include speeches by an Athenian orator from the fourth century B.C. called Hyperides, and a third century A.D. commentary on Aristotle’s Categories.

The story of how the conservators did this is an interesting technology detective story itself (see video below) and involves using a particle accelerator.

But who amongst us will read a Byzantine prayer book with writings from ancient Greek mathematician Archimedes?  Without question, it is very few of us. But, should we have access to that information and should it be preserved both in its delicate paper form and in digital versions? Yes.

William Noel has spearheaded the conservation of the Archimedes Palimpsest  and helped to reveal in its parchments the hidden writings from the three original previously-unknown texts. They have also put all their images and findings on the Internet, available to anyone for free under a Creative Commons license.

Though most of will not read the codex, some of us will read about the Archimedes Codex  It pleases me in this mixing of ancient and cutting edge technology that people will be reading about the codex on a Kindle and, as the book’s subtitle says, learn how a medieval prayer book reveals the genius of antiquity’s greatest scientist.

William Noel is the Curator of Manuscripts and Rare Books at the Walters Art Museum and luckily he is also into technology, social media and openness and stresses its value even for the oldest, most established academic and cultural institutions. Noel believes passionately that institutions should free their digital data.

Read more about William Noel in the TED Blog Q&A >>

View Noel’s TED Talk

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