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Byzantine medicine

Byzantine medicine encompasses the common medical practices of the Byzantine Empire from about 400 AD to 1453 AD. Byzantine medicine was notable for building upon the knowledge base developed by its Greco-Roman predecessors. In preserving medical practices from antiquity, Byzantine medicine influenced Islamic medicine as well as fostering the Western rebirth of medicine during the Renaissance.

Byzantine physicians often compiled and standardized medical knowledge into textbooks. Their records tended to include both diagnostic explanations and technical drawings. The Medical Compendium in Seven Books, written by the leading physician Paul of Aegina, survived as a particularly thorough source of medical knowledge. This compendium, written in the late seventh century, remained in use as a standard textbook for the following 800 years.

Late antiquity ushered in a revolution in medical science, and historical records often mention civilian hospitals (although battlefield medicine and wartime triage were recorded well before Imperial Rome). Constantinople stood out as a center of medicine during the Middle Ages, which was aided by its crossroads location, wealth, and accumulated knowledge.


Arguably, the first Byzantine physician was the author of the Vienna Dioscurides manuscript, created circa 515 AD for the daughter of Emperor Olybrius. Like most Byzantine physicians, this author drew his material from ancient authorities like Galen and Hippocrates, though Byzantine doctors expanded upon the knowledge preserved from Greek and Roman sources. Oribasius, arguably the most prolific Byzantine compiler of medical knowledge, frequently made note of standing medical assumptions that were proved incorrect. Several of his works, along with those of 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 doctor 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 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 wrong. It is known, for example, that the late twelfth-century Italian physician (Roger of Salerno) was influenced by the treatises of the Byzantine doctors Aëtius and Alexander of Tralles as well as Paul of Aegina.

The last great Byzantine physician was John Actuarius, who lived in the early 14th Century in Constantinople. His works on urine laid much of the foundation for later study in urology. However, from the latter 12th Century to the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453, there was very little further dissemination of 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 collection of ancient Greek and Roman knowledge, and its dissemination to both Renaissance Italy and the Islamic world.


A gallery of birds from the Vienna Dioscurides Byzantine manuscript.

Byzantium was the first empire in which dedicated medical establishments flourished. These were usually set up by individual churches or the state and parallel modern hospitals in many ways. Although similar establishments existed in Ancient Greece and Rome, they differed in that they were usually either institutions for military use, or hospices where 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 a.d. 4th century, and although these institutions thrived, 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 based around hospitals or walk-in dispensaries which formed part of a hospital complex. There was a hierarchy of roles, including the chief physician (archiatroi), professional nurses (hypourgoi) and orderlies (hyperetai).

Doctors themselves were well trained; some attended the University of Constantinople, as medicine had become a 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 bureaucracy) bears many hallmarks of today's modern hospitals, and many comparisons are made by modern scholars studying this field. Thus, we know that in the 12th 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 played a key role in the building and maintaining of hospitals. Many hospitals were built and maintained by bishops in their respective prefectures. Hospitals were usually built near or around churches, and great importance was laid on the idea of healing through salvation. When medicine failed, doctors would ask their patients to pray. This often involved icons of Cosmas and Damien, patron saints of medicine and doctors.

Christianity also played a key role in propagating the idea of charity. Medicine was made, according to Oregon State University historian, Gary Ferngren (professor of ancient Greek and Rome history with a speciality in ancient medicine) "accessible to all and... simple".

See also


  • John Scarborough, ed., Symposium on Byzantine Medicine, Dumbarton Oaks Papers 38 (1985) ISBN 0-88402-139-4 (not seen)
  • Owsei Temkin, "Byzantine Medicine: Tradition and Empiricism", Dumbarton Oaks Papers 16:97-115 (1962) at JSTOR

External links