Food and diet in ancient Greek medicine – The beginnings (550-350 B.C.E.)
This series of texts is written to illustrate the high-quality service of ancient greek cuisine that Archaeopolis offers. It describes the ancient physicians’ attempts to develop a holistic approach to nutrition, creating a technical concept of regimen which referred not only to victuals but more widely to the ways of life or habitual behaviour either of an individual or a specific population, including their dwellings and environmental conditions. It was not confined strictly to diet as it happens in the modern world, but went beyond including alcoholic beverages, medicinal plants and herbs, toxic substances, as well as gymnastics and sports.
Quite fortunately a significant part concerning the class of medical texts that includes treatises and dissertations in respect with ancient Greek physicians’ directions regarding both food and the means of preserving health is still surviving, either in full or in fragmentary form. Although some directions are considered erroneous by modern standards and others are inapplicable to a large part of the modern world due to the differences of climate and habits, but, if allowance should be made for these points, most of the rest of their observations are probably beyond doubt judicious and very useful, despite the fact that they concern mainly the populations of the Mediterranean.
The main texts on dietetics and hygiene rank probably among their best works, as they explain in depth their views on regimen and health, following a rich tradition of almost eight centuries (beginning with Alcmaeon and ending with Galen), which relied on meticulous research of edibles and drinks, herbs and even toxic substances. Almost all known ancient medical authors were occupied with problems of nutrition and health, treating the subject in accordance with the habits of the Greek and later of the Graeco-Roman world. However this class of medical texts did not restrict dietetics on food, as it corresponds to modern standards, but went beyond an alimentary diet, including alcoholic beverages, medicinal plants and herbs, toxic substances, as well as gymnastics, balneotherapy, massage, hot and cold baths.
In general terms these writings reflect the Greek technical concept of regimen which referred not only to victuals but more widely to the ways of life or habitual behaviour either of an individual or a specific population, including their dwellings and environmental conditions, since it was not confined strictly to nourishment as it happens in the modern world.
The basic trends in dietetics and nutrition during the latter half of 6th century B.C.E. seem to have been heavily influenced by Alcmaeon (Ἀλκμαίων) of Croton, an early medical writer and philosopher-scientist. The surviving fragments of his works and the relative testimonia focus primarily on issues of physiology, psychology and epistemology and reveal that Alcmaeon was a thinker and researcher of remarkable perception and originality1.
Though the matter of whether he was primarily physician and medical writer or a typical Presocratic cosmologist focused on physiology is still hotly debated, the facts are that he was the first to identify the brain as the organ of the mind and the seat of understanding, as well as to distinguish understanding from perception, through observation and experimentation2. He is also credited as being among the first to elaborate a holistic theory for the humors of the body, as he explained that health was a state of equilibrium between different and opposing humours. According to his findings, illness was a state which prevailed because of problems in the environment, nutrition and modes of life, though he also dwelled on the internal causes of diseases.
Regarding diet and health he wrote that the equality (ἰσονομία) of the powers (wet, dry, cold, hot, bitter, sweet, etc.) maintains health but the rise of monarchy (μοναρχία) among them produces disease. He believed that the maintenance of health depends upon equilibrium of the faculties, moist and dry, cold and hot, bitter and sweet and so on, and that the predominance any of them generates causes of disease, since the predominance of any single one of them is disastrous.
He concluded that disease occurs in many instances owing to excess or deficiency of food and drink, in some from excess of heat or cold, connecting nutrition with other extraneous causes such as qualities of water, soil or district or some unavoidable cause or things akin thereto3. As a result health depends upon an evenly proportioned combination of qualities and he was the first to suggest that diet was strongly related with environmental factors and modes of life.
Acron, from Agrigentum in Sicily, became famous and much admired, especially after he established himself as a sophist at Athens(4). He wrote two treatises in the Doric idiom, one about the general principles of medicine (ΠΕΡΙ ΙΑΤΡΙΚΗΣ) and a second concerning nutrition and diet (ΠΕΡΙ ΤΡΟΦΗΣ ΥΓΙΕΙΝΩΝ)5. Influenced in all respects by the concepts of Alcmaeon, as he was probably one of his followers, he recognized that exaggerations as well as squanders in consumption of food or wines constituted one of the causes which allowed various illnesses to prevail. Thus when more nourishment was taken than the human body could sustain, diseases were caused.
1.The brief biographical sketch by Diogenes Laertius (III century C.E.) insists that Alcmaeon wrote mostly on medical matters: Diogenes Laertius, LIVES OF EMINENT PHILOSOPHERS, VIII. 83, Vol. II, Loeb.
2.Alcmaeon was an early pioneer and advocate of anatomical dissection and recognised as the first to identify the eustachian tubes, the optical nerve, in his research to explain each of the individual senses with the exception of touch. Though the surviving accounts are fairly rudimentary, his inquiry on sense perception led him to distinguish perception from understanding and probably to the conclusion that the brain was the governing faculty of the human body. Thus Alcmaeon contributed the idea that physicians should draw conclusions from empirical observations and experiments, an idea that implicitly rejected the alternative notion that science should depend on «divine revelation»: G. G. Celesia, ALCMAEON OF CROTON’S OBSERVATIONS ON HEALTH, BRAIN, MIND AND SOUL, Journal of the History of the Neurosciences, Vol. 21(4), 2012, pp. 409-426.
3.Hermann Diels, Walther Kranz, DIE FRAGMENTE DER VORSOKRATIKER, Alkmaion, Fr. 4, Erster Band, Weidmannsche Buchhandlung, Berlin, 1906, p. 104.
4.SUIDAE LEXICON, Ada Adler, Lipsiae, 1928-1938 & B. G. Teubner, 1971, Band I, s.v. Ἄκρων.
5.Antonius Westermann, ΒΙΟΓΡΑΦΟΙ, VITARUM SCRIPTORES GRAECI MINORES, Georgius Westermann, Brunsvigae, 1845, p. 455.
George Katsos is the author and managing director of Archaeopolis – ancient Greek events and services.