«Το μέλλον των Μουσείων. Αναστοχασμός και Επανεκκίνηση»

Θεραπεύων φιλοτίμως – Treating with love of honours

Public doctors in ancient Greece

Ancient Greek city-states often hired public doctors to treat citizens and soldiers during times of war, pirate raids, epidemics or natural disasters. This is an instance showing the attention paid by the ancient city-states to public health, and in fact, in many cases, the hiring of doctors was an important step for war preparations. According to inscriptions, public doctors offered significant services and, in many cases in difficult circumstances, without payment. For this reason they were treated as benefactors and honoured with privileges.

Public doctors were hired with a contract for a limited or a longer period of time and could be citizens of other cities. One of the first known public physicians, who moved from city to city practicing medicine, was Dimokidis of Croton. According to Herodotus (3. 129-137), he worked in Aegina and then in Athens. From Plato (Gorgias 456b-c, 514d) and Xenophon (Memorabilia 4.2.5) we know that in Athens their choice was usually made by the Athenian assebly, in which each candidate presented his abilities, his teachers in medicine and the patients he had treated. In other cases, the city invited an experienced and renowned doctor for his healing abilities in another area, or appointed as public doctor, someone who had already practiced medicine in the city.

One traveling physician who practiced medicine in Athens was Aristokratis son of Pnytagoras of Cyprus. On the stele EM 2029 erected on his tomb in Athens, Aristokratis is praised as the best doctor for human diseases.

Aristokratis, son of Pnytagoras has been identified with the homonymous physician, mentioned many centuries later by the great Roman doctor Galen in his treatise “On the composition of drugs (medical compounds) according to places (De compositione medicamentorum secundum locus)”.

Funeral monument of Aristokratis (ΕΜ 2029)

The stele EM 7279 of the Epigraphic Museum records the honorary decree (decision by vote) of the Athenian People in 304/3 BC, bestowing honors (praise and an olive wreath) on the doctor Pheidias of Rhodes for treating Athenians in need (τους δεομένους Αθηναίων θεραπεύων φιλοτίμως), and for offering his services free of charge (δημοσιεύειν δωρεάν), most likely during war or some period of strife in the city. The inscription emphasizes the social character of the services provided by the Rhodian physician to the Athenian People; Pheidias was a foreigner who forfeited remuneration, to the benefit of the Athenian demos as if he were an Athenian himself.

Honorary decree for the Rodian doctor Pheidias (ΕΜ 7279)

Ancient text

Ἐπὶ Φερεκλέους ἄρχοντος ἐπ-
ὶ τῆς Οἰνεῖδος ἑβδόμης πρυτ-
ανείας, ἧι Ἐπιχαρῖνος Δημοχ-
άρους Γαργήττιος ἐγραμμάτ-
ευεν· Γαμηλιῶνος δευτέραι μ-
ετ᾽ εἰκάδας, ἐνάτει καὶ εἰκοσ-
τεῖ τῆς πρυτανείας· ἐκκλησί-
α· τῶν προέδρων ἐπεψήφιζεν Φ-
υλαξίας Φανίου Ἀναγυράσιο-
ς καὶ συμπρόεδροι· ἔδοξεν τῶ-
ι δήμωι· Εὐβουλίδης Εὐβούλο-
υ Ἐλευσίνιος εἶπεν· ἐπει[δ]ὴ [Φ]
ειδίας ὁ ἰατρὸς διατελεῖ πρ-
άττων τὰ συμφέροντα τῶι δήμ-
ωι τῶι Ἀθηναίων καὶ τοὺς δεο-
μένους Ἀθηναίων θεραπεύων
[φ]ιλοτίμως καὶ νῦν ἐπιδέδω[κ]-
[ε]ν ἑαυτὸν δημοσιεύειν δωρε-
[ὰ]ν ἐνδεικνύμενος τὴν εὔνοι-
αν ἣν ἔχει πρὸς τὴν πόλιν, ἀγα-
θῆι τύχει δεδόχθαι τῶι δήμω-
ι ἐπαινέσαι Φειδίαν Ἀπολλ[ω]-
νίου ῾Ρόδιον εὐνοίας ἕνεκα [κ]-
αὶ ἐπιμελέας ἣν ἔχων διατελε-
ῖ πρὸς τὸν δῆμον τὸν Ἀθηναίω-
ν καὶ στεφανῶσαι αὐτὸν θαλλ-
οῦ στεφάνωι. ἀναγράψαι δὲ τό-
δε τὸ ψήφισμα τὸν γραμματέ[α]
τὸν κατὰ πρυτανείαν ἐν στή[λ]-
ει λιθίνει καὶ στῆσαι ἐν τῶ[ι]

English translation

In the archonship of Pherekles, in the seventh prytany, held by the tribe Oineis, to which Epicharinos son of Demochares of the deme of Gargettos was secretary; on the twenty-second day of Gamelion, the twenty-ninth day of the prytany; assembly; of the presiding committee Phylaxias son of Phanios of the deme of Anagyrous was putting to the vote and fellow members of the presiding committee; Resolved by the People; Euboulides son of Euboulos of the deme of Eleusis proposed; since the doctor Pheidias always acted in the interests of the people of Athens and treated with love of honours any Athenian in need and now has offered himself to be a public doctor without compensation, demonstrating the good will which he ha s towards the city, for the good fortune be it resolved by the People to praise Pheidias, son of Apollonios of Rhodes o f his good will and professional care that he continually shows to the Athenian People and to crown him with an olive wreath. The prytany secretary shall inscribe this decree on a stone stele and set it up in the sanctuary of Asclepius.

The stele was found on the southern slope of the Acropolis, between the theater of Dionysus and the odeon of Herodes Atticus, that is, near the sanctuary of Asclepius.

The myth of Asclepius

Asclepius, the love child of the god Apollo and the mortal Koronis, was raised on Mount Pelion, where he was taught the secrets of healing by the Centaur Chiron. Some cities of Thessaly and Messenia, but also Epidaurus, are mentioned as places of his birth. Variations of the myth cited that he was saved by Apollo who took him out of his mother’s womb, while she was laid on her funeral pyre. Other variations mention that he was born in Epidaurus, abandoned on Mount Titthion, where he was raised by a goat sent by Apollo. It is said that he had the ability to resurrect the dead and this is the reason why he was struck by lightning by Zeus, so as not to upset the balance of the world.

This variant of the myth possibly explains the dual nature of Asclepius, who was honoured as a hero, but from the late classical times and especially during the Hellenistic and Roman eras he was worshiped as a god-doctor. His worship was chthonic in nature and the healing of the patients was achieved by purifications, ascension and miraculous intervention of the god during the patient’s sleep, use of mild healing methods as well as surgeries. The ritual for the preparation of the patient was determined, while numerous inscriptions and votive offerings testify to the god’s miracles and the healing of patients.

Relief depicting the lower part of female thighs (ΕΜ 8414)

Great sanctuaries of the antiquity document the spread and importance of the cult of Asclepius. They were often found in places associated with his birth or areas with pre-existing worship of deities with healing properties. The oldest Asclepieion is said to have been that of Trikki in Thessaly, however, important sanctuaries of the god were located in Epidaurus, Athens, Pergamon and Kos. Some Asclepieia, in addition to places of worship, included theatrical and / or athletic installations, in which competitions with Panhellenic participation took place. Baths (Thermai) and fountains, as well as living areas for the faithful, but also groves around the sanctuaries offered a general euphoria and healing of the body and the spirit.


The sanctuary of Asclepius in Athens

On the southern slope of the Acropolis, northwest of the theater and the sanctuary of Dionysus, is a sanctuary dedicated to Asclepius, the healing god and his daughter Hygeia. The sanctuary was founded in 420/19 BC by the Athenian citizen Telemachos who dedicated an altar to Asclepius, his sons and daughters. Asclepius’cult arrived in Athens from the great sanctuary of Epidaurus through a smaller Asclepieion located in Zea of Piraeus. This information comes from the founding stele of the sanctuary, the so called “Telemachos Relief”, according to which the god Asclepius “ascended” to Athens the week in which the great mysteries were celebrated, namely the Eleusinian Mysteries.

The sanctuary of Asclepius on the southern slope of the Acropolis © Ephorate of Antiquities of the City of Athens

The sanctuary occupies two terraces. To the east was built the enkoimitirion or abaton. It is a two-storey Doric portico, partly carved into the rock, which included the sacred spring from which water gushed. Here the patients were subjected to the purification of body and soul and spent the night, believing that the god would visit them in their dreams and miraculously cure them or indicate them a healing advice. On the same terrace was the sacred “bothros” (deposit), the propylon of the sanctuary and the temple, while in Roman times a portico was built. In the western terrace was the Ionian portico, the archaic fountain and two small temples dedicated, according to the traveller Pausanias, to Themis and Isis – Aphrodite.

Numerous offerings, mainly anatomical
votive offerings, inscribed stelae, pedestals
and altars were discovered during
the excavations and are exhibited
nowadays in the archaeological site
of Acropolis and the Acropolis Museum,
the National Archaeological Museum
and the Epigraphic Museum.

Small stele with the relief of a foot (ΕΜ 8415)

Anatomical dedications to Asclepius

From antiquity to the present day, images of human limbs or organs (relief or sculpted) are dedicated to the gods (or saints) as a prayer for the healing of the depicted members, or as thanks for their cure. In modern times a similar practice is the gold and silver plates (tamata), which are placed in front of the icons of saints in Christian churches.

Relief depicting a left foot (ΕΜ 8413)

Relief depicting the back side of a man (ΕΜ 8260)

Relief with depicting a female breast (ΕΜ 8418)

Relief depicting a pubic triangle (ΕΜ 7261)

The Epigraphic Museum houses a number of inscribed “anatomical” stone votive reliefs in Asclepius and Hygieia that represent various parts of the body, such as legs, arms, breasts, ears and eyes. The appearance of the word εὐχήν (vow) or εὐχόμενος/εὐξάμενος (vowing) in inscriptions indicates that the votive offering was made to fulfill a vow. With the act of dedication, the healed limbs came under the protection of the god, who also protected them from future illness.

Relief depicting a left arm (ΕΜ 2527)

Relief depicting a lower foot and an oversized ear (ΕΜ 3224). From the island of Melos

The relief ears were widespread votive offerings to Asclepius and symbolized the ears of the god who hears the prayers for healing, and not the diseased organs of the dedicator. Many such votive offerings have been found in the sanctuaries of Asclepius in Greece, mainly in Epidaurus and Athens.

Texts: Ioanna Venieri, Eleni Zavvou, Stamatoula Makrypodi,Eirene-Loukia Choremi


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