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Logo of medhistThe Wellcome Trust Centre of the History of Medicine (UCL)Medical History
Med Hist. 2010 April; 54(2): 271–272.
PMCID: PMC2844291

Book Review

Asklepios, medicine, and the politics of healing in fifth-century Greece: between craft and cult
Reviewed by Laurence Totelin

Bronwen L Wickkiser.
Asklepios, medicine, and the politics of healing in fifth-century Greece: between craft and cult,  Baltimore,  Johns Hopkins University Press,  2008, pp.  xiii, 178, £29.00, $55.00 (hardback  978-0-8018-8978-3). 

The cult of the healing god Asklepios was immensely successful in antiquity. Wickkiser here examines the rapid development of his cult in the fifth century bc. At the centre of her reflection is a rejection of dichotomies such as rational versus irrational, church versus state, and public versus private, which have dominated scholarship since the publication of the monumental work of Emma and Ludwig Edelstein (Asclepius, Baltimore, 1945).

The first section (chapters 1 to 3) tackles the rational–irrational dichotomy. The cult of Asklepios has often been considered as “irrational” when compared to contemporary, “Hippocratic” medicine. Wickkiser maintains that “medical healing” (healing whose efficacy was explained without reference to divine intention) existed in Greece since at least the Bronze Age, but that in the fifth century it became more clearly defined as iatrike, a skill (techne) acquired through training. Central to the definition of iatrike was the recognition of its limits, by which doctors had to abide: there were ailments physicians could not treat. The rapid expansion of Asklepios’ cult seems to be directly related to the written recognition of the limits of iatrike. Asklepios’ healing methods were very similar to those of mortal physicians (drugs, diet and surgery), but the god specialized in the treatment of those “chronic” ailments judged untreatable by mortal physicians. Thus, the cult of Asklepios and medicine complemented each other in a spirit of collaboration rather than competition.

In the second section (chapters 4 to 6), Wickkiser disputes the idea whereby the cult of Asklepios was a private affair, functioning apart from politics. She centres her argument on the importation of Asklepios to Athens from Epidaurus (420 bc). She suggests that beyond the plague at Athens (430–426 bc), there were other important reasons for this importation—reasons related to the Athenian state and its imperialism. Asklepios at Athens found himself linked to two other gods: Eleusinian Demeter and Dionysus Eleuthereus, both topographically (the temple of Asklepios was situated next to that of Dionysus on the slope of the Acropolis) and by cult. Indeed, the festivals in honour of Asklepios (the Asclepeia and Epidauria) coincided with the City Dionysia and the Eleusinian Mysteries—two major Athenian festivals that celebrated Athens’ position at the centre of a vast empire. Moreover, Asklepios’ cult was imported in the context of the Peloponnesian War from Epidaurus, a place of significant strategic importance in the Peloponnese. By doing so Athens may have attempted to bring Epidaurus under its political control. There was clear civic interest in the cult.

I have enjoyed reading this work enormously, and would recommend it to anyone seeking a short introduction to Asklepios, or to anyone teaching a course on ancient medicine or ancient “religion”. The range of material examined by Wickkiser is most impressive; her style is concise and fluid; her argument convincing. I do, however, object to her use of the word “epilepsy” to designate the ancient “sacred disease”, and question her designation of the ailments treated by Asklepios as “chronic” (the adjective chronikos, used to qualify diseases, appears quite late in ancient medical literature). I also wonder whether patients consulted Asklepios after a long period of time (p. 59) not only because they had sought the help of other healers, but also because they felt shame in their condition (the authors of the Hippocratic gynaecological treatises deplore the feelings of shame of their female patients). Nevertheless, these minor criticisms only distract me from my conclusion: do read this book!

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