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Did germophobia exist in classical antiquity?

Did germophobia exist in classical antiquity?

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I know nothing of the cleaning habits of the Greeks, but about Rome Mary Beard (2015) says that doctors knew that going to the public baths with an open wound would likely result in gangrene, so it was known they could be breeding grounds for diseases if people were not careful. Nevertheless there existed public baths, so at least some people had the habit of cleaning themselves, even if these baths were also used to make business.

Now, the Wikipedia article about mysophobia, which is the more technical name of germophobia, states that the term was coined in 1879 to describe people that repeatedly washed their hands, in a case of obsessive-compulsive disorder. This was 200 years after bacteria were first observed, in the second half of the 17th century, and way after the Classical Era. But considering that at least in Roman times some people had the habit of taking baths, is it possible that something resembling this kind of disorder could exist in those times, even if not for reasons of bacteria?

(My original objective was to ask this question about every civilization before 1500, but this would of course be too broad to be answered by a single person, and way too broad for this website. So I will restrain the scope of my question to Classical Antiquity, a term that, as I understand it, is used to refer to Greek and Roman civilizations. Also, even though the terms used to describe this condition are modern, the point here is to ask if something that could be described as germophobia existed in this time frame.)

What is germaphobia? It's an obsession, it

"is a pathological fear of contamination and germs. "

If we look for something similar in antiquity we just need to turn that onto its feet: this is about purity or impurity.
Purity rules!
As well for Greeks as for Romans also.

The classical contribution to concepts of contagion and infection thus related less to the individual than to the environment. The term 'infection' has a root meaning 'to put or dip into something', leading to inficere and infectio, staining or dyeing. This is a further reminder that 'an infection is basically a pollution'. The same is true not only of 'contagion', but also of the noun 'miasma', which derives from the Greek verb miaino, a counterpart to the Latin inficere. Impurity is therefore a basic element in all three concepts. These derivations hark back to empirical observation but also evoke the broad spectrum of religious and moral ideas clustering around notions of pollution and taboo. Pollution is concerned not only with time and place, propriety and order, the material and the immaterial, but with the individual's sense of separateness from his or her environment and how this separateness is to be maintained or regulated.
- Alison Bashford & Claire Hooker: "Contagion. Historical and cultural studies", Routledge: London, New York, 2001, p 20.]

Certain people over-doing it are not that sparse in the literature:

The Superstitious Man
There is a famous character of Greek literature, satirized by the poet Theophrastus, called 'the superstitious man':

The danger of pollution is never far from his thoughts. First thing in the morning he washes his hands (perhaps from three springs), and sprinkles his body with lustral water; for the rest of the day he protects himself by chewing laurel. He constantly has his home purified… he declines all contact with birth, death or tombs. He seeks out the Orphotelestai every month, and repeatedly undergoes ablutions in the sea. The mere sight of some poor wretch eating the meals of Hecate [suffering death, disease, destruction] requires an elaborate ritual washing; nor is this enough, but a priestess must be summoned to perform a blood purification.

And all this from a man, Theophrastus, who was himself a Pythagorean vegetarian who must have abhorred meat-eating (and animal clothing), at the very least.
Greek literature is soaked in purity rules and purifications. Such intensity of information certainly makes it look very much as though a 'cloud of purity rules' descended on Greece in the fourth and fifth centuries, and subsequent investigations have suggested that new words, and new temple equipment, were indeed imported into Greek culture just prior to this time; but we know that the ancient cosmology of purification was already well established throughout Eurasia, and it is perhaps better to see not an intensification but a fragmentation of this tradition in Greece.
This hypothetical superstitious man was certainly caught up in Orphism, a fifth-century Greek sect known for its onerous ascetic requirements. The followers of Orpheus formed what is known as a 'mantic' cult, deriving from the prophetic traditions of seers and shamans, and their wandering seers or healing priests (telestai) would sing beautiful hymns and incantations over the sufferer, prescribing herbs, charms, and a pure new way of life through chastity, vegetarianism, white garments, and the ecstatic worship of Dionysus-Bacchus. Theophrastus meant to imply that the purifications of the superstitious man were excessive, or at least extremely scrupulous by average standards-sufficient even for a sanctified priest.
- Virginia Smith: "Clean. A History of Personal Hygiene and Purity", Oxford University Press: Oxford, New York, 2007, p85-86.

It might be argued that Greek scientific medicine was in itself a form of this phobia:

The word for the dirt that caused disease was miasma (from miaino, to pollute, via the root mia- meaning defilement or destruction); and miasma could be generated in any place at any time, for whatever divine reason. When it reached the earthly world, however, it was specifically associated with foul airs, waters, and places. Greek scientific disease theory suggested that macrocosmic disease pollution came via certain airborne miasmin-germlike 'seeds of disease' wafting down from the outer universe in billowing clouds of polluted air that were immanently poisonous and contagious. Whatever the miasma touched on contact with the microcosm it tainted, and then spread itself steadily through the healthy living material 'like the dyeing or staining of a cloth'. There was no obvious distinction made between macrocosmic miasma and microcosmic contagion, although this was a distinction that greatly concerned physical scientists from the seventeenth to the early twentieth centuries.

The Greeks were obsessed with this kind of purity. But they also noted that they were not unique in this respect and not even the first among peers of the time:

When the well-travelled Herodotus assumes the role of an anthropologist of religion and draws parallels between Greeks and Egyptians, he observes that while the Greeks are generally very concerned with ritual purity, they are far surpassed in this by the Egyptians. For Herodotus, the Egyptians are the most god-fearing of all people, and the nation most obsessed with purity: the Egyptians are, in his words, 'religious beyond measure'; he catalogues their purity practices, and remarks in admiration that 'their religious observances (threskeiai) are innumerable'.
- Andrej Petrovic & Ivana Petrovic: "Inner Purity and Pollution in Greek Religion. Volume I: Early Greek Religion", Oxford University Press: Oxford, New York, 2016, p26.

Herodotus On The Egyptians In The Fifth Century B.C.: “They always wear freshly washed linen clothes. They make a special point of this. They have themselves circumcised for reasons of cleanliness, preferring cleanliness to a more attractive appearance. Priests shave their bodies all over every day to keep off lice or anything else dirty.” [Ashenburg]

The Greek term for religious pollution is miasma, commonly translated as 'stain' or 'defilement'; a person affected by such pollution is labelled with a cognate adjective miaros ('stained', 'defiled', 'polluted'). The noun miasma is never used to denote physical dirt, but rather signifies ritual impurity that can be dangerous and contaminating. Miasma is understood as dangerous because it compromises human communication with the divine and renders rituals ineffective or, in the worst case, downright sacrilegious. Some types of miasma contaminate through contact. Death, for instance, pollutes a whole house and its inhabitants, and purification and exclusion from the shrine for a fixed period of days is necessary for everyone affected. Even a visitor to the house who is not a member of the household may be rendered polluted for a certain number of days. [Petrovic, p 36.]

Physical pollution through bodily fluids, sex or corpses was one part of the miasma that spread through contagion, but could be overcome by (symbolic) removal of pollutants/temporary abstinence.

But also compared to actual Greek habits, all later Roman bath habits must have looked like acute over-purification (and frivolity). While Gibbon links this Roman preference for warm and hot baths to the decline of Rome's Empire, they certainly did not think it a problem:

“Baths, wine, and sex ruin our bodies, but they are the essence of life-baths, wine, and sex.”
- Epitaph on the tomb of Titus Claudius Secundus, first century

While the contemporary Greeks were a bit more 'spartan':

“Swiftly, safely, sweetly” was the motto of Asclepiades of Bithynia, who popularized Greek medicine in Rome in the first century B.C. and who preferred bathing his patients to bleeding them - hence his motto. He was a great advocate of cold baths in particular and was known as “the Cold Bather.”
both quotes - Katherine Ashenburg: "The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History", Vintage Canada: Toronto, 2008 (e).

This means it is always very dependent on your point of view to describe a certain practice or 'level of purity' as either sub-standard or excessive. Gibbon's 19th century verdicts about the virtues of cold bathing or swift showers when he would come to judge current American habits with long, hot showers are not difficult to imagine.

One example to drive home the importance of context to contemporary observers is again found in a well known drama:

The audience knows that Hippolytus' purity is under threat, and, based on this knowledge, his wish for ritual purification cannot be interpreted as obsessively and excessively puritan, but as a justified self-defence mechanism.
- Hippolytus' Purity under Triple Threat: Phaedra, the Nurse, and Theseus [Petrovic, p 200-, here 222.]

If you look at the Bible and do not skip the first part there are many, many rules pertaining to purity, ritual purity and corporeal purity as well. And, as usual, these beliefs were quite wide spread in the ancient orient:

These Elchasites were termed 'baptisers' by the collator of the Greek Cologne Mani Codex, and may also be identified with the group known to later Arab observers as al-Mughtasila (The Cleansers). These designations point to the sect's most defining practices, their constant ritual ablutions, which ranged from personal bathing up through baptisms for the vegetables they ate. It was these relentless baptisers who served as the central formative influence for Mani, who stayed among them for the next twenty years of his life.
According to the testimony of Mani's companions recorded in the Greek Cologne Mani Codex, Mani ultimately broke with the Elchasites over ritual practice, especially the constant purification that defined them to outsiders. Responding to Elchasite critics after his split from the group, Mani told the story that the waters had themselves rebuked the founder of their sect for his ritual bathing. In Mani's story, Elchasai's bathing pool took the form of a man and said, “Is it not enough that your beasts abuse me? Yet you [yourself ] maltreat [my home] and commit sacrilege [against my waters].” Elchasai's efforts to find a more genial place to bathe were answered with further criticism: “We and those waters of the sea are one. Therefore you have come to sin and abuse us.” Like Elchasai, Mani claimed to have had his own visitations from the waters, among other spiritual visitors who taught him the basic precepts of his new faith, Manichaeism.
- [Cynthia Kosso and Anne Scott: "The Nature and Function of Water, Baths, Bathing, and Hygiene from Antiquity through the Renaissance", Brill: Leiden, Boston, 2009, Ch.: Scott John McDonough: “We and Those Waters of the Sea are One”: Baptism, Bathing, And The Construction Of Identity In Late Ancient Babylonia" p 264.]

The modern definition of germaphobia (mysophobia) is too dependent on the knowledge of the existence of germs. If we look at the essence of its meaning, the fear, sometimes obsessive, of contamination, defilement and impurity, then this concept might be seen as very widespread in antiquity, with the caveat that ancient and modern observers might have quite different ideas about the concrete meanings applied to those who were or are observed.

Obsessive compulsive disorders do not exist in a vacuum - you have to put them in their context. Mysophobia is stereotyped as excessively washing hands today, but it is not intrinsically about hand washing. It just so happens that in the modern world, clean flowing water and hand sanitisers are easily available for cleansing your hands of real or imagined contaminants.

Hence why it's somewhat of a misnomer to call the affliction germaphobia. Because it doesn't necessarily need to have anything to do with germs. Rather, it's about "contaminants" which can be any filth or dirt. No germ theory required, and the symptoms manifest in more ways than just washing hands.

He displayed a tendency to mysophobia and he reserved his own knife and fork at the table. He would turn water faucets with a piece of paper and would wash his hands a dozen times a day.

Bluemel, Charles Sidney. "The Troubled Mind. A Study of Nervous and Mental Illnesses." American Journal of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation 17.5 (1938): 350.

Accordingly, many mysophobes avoid touching the faucets after washing their hands, to prevent "re-contamination". By extension, if a mysophobe only have access to a still pool of reused water, their desire to wash their hands with it will be vastly reduced. In fact, their feelings on using this pool may well be an echo of the following expression on public baths, by the Emperor Marcus Aurelius:

"What is bathing when you think about it - oil, sweat, filth, greasy water, everything loathesome."

Fagan, Garrett G. Bathing in Public in the Roman World. University of Michigan Press, 2002.

People generally assume that Roman bathing means cleanliness, but the reality is that ancient hygiene falls far short of modern standards. What's clean to the Romans would not necessarily have to concur with our sensibilities. Hence, the popularity of baths among his contemporaries indicate Aurelius's disgust may well be a hint of mysophobia.

So yes, some kind of "germaphobe" most likely existed in the ancient world too. Before the age of tap water and hand sanitisers, it's just not necessarily going to fit all of the modern stereotypes associated with germaphobes.

Of course, we cannot remotely diagnose people dead for 2,000 years. Moreover, many people today develop coping mechanisms to deal with their compulsions. There's no reason to assume the same would not be true of the ancients.

Classical antiquity

Classical antiquity (also the classical era, classical period or classical age) is the period of cultural history between the 8th century BC and the 6th century AD centered on the Mediterranean Sea, [note 1] comprising the interlocking civilizations of ancient Greece and ancient Rome known as the Greco-Roman world. It is the period in which both Greek and Roman societies flourished and wielded huge influence throughout much of Europe, Northern Africa, and Western Asia.

Conventionally, it is taken to begin with the earliest-recorded Epic Greek poetry of Homer (8th–7th-century BC), and continues through the emergence of Christianity (1st-century AD) and the fall of the Western Roman Empire (5th-century AD). It ends with the decline of classical culture during Late antiquity (250–750), a period overlapping with the Early Middle Ages (600–1000). Such a wide span of history and territory covers many disparate cultures and periods. Classical antiquity may also refer to an idealized vision among later people of what was, in Edgar Allan Poe's words, "the glory that was Greece, and the grandeur that was Rome". [1]

The culture of the ancient Greeks, together with some influences from the ancient Near East, was the basis of European art, [2] philosophy, society, and education, until the Roman imperial period. The Romans preserved, imitated, and spread this culture over Europe, until they themselves were able to compete with it, and the classical world began to speak Latin as well as Greek. [3] [4] This Greco-Roman cultural foundation has been immensely influential on the language, politics, law, educational systems, philosophy, science, warfare, poetry, historiography, ethics, rhetoric, art and architecture of the modern world. Surviving fragments of classical culture led to a revival beginning in the 14th century which later came to be known as the Renaissance, and various neo-classical revivals occurred in the 18th and 19th centuries.


During the era of Classical Antiquity, women practiced as doctors, but they were by far in the minority and typically confined to only gynecology and obstetrics. Aristotle was an important influence on later medical writers in Greece and eventually Europe. Similar to the writers of the Hippocratic Corpus, Aristotle concluded that women's physiology was fundamentally different from that of men primarily because women were physically weaker, and therefore more prone to symptoms caused in some way by weakness, such as the theory of humourism. This belief claimed that both men and women had several "humours" regulating their physical health, and that women had a "cooler" humour. [1] The Hippocratic Corpus writers indicated that men were more rational than women, and that women's physiology made them susceptible to problems that would cause symptoms of irrationality. [1] Continuing with this assumption that men were more rational, men dominated the profession of physicians, an occupation requiring rational research, and for which they believed women were not suited.

This did not stop women from becoming physicians, however Agnodice, who in 300 BCE left Athens and went to Alexandria to study medicine and midwifery in Hellenistic Alexandria under Hierophilus. She returned to Athens and became a popular gynecologist it was said that she disguised herself as a man in order to practice medicine on men. Agnodice became so popular among her female patients that her male colleagues charged her with seducing her patients. In court, she revealed her sex and was exonerated. [2] Philista was a popular professor of medicine who delivered lectures from behind a curtain, to prevent her beauty from distracting her students. [3] In ancient Greece, there was also an opportunity for midwives to receive some further medical training, to become a doctor-midwife, called in the Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine eras an iatromea (ιατρομαία). [4] Merit-Ptah is the first woman named in the history of medicine and perhaps that of medicine she is immortalized as the "chief physician". [5]

Women doctors may have offered specializations beyond gynecology and obstetrics, but there is not enough information to know how frequently. As obstetricians and gynecologists, they appear to have been numerous. The Law Code of Justinian presumed women doctors to be primarily obstetricians. The first medical text known to be written by a woman is by Metrodora, Concerning the Feminine Diseases of the Womb, a work in 63 chapters that was part of a series of at least two works that she authored. The earliest copy dates from between the 2nd century and the 4th century CE. [6]

It is important to remember that during Classical Antiquity, anyone could be trained as a doctor at one of the many medical schools/hospitals, the Asclepeieon. Training involved mainly practical applications as well as forming an apprenticeship to other doctors. During the Hellenistic era, the Library of Alexandria also served as a medical school, where research and training would take place on the body of the diseased. It also appears that the children, male or female, of famous doctors, would also follow the medical profession, continuing the family tradition. For example, Pantheia, who was the wife of a physician, became one herself, a pattern also seen in the careers of Aurelia Alexandria Zosime and Auguste. Auguste received recognition as a chief doctor of her city, a title her husband also received. Metilia Donata was prominent enough to commission a large public building in Lyon. Anthiochis of Tlos, the daughter of a prominent physician, Diodotus, was recognized by the council of Tlos for her work as a doctor and had a statue of herself erected. She was also a widely discussed expert cited by Galen and others. Aspasia is quoted extensively by Aetius on gynecology. [7]

This Greco-Roman approach differs greatly from other ancient civilizations, where women's role as medical specialists concerning gynecology and obstetrics was apparently unquestioned. Medical schools attached to temples in ancient Egypt were numerous, including well-known medical schools for women at Heliopolis and Sais, where women are also believed to have been the professors. [3]

Hippocrates was the first to use the term cancer to describe the hard lesions occasionally found in women's breasts. He reasoned that the lesions were caused by problems with the woman's uterus and menstrual cycle. Symptoms of these lesions were believed to be pain, appetite loss, bitter taste, and confusion. [8] Hippocrates urged against surgery as a treatment for breast cancer because he considered it harmful and found that the prognosis was much better for women who did not have the lesions removed or treated. In his later work Diseases of Women, Hippocrates furthers the list of late-stage cancer symptoms by including deliria, dehydration, dry nipples, loss of sense of smell, and shallow breathing. [9]

Galen considered breast cancer to be a result of excess black bile in the body, referencing to Hippocrates' theory of the humoral theory of diseases. He hypothesized that a women's menstrual period was a method of removing black bile from the body. This idea fit his observation that it more common for women in menopause and pre-menopause to develop breast lesions. Unlike Hippocrates, Galen encouraged surgical removal of tumors and even prescribed special diets and purgation to rid the body of excess black bile. [9]

Aristotle formulated early tests for infertility by placing scented cloth in a woman's vagina for an extended amount of time and determining whether the aroma came out of the mouth or if the eyes or saliva was colored. This test determined whether or not the woman's semen passes were open or closed. [10] Hippocrates formed a similar test by observing whether a scent would pass through a woman's body out of her mouth when the smell was produced between her legs while she was wrapped in a blanket. Hippocrates further tested for infertility by putting red stone in a woman's eyes and determining if it penetrated through. [10]

During antiquity, there was no profession equal to that of our modern day nurse. No ancient medical sources discuss any sort of trained nursing personnel assisting doctors. However, many texts mention the use of slaves or members of a doctor's family as assistants. [11] The closest similarity to that of a nurse during antiquity was a midwife. Midwifery flourished in ancient civilizations, including Egypt, Byzantium, Mesopotamia, and the Mediterranean empires of Greece and Rome.

There were doctors within the Greco-Roman world who wrote favourably of midwifery. Herophilus wrote a manual for midwives, which advanced their status. This was followed by the work of the Greek Soranus of Ephesus (98-138 AD), who was widely translated into Latin, [12] and Galen. Soranus was an important gynecologist and is credited with four books describing the female anatomy. He also discussed methods to deal with difficult births, such as using forceps. [13] He states that for a woman to be an eligible midwife she must be

A suitable person…must be literate to be able to comprehend the art through theory too. She must have her wits about her so that she may easily follow what is said and what is happening. She must have a good memory to retain the imparted instructions (for knowledge arises from memory of what has been grasped). She must love work, to preserve through all vicissitudes (for a woman who wishes to acquire such vast knowledge needs manly patience).

The most qualified midwife would be trained in all branches of therapy. She should be able to prescribe hygienic regulations for her patients, observe the general and individual features of the case, give advice by recalling from previous knowledge what medical decisions would work in every case and to be reassuring to her patients. It is not necessary for her to have had a child to deliver another woman’s child, but it is good if she has been in labor to enhance sympathy with the mother.

To obtain good midwifery habits, she will be well disciplined and always sober, have a quiet disposition sharing many life secrets, must not be greedy for money, be free of superstition to not overlook salutary measures, keeping her hands soft by staying away from wool-working as this may harden her hands and use ointments to acquire softness. She too needs to be respectable, the people of the household will have to trust her within their household, may not be handicapped in the performance of her work. Long and slim fingers with short nails are necessary to touch deep-lying inflammation without causing too much pain. Midwives that acquire of all these will be the best midwives. [14]

This detailed instruction on midwives served as a sort of textbook and makes evident the well-respected role that midwives filled in society.

Women practiced birth control in antiquity mainly through their knowledge of plants and herbs. Their knowledge was transmitted by herders who observed sterility of their livestock when exposed to certain plants. Knowledge of birth control was also transmitted by word of mouth, mainly originating from knowledgeable midwives. Midwives knew how to identify necessary plants, how to administer them, and most importantly, when to administer them in relation to the last menstruation or coitus. [15] A very popular plant used for birth control by the Greeks was Silphium. It is a giant fennel-like herb which was filled with a pungent sap and offered a rich flavor. The plant was so widely used that it appeared on a Cyrenian coin as a woman touched the plant with one hand and pointed to her genitals with the other. [15] The demand for the plant was so great that by the fourth century, it had gone extinct. It is believed that the heart shape originated from the seed of this plant as they are the same shape and the plant was associated with love, romance, and sexuality. [16]

Although Silphium was most popular, there were many other plants and herbs used. The seeds of Queen Anne's Lace (a wild carrot) were cut up or chewed to release ingredients that inhibited fetal and ovarian growth. These seeds are still commonly used in India. [15] Another plant used was pennyroyal, an abortifacient. [17] Although toxic, pennyroyal was consumed in small dosages in tea because it contained the abortive substance pulegone. [18] A medical document dating back to 1500 BC in Egypt includes a list of substances used as birth control. One substance involved making a paste from acacia gum, dates, fiber, honey, and other unidentified plants to create a sort of spermicide. [15] Early physicians Galen and Dioscorides believed that women would consume willow and pomegranate kernels to prevent pregnancy as well. [18]

Soranus of Ephesus advocated for the application of ointments made of old olive oil, honey, cedar resin, and white lead on the cervix in order block the opening to the uterus. However, Soranus believed birth control was most effective when oral contraceptives were combined with certain procedures. Soranus recommended that women should avoid having intercourse during their fertile period in their cycle, as well as avoid deep penetration. [18] After intercourse, women were urged to squat, sneeze, and cleanse the vagina before drinking something cold. If these combined practices failed in the prevention of pregnancy, recipes including small amounts of Cyrenaic juice, diluted wine, leukoion, and white pepper were prescribed to induce abortion. [18]

Abortions were uncommon, but in their few occurrences, were performed by the mother herself. The results for both mother and child were often fatal as most abortions were performed by plunging a dagger into the woman's vagina. [15] Because of this procedure, it was most common to carry a baby full term before performing the abortion. According to the Hippocratic Corpus, there were oral alternatives used to induce abortion such as chaste, tree, copper, and Ferula species. [16] Plato explored the control that midwives perhaps had during this process:

And furthermore, the midwives, by means of drugs [149d] and incantations, are able to arouse the pangs of labor and, if they wish, to make them milder, and to cause those to bear who have difficulty in bearing and they cause miscarriages if they think them desirable.

There were many theories used to determine whether a woman was pregnant during antiquity. A popular method involved examining the vessels of her breasts. A second method involved sitting a woman on a beer and date mash covered floor and using a proportionality equation according to the number of times she vomits. Another method included inserting an onion into a woman's vagina and determining whether or not it could be smelled from her breath. [15] Although there is little evidence as to whether or not any of these methods were confirmed medical procedures or if they were just folklore.

Hospitals did not exist during antiquity so delivery took place in the home of the expectant mother with a midwife and other assistants to the midwife. Religion played a major role during labor and delivery. Women called upon Artemis, a goddess with the ability to bring new life into the world as well as the ability to take it away. Though she remained a virgin herself, it was said that she witnessed the pain of her mother during the birth of her brother, Apollo, and immediately assumed the position of midwife. If a woman died during childbirth, her clothes were taken to the temple of Artemis due to the fact the woman's death was attributed to her. [19] If the birth was successful, the mother would make an offering of thanks by sacrificing some of her clothes to the goddess as well. [20]

Herbs and other plants were used heavily in the delivery process, a practice also linked to religious belief. For example, a drink sprinkled with powdered sow’s dung was given to relieve labor pain, and fumigation with the fat from a hyena was thought to produce immediate delivery. [21] Most of these practices had little to no medical efficacy, but they did probably provide some placebo effect. Despite the attempt to use science in advancing medical knowledge, the experimentation and teachings of the Hippocratic Corpus were not necessarily more effective than the traditional customs of midwifery. For example, the Hippocratic writers believed that the womb could move out of place and cause health problems, and the prescribed treatment was to coax the displaced womb back into place using sweet-smelling herbs. [22]

Soranus described three main stages of pregnancy: conception, which regarded keeping the male seed within the womb pica, which occurred 40 days into pregnancy and included symptoms of nausea and cravings for extraordinary foods. During this phase women were also instructed to exercise and sleep more to build up strength as preparation for the labor process. The final stage of pregnancy was described as the labor and the process of delivery. In preparation for labor, the woman was advised to bathe in wine and sweet-water baths to calm her mind before delivery. Her belly was then rubbed with oils to decrease the appearance of stretch marks, and her genitals were anointed with herbs and injected with softeners such as goose fat. [21]

The role of the midwife was very important during the process of childbirth and Soranus described her role in great detail. For example, the midwife was to have certain tools to ensure a safe delivery, including: clean olive oil, sea sponges, pieces of wool bandages to cradle the infant, a pillow, strong smelling herbs in case of fainting, and a birthing stool. [21] A birthing stool is a chair from which the seat has been removed.

The midwife would ready her supplies as labor began. During the labor process, the mother would lie on her back on a hard, low bed with support under her hips. Her thighs were parted with her feet drawn up. Gentle massage was implemented to ease labor pains as cloths soaked in warm olive oil were laid over her stomach and genital area. Against the woman's sides were placed hot compresses in the form of warm oil-filled bladders. [21]

During the actual birth, the mother would be moved to the birthing stool, where she was seated or would squat on two large bricks with a midwife in front of her and female aides standing at her sides. In a normal headfirst delivery, the cervical opening was stretched slightly, and the rest of the body was pulled out. Soranus instructed the midwife to wrap her hands in pieces of cloth or thin papyrus so that the slippery newborn did not slide out of her grasp. [21]

A widely cited myth claims that the word “caesarian” possibly derives from the ancient Roman ruler Julius Caesar, because it was believed that Caesar was delivered through this procedure. [23] The oldest reference to this myth is a passage from the Suda, a 10th-century Byzantine encyclopedia. The myth is a misinterpretation of a passage from Pliny the Elder's Natural History, which mentions a "Caesar" (one of the ancestors of Julius Caesar) being cut from his mother's womb. [24] This practice is probably much older than Julius Caesar, and "C-sections", as performed by the Romans, were done to rescue the baby from a dying or already dead mother, and were performed post-mortem. [25] The fact that Julius Caesar's mother Aurelia Cotta lived for decades after Caesar's birth makes this etymology highly unlikely. [26] Pliny mentions another more widely accepted possibility for the etymology of the word “caesarian”, claiming that it derives from the Latin word caedere, meaning “to cut”. [23]

Evidence suggests that Jews in ancient Rome successfully practiced C-sections on living mothers who were not in danger of dying. [27] Evidence of these procedures is found in several collections of ancient Roman rabbis, the most famous of which is called the Mishnah. [27] Greeks and Egyptians did not perform C-sections, either post-mortem or on living mothers. However, Greeks would have had at least some knowledge of the Caesarian operation and the procedure involved. The Greek god Aesclepius was fabled to have been extracted from his mother's womb through this procedure. [23]

Other than the evidence of Jews practicing C-sections in antiquity (very little in ancient Rome, even less in ancient Greece), not much more evidence exists regarding Caesarian-operation birth. One reason could have been that C-sections were not performed very often because of medical complications or superstitions surrounding C-sections. In early Christian Rome, C-sections were almost non-existent. [27] Loss of skill is a possibility for the lack of C-sections. Infant mortality rates were high in antiquity, so C-sections certainly could have been useful. However, early Christian doctors could have disregarded C-sections as a socially acceptable operation because of religious beliefs. Disease, a perceived need for secrecy, and social discouragement could have also been factors that lead to the decline in C-sections among early Christians in Rome. Almost no evidence exists for C-sections in the Christian world until the 10th century. [25]

The lack of education for women and the social norm that women remained in the private sphere of life (as opposed to public) is theorized to also have contributed to a shortage of C-sections. [25] Midwives were the primary persons involved in the childbirth process. They did not record their medical practices in writing like Soranus or Galen. Thus, C-sections could have potentially occurred on a fairly regular basis, and accounts were simply not recorded.

Mortality was quite high in antiquity due to a few factors: a lack of sanitation and hygienic awareness, no understanding of micro-organisms, and a dearth of effective drugs. In the context of childbirth, however, maternal and infant mortality were exponentially raised compared to modern standards. This resulted from the toll childbirth took on women, and the increased risk of infection following labor.

Maternal mortality figures are available only through comparison. Maternal mortality is thought to be comparable with figures for similar, but much later, societies with more surviving records, such as eighteenth-century rural England, where maternal mortality averaged 25 per 1000 births. [28]

The question of infant mortality in antiquity is complicated by infanticide and exposure, neither of which reflect on medical ability during the period. The former does this through intentional death of the child, and the latter through abandonment, and possible death. These reflect instead on social conditions and norms. While valuable, this is not the information sought, and scholars having painstakingly attempted to eliminate the 'noise' from their inquiries. [29]

Much like maternal mortality, it is difficult to construct actual figures of the infant mortality rate in antiquity, but comparisons have been made between ancient societies and modern non-industrialized societies. The figures suggest that they are comparable with those of modern industrialized societies to put them in perspective. While infant mortality is less than 10 per 1000 in modern industrialized societies, non-industrialized societies display rates from 50 to 200+ per 1000. Scholarship using model life tables and assuming life expectancy at birth of 25 years produces the figure of 300 per 1000 for Roman society. [28]

UFOs Spotted by Ancient Romans

For all that is made of evidence of unidentified flying objects in Egyptian hieroglyphics (which are easily debunked), it was the Romans who really accumulated a number of reported sightings. These sightings were made by such reputable historians as Pliny the Elder, Livy, and Plutarch. They are widely regarded as accurate (as far as the witnesses understood) because of the rigorous procedures Roman authorities demanded before any event could be recorded in the official annals. That being said, the incidences could be talking about meteorites or comets, which to ancient eyes would have seemed otherworldly. A sample of ancient Roman “UFO” sightings includes:

In 218 BC, “A spectacle of ships ( navium) gleamed in the sky.”
In 217 BC, “at Arpi, round shields ( parmas) were seen in the sky.”
In 212 BC, “at Reate a huge stone ( saxum) was seen flying about”
In 173 BC, “at Lanuvium a spectacle of a great fleet was said to have been seen in the sky.”
In 154 BC, “at Compsa weapons ( arma) appeared flying in the sky”
In 104 BC, “the people of Ameria and Tuder observed weapons in the sky rushing together from east and west, those from the west being routed.”
In 100 BC, probably at Rome, “a round shield ( clipeus), burning and emitting sparks, ran across the sky from west to east, at sunset.”
In 43 BC, at Rome, “a spectacle of defensive and offensive weapons ( armorum telorumque species) was seen to rise from the earth to the sky with a clashing noise.”

Renaissance illustration of a UFO sighting in Rome detailed in a book by Roman historian Julio Obsequens. ( Crystalinks)

Juries in the Popular Courts

Citizens above the age of thirty without a criminal record were eligible to serve as dikastai. Scholars disagree as to whether the dikastai should be called jurors or judges, since their function was essentially both roles. For purposes of simplicity, the term “jurors” is used here. Six thousand such citizens were selected by lot each year.[18] Jurors received a small fee, three obols, for each day spent hearing cases. This was less than a man could earn for a day’s work, so many juries were composed of men too old to work, as described in Aristophanes’ comedy, Wasps.[19] Jurors were not assigned days to work, but simply appeared when they were willing to serve. It has been estimated each court day required between fifteen hundred to two thousand jurors. On each trial day, juries were selected by lot, and the courts where they were assigned were also selected by lot. Juries in private cases could number between two and four hundred, while public cases could have between five hundred to one thousand jurors.[20]

Imitation, Transformation and Transgression: Cross-dressing in Ancient Mythology and Religions

Crossdressing is recorded around the world from the ancient past up to the present. In the ancient world, cross-dressing often mirrored gender-crossing actions of deities. In this context, it was tolerated, even supported, as an aspect of religious devotion. Also in this context, the transformation of gender is often associated with the process of coming closer to divinity by breaking down the categories of ordinary human experience. The manipulation of dress, therefore, is the most visible and convenient way for human beings to do what divine beings accomplish by other means, including crossing gender.

The Sumerian deity Inanna, identified with the Akkadian Ishtar, is believed capable of either gender presentation to bridge heaven and earth as well as gender-altering power.

Molded naked figure holding breasts. Between 1300 and 1100 BC. (CC BY-SA 2.0 fr )

Her cults included the kurĝara, whose dress incorporated mixed gender elements in their public processionals. Atum, of ancient Egypt, could be depicted androgynously, as said in a coffin text which says “I am the great He-She”. But perhaps the best known example of a divine gender-bender was Dionysus. Greek literature scholar Albert Henrichs called Dionysus “the most versatile and elusive of all Greek Gods,” as he was perceived as both man and animal, male and effeminate, young and old.

As there are many legends about Dionysus, there are varied depictions of Dionysus ranging from bearded Dionysus to more effeminate versions. Archaic vases show him in a woman’s tunic, saffron veil, and helmet. Dionysian festivals frequently featured role reversals such as cross-dressing. In the festival of Oschophoria, for example, young, wealthy noblemen dressed as women and led a sacred procession from the Temple of Dionysius to that of Athena.

Dionysus, Silenus (and Maenad?). Red-figure krater. (Ad Meskens/ CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Deities often take disguises. Frequently the disguise involves appearing as a gender different from the one typically associated with that deity. Athena, for example, in Homer’s Odyssey disguises herself as Mentor, the male friend of Odysseus. Zeus disguised himself to appear like Artemis. His aim was one of those familiar to gender-crossings for thousands of years to come, which is to gain an access he would have otherwise lacked. In this case, it was access to the nymph Callisto.

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Top Image: Left, Sisters Charlotte and Susan Cushman in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet in 1846 ( Public Domain ) Right, Male Kabuki actor in Japan ( CC BY 2.0 )

Homosexuality in the Ancient World

The modern conception of sexuality relies on a strict categorisation of sexual appetites and personal desires – heterosexuality, homosexuality, bisexuality, pansexuality, etc. In the ancient world, however, these words did not exist and the concepts they represent were not necessarily analogous to our modern understanding of sexuality.

Attitudes towards homosexuality in recent history have coloured the perspective through which we view the nature of sexuality in the ancient world. Early historians, archaeologists and antiquarians viewed notions of alternate sexual identity through the lens of their own social mores, and their discussion of these sexual identities was often stilted and couched in euphemism (when it wasn’t downright ignored).

Modern scholarship has done a great deal to explore the history of sexual identities in ancient cultures and, though progress is slow, there is now a wider consensus on the existence of alternate sexual practices in the ancient world. Despite this, the application of modern labels to sexual identities in antiquity still provides an inadequate exploration of the lived sexual identities of ancient peoples.

Ancient Greece

Ancient Greece has a reputation in modern culture as a society in which homosexuality was accepted – even encouraged. Realistically, however, this is an oversimplification of a complex matter centring on gender, identity and social structure. Ancient Greece has served as an idealised utopia for alternative sexual identities, with Oscar Wilde famously referencing, in his trial in 1895, affection between two men as the “very basis” of the philosophy of Plato. Similarly, the attraction of the Greek isle of Lesbos – home of Sappho, the “tenth muse” and famous poet and writer – to lesbian women has taken on an almost mythological light. But to what extent was homosexuality truly accepted in ancient Greece?

Ancient Greek society was not an equal one. Citizenship was an obstacle to freedom, and those who were not counted as citizens – for example, in classical Athens, women, children and slaves – did not have the same rights or social esteem extended to the citizenry. Even between male citizens same-sex courting was couched in the terminology of pederasty, with an older male – the erastes – taking the role of a teacher, and a younger male, usually in his teens – the eromenos – taking the role of a student. Ignoring the necessary power imbalance that this imposed upon the relationship, the eromenos was often idealised as an embodiment of the virility, impressionability, naivety and beauty of youth. Pederasty had its own complex social-sexual etiquette and does not reflect the modern understanding of homosexual relationships as being functionally similar to heterosexual relationships.

The relationship of Plato with same-sex desire is a complex one. In his Symposium, the speaker Aristophanes discusses same-sex relationships in a way that closely resembles a more modern understanding – with the two participants treated as equals whose relationship completes the other. In his Laws, however, Plato dismisses same-sex relationships as being unnatural and unsuited to his vision of utopian society. This contradictory view of homosexual relations is characteristic of our understanding of alternate sexual identities in ancient Greece – same-sex relationships did occur, and in some ways may have been accepted and even celebrated, but they were not the ideal partnership and the way that courtship occurred is fundamentally unrecognisable to our modern understanding of same-sex relationships.

Ancient Rome

Though Rome has a rich history of homoerotic art and literature, their conception of same-sex relationships between men hinges around a traditional viewpoint of masculinity and femininity. Male same-sex relationships were generally accepted amongst the citizenry of Rome, but only as long as the citizen was in the dominant (or penetrative) role. The men who took on the “feminine” or submissive role were generally slaves, prostitutes or entertainers, men with lower social status known as infamia – technically free men, but not afforded the rights and protections of the citizenry. For a free man to allow himself to be penetrated threatened his sexual integrity and invited challenges to his virility and masculinity.

Female same-sex relationships are generally less well-attested in Roman literature during the Republic and Principate, although whether this reflects an issue of decorum – a refusal to mention these relationships as they were viewed as improper in some way – is debateable. Certainly, the attitude of prominent Roman poet Ovid hints at this, with his claim that female same-sex relations were “a desire known to no one…no female is seized by desire for a female”. In his Metamophoses, Ovid tells the tale of a pregnant woman named Telethusa, whose husband claims that he will kill their unborn child if she is female. She attempts to conceal the sex of her daughter when she is born, giving her the ambiguous name Iphis, and she is married to a golden-haired maiden named Ianthe. Though initially the relationship between the two is described romantically – “Love came to both of them together / in simple innocence, and filled their hearts / with equal longing”. The tale ends with Iphis being so horrified that the goddess Isis intervenes and transforms her daughter into a man – “Iphis: rejoice, with confidence, not fear! You, who were lately a girl, are now a boy!” This tale betrays not only Roman attitudes towards the clear division of gender roles and a lack of ambiguity in gender identity, but also highlights the valuation of female same-sex relationships as lesser or improper compared to heterosexual relationships.

Ancient Egypt

Attitudes towards same-sex relationships in ancient Egypt are hotly debated due to a lack of surviving literary evidence. In Talmudic literature, the ancient Egyptians are painted as a sexually promiscuous and “debauched” people, with Maimonides referring to lesbianism as “the acts of Egypt”. In truth, however, there is little evidence that such sexual freedoms existed in the ancient past.

In the New Kingdom tale of the Contendings of Horus and Seth, Seth assaults Horus in an attempt to dominate him and prove that Horus is unfit for kingship before the Ennead of Egyptian gods. Horus, however, catches Seth’s semen in his hands and tricks Seth into consuming his own semen. When this is revealed before the Ennead, Seth flees in embarrassment and is seen as unfit for kingship, giving some hint at possible Egyptian attitudes towards male same-sex relationships.

Perhaps the most famous case study regarding Egyptian homosexuality is the tomb of Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum, two Overseers of Manicurists in the Palace of King Nyuserre. The two men were buried together in a joint tomb at Saqqara, and have been considered by some scholars to be the first recorded same-sex couple in history. A great deal of this argument is based on the interpretation of tomb decoration showing the two men standing nose-to-nose and embracing, the most intimate pose allowed by the decorum of Egyptian art. There are a number of flaws in this theory – most obviously, the families of the two men are depicted in the decoration of their tomb, showing that both men had wives and children. Is it possible that the two men were engaged in a same-sex relationship? Was this permitted, allowed, even encouraged, by their families? Were they engaged in a polyamorous same-sex and heterosexual relationship? The dearth of solid evidence provides space for a great deal of supposition, but unfortunately such supposition tells us little of use about the practicalities of ancient Egyptian engagement and understanding of same-sex relationships and alternative sexual desires.

Projecting onto the Past?

The nature of academia is to not only strive for new discoveries, but also re-examine past interpretations of evidence to divorce oneself from the attitudes and lenses that coloured scholarly analysis in the past. It is crucially important to identity the biases and prejudices that existed in the past in order to come to a greater understanding of the truths of the past. Still, it is equally important to note that our own understanding is tinged by the attitudes of modernity, and our own conclusions will necessarily require re-examination by scholars in the future.

In truth, the projection of utopian ideals of sexual acceptance – particularly in the case of same-sex relationships – onto ancient cultures does not truly capture the complexity and social nuance that surrounded the complex issues of sexuality and desire in the past, and continues to cause controversy in the modern day. The application of modern labels onto sexual attitudes in the past – labels still hotly contested by scholars today – creates the issue of forcing a modern understanding of sexuality onto people who did not necessarily conceptualise sexual identity in the same way we do.

Furthermore, it is challenging to answer questions such as “What were ancient Roman attitudes to homosexuality?” or “How did the ancient Egyptians conceptualise same-sex relationships?” as these questions inherently assume a continuity of culture through vast chronological spaces. When discussing ancient cultures, it is important to appreciate the length of time and space through which they existed, and summarising socio-cultural attitudes so generally can obscure the fluid nature of human society. Attitudes towards homosexuality in, for example, the UK, have changed a great deal in just the last few decades – how much might attitudes have changed in the span of, for example, thousands of years of Egyptian culture?

Nonetheless, it is crucially important to continue re-examining the work of previous scholars and to try to understand these attitudes in the ancient world, not just to combat misinformation but also to come to a closer understanding of this fundamental aspect of human identity. The truth likely exists amongst layers of complexity between dated and conservative interpretations of ancient sexuality, and amongst modern utopian reinterpretations – as in modernity, attitudes towards sexuality in the ancient world were likely various and multifaceted in a way that archaeological and textual evidence struggles to communicate.

Classical Philosophy

Classical philosophy studies the fundamental problems concerning human existence through the eyes of our intellectual ancestors. Many thinkers from Classical times were pioneers of our modern philosophical and scientific ideas. The earliest beginnings of philosophy are traced back to the sixth century B.C.E., when the first scientists of Western history, the Pre-Socratics – among them Thales, Heraclitus and Parmenides – advanced revolutionary theories concerning the natural world, human knowledge and humans’ relationship with the gods. Some centuries later, Socrates ignited an intellectual revolution that would challenge traditional notions of morality and value forever. Plato, who had studied under Socrates, and Plato’s own student Aristotle, expanded the discipline of philosophy and forked out the path of Western intellectual thought with their discussions of logic, ethics, poetry, myth, politics, physics, and metaphysics. Their work was continued, systematized and amplified by Stoic, Epicurean, and Skeptical thinkers. It had an important impact on prominent figures of Late Antiquity such as Marcus Aurelius, Plotinus, Porphyry, and greatly influenced the early Church Fathers, most notably St. Augustine. Studying the Classics will give students with an interest in ancient philosophy a particularly thorough grasp of the broader linguistic, literary, historical, and cultural background of philosophical issues and problems.

History of Science

The History of Science is an academic discipline of great scope, covering subjects such as technology, mathematics, medicine, and astronomy. Studying these disciplines through a Classical lens shows how closely the sciences are related to the humanities, and how all of our various areas of specialization fit together into a single investigation of the world and our experiences in it. Students will find answers to important questions, such as the early origins of the different scientific disciplines and their impact on culture and society, and they will also find important questions like what does it mean to exist, what are the fundamental building blocks of the world, and what does it mean to lead a good life.

The ancient Greeks were the first mathematicians and scientists of the West. Thinkers such as Thales, Anaximander, Pythagoras and Empedocles attempted to make sense of the world by studying the evidence they found in it. Anaximander proposed that the earth was a solitary body, floating free and unsupported in the universe, and produced one of the first maps of the world. Empedocles was among the first to believe that the world consisted of diverse material elements acted upon by forces of attraction and repulsion. The atomic theory of matter begins with the Greeks. Euclid remains one of the most influential mathematicians of all time. His contemporary Archimedes was a famous inventor and is also credited with discovering a geometrical technique which anticipated calculus and the fact that the surface and volume of a sphere is 2/3 that of its circumscribing cylinder. Through early astronomy, the Greeks developed the idea of mathematized science. In the field of medicine, they began with case histories and folk remedies, and ended up with an understanding of the nerves, the ability to patch up wounded gladiators, and even the ability to remove cataracts with eye surgery. They invented the first steam engine, vending machine, automatic doors, and more. And they sustained glorious cities with over a million inhabitants without using electricity, fossil fuels, gunpowder or nuclear fission as sources of energy.

The Renaissance was an attempt to give a ‘new birth’ to the classical world following lapses in the Medieval period, and the modern drive for progress has often been an effort to match or surpass the achievements of ancient Greece and Rome. By studying the History of Science in the Classical world, we come to understand the various disciplines through their historical and cultural contexts, and come to see how our fragmented scientific investigations form part of an integrated whole.

Civil Service Examination System - Ke Ju

The civil service examination system for selecting government officials was established and came into force during the Sui dynasty (581-618). It not only served as an education system, but as the standard of selection for talented people across the nation.

The system comprised an examination convened by local governments, plus the final imperial examination (palace examination) held by emperors. Scholars passing the county-level examination were called Xiucai, and the first-ranked Xiucai received the title of Anshou. Scholars passing the provincial-level examination were called Juren, and the first- and second-ranked Juren received the titles of Jieyuan and Huiyuan respectively. The first-ranked scholar in the palace examination received the title of Zhuangyuan, the second Bangyan and the third Tanhua. All scholars who passed the examination were conferred different official positions according to their results.

The system was improved during the Tang dynasty (618-907). Some scholars from poor and humble families held office at court, greatly easing the class discrepancies in society. During the Tang dynasty (618-907), the national examination system played a substantial role in training qualified officials and promoting cultural prosperity, and it was adopted as a legacy by subsequent feudal rulers.

During the Song dynasty (960-1279), it was a national policy to emphasize literature and restrict military force. The Song emperors inherited the national examination system and ordered the establishment of many famous academies throughout the kingdom, such as Bailudong, Yuelu, Yingtianfu, and Songyang (see below). These academies perfectly combined educational activity and academic research, and led to the publication of many famous books, including Three-Character Scripture, One Hundred Family Names, One Thousand Character Primers and Golden Treasury of Quatrains and Octaves.

Unlike during the Song dynasty (960-1279), the Mongolian ruling classes of the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) took strict control over academies, for fear that the Han people might unite and rebel. The rulers of the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties exerted more control over the thoughts of the common people. During this time the national examination system became ossified, and scholars were even persecuted due to ‘heretical ideologies’.

The Influence of Ancient Greece Today

As you can see, the roots of our governments and most of the political systems today are found in the systems developed in Ancient Greece. But government is not the only way in which Ancient Greece has touched our lives. The bible, the New Testament and religion also find their roots in Ancient Greece. The Learn New Testament Greek course offers over nine hours of content that provides principles of how to access and understand New Testament Greek. This course prepares students for further studies in NT Greek studies.


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