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Health and wellbeing in the ancient world
Health and wellbeing in the ancient world

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1.5 Who is telling us this?

In a book on how to manage your household, Xenophon of Athens has a man called Ischomachus explain:

I begin by worshipping the gods, and try to conduct myself in such a way that in answer to my prayers I may have health and physical strength, esteem in the city, the affection of my friends, safety with honour in war, and wealth increased by honest means.

(Oikonomikos, 11.8)

Later he gives his opinion on how to stay healthy:

For if a man has plenty to eat, and works it off properly, I think he both insures his health and adds to his strength.

(Oikonomikos, 10.12)

Diet, which you will study in Week 3, was often seen as the key to health. In another work attributed to Xenophon, the philosopher Socrates asks Euthydemus whether he knows the difference between good things and evil things. Euthydemus concentrates on diet, answering:

Euthydemus: ‘Well, that’s a simple matter. First health in itself is, I suppose, a good, sickness an evil. Next the various causes of these two conditions—meat, drink, habits—are good or evil according as they promote health or sickness.

Socrates: ‘Then health and sickness too must be good when their effect is good, and evil when it is evil.’

Euthydemus: ‘But when can health possibly be the cause of evil, or sickness of good?’

Socrates: ‘In many cases. For instance, a disastrous campaign or a fatal voyage: the able-bodied who go are lost, the weaklings who stay behind are saved’.

(Memorabilia, 4.2.31–32)

This suggests that health is not always a good thing, as at least the sick don’t have to go into battle! You will return to the health of the army in Week 6.

Activity 4

Search for ‘Xenophon of Athens’ on the internet and find out details about his life and works. If you use Wikipedia, make sure you check the sources the article uses.

Do you think Xenophon is a reliable source for views on health in the ancient world?

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Next you will look how health is defined today.