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

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As you have worked through this course, some of the beliefs and practices of the ancient world probably sounded very familiar to you. Others, for example the theories of vision, the communal toilets, excrement therapy, and beliefs around conception such as the maternal imagination and tying up one testicle, less so.

While the ancient world is the ancestor of some aspects of the modern West, it’s also a set of very different cultures. Overall, health was balance, and the way to achieve it was a balanced way of life, keeping exercise and rest in the right proportions and eating so that the right fluids were produced in your body. However, lifestyle also had to be adjusted according to where you lived, your age and gender, and the season.

The overall environment of the ancient world was one in which epidemics spread unchecked and food supply could be uncertain. Warfare was also a normal part of life. While cities were proud of their water supply and sewers, these would not always have led to hygiene in the modern sense of the term. But the evidence from sewers is valuable in reconstructing ancient diet and in showing some of the diseases which affected people.

Medical treatises and more general guides aimed at an elite readership show the theory behind health-related practices, as well as recommending recipes and instruments to improve health. The material record preserves some of the instruments used, and also shows the bones of the people of ancient Greece and Rome. Modern methods of analysis reveal much about their actual diet as well as their physique. Looking healthy could mean using cosmetics, but the substances in some of them could lead to lasting damage. The same was true of some remedies. There was a clear sense of the ideal body; this was displayed in art, and attempts were also made to shape babies’ bodies into an ideal. Not everyone matched this ideal, but those with a range of impairments were still able to find roles in ancient societies. Sometimes, being a woman was itself a type of disability, but women’s bodies were also thought less likely than men’s bodies to have some disorders, simply because they had another way of expelling fluids which accumulated in excess.

As you have studied this course, you have been encouraged to search for primary evidence yourself. Only by combining, where possible, literary sources, material culture and bones, can you reach a fuller and more balanced view of health in ancient Greece and Rome.