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Greco-Roman Medicine and What It Can Teach Us Today

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Member Reviews

Greco-Roman Medicine and What It Can Teach Us Today is a historical retrospective on the medical arts in the ancient world with correlations to modern medical practise by Dr. Nick Summerton. Released 23rd Dec 2021 by Pen & Sword, it's 208 pages and is available in hardcover and ebook formats. 

I'm always a bit skeptical of books drawing medical and scientific relevance from "the wisdom of the ancient world". They're usually full of "woo woo" and generally woefully mistaken in substance and factual content. That being said, however, this is a well written, no-nonsense treatise about precisely that, written by a physician who is still currently in practise and, quite refreshingly, "woo free" on the whole. 

The author is quite adamant about distancing himself from adopting ancient methods wholesale (sheep urine as mouthwash for example), but he insists (correctly) that maintaining a healthy work/life balance, minimising chronic stress, and maintaining a healthy lifestyle with regular exercise, fresh air, and clean nutritious foods will contribute a great deal to longevity and overall quality of life.

The book is peppered with quotes from period Greek and Roman sources writing lucidly and competently about health and wellness. It's easy for modern readers to forget that scientists in ancient times certainly weren't less intelligent or reasoning (for the most part) but that they lacked the scientific basis which has developed in the intervening centuries and which we take for granted.

As a student, I had 7 years of Latin study as part of my curriculum. I remember having an epiphany at one point that there were many surprisingly modern successfully performed medical procedures in Rome, such as cataract surgery, which if not precisely common, were not unheard of.

This book is generally split into a retrospective history of Greco-Roman medicine and a more expository look at the potential relevance for historical practices to be adopted for modern use. The history chapters are well annotated and very interesting. The modern chapters are much more expository and less precise. 

The book also includes photos and facsimile drawings of many period historical sites and medical implements. I found the plates and annotations fascinating and informative. Many are reproduced in colour and add a lot to the read. The bibliography is extensive and will provide readers with many hours of further reading, following up references.

Four stars. Recommended for fans of ancient history, and medical history.

Disclosure: I received an ARC at no cost from the author/publisher for review purposes.
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Due to a series of health condition I'm a bit allergic to anything about holistic medicine and all the blah blah. Try to live with diabetes and without insuline.
I found the historical part interesting and well researched, I didn't like the part about "what it can teach us".
Many thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for this ARC, all opinions are mine
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I love anything to do with Roman history & this book was an informative read. The author is arguing that we can still learn things from the Greco-Romans on the subject of holistic medicine, looking after the whole body & not just the physical. I particularly liked the chapters on the Roman bathhouses & the temples of healing- fascinating stuff. Apparently the very upmarket temples & bathhouses contained not just the basics but libraries, shops, & theatres, with music, dancing, & entertainment - our modern hospitals make do with a newsagent & a coffee shop. 

There have also been some modern recreations of ancient antibiotic medicines which have apparently worked on MRSA - perhaps something which will prove to be of vital importance in the near future. If you enjoy Greco-Roman history, this is written in an accessible style. 

My thanks to NetGalley & publishers, Pen & Sword, for the opportunity to read an ARC.
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You know, when at the very beginning of a book the author makes false claims and sweeping statements of questionable veracity as well as insults, it might not make the read want to continue. But continue I did, alas, and found this full of a mix of fact and opinion about ancient Greece and Rome and their medical practices. Wikipedia honestly has better written and more in-depth and factual information on the topics, and is free, so I recommend readers go there instead of wading through this.
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This title is absolutely packed with detail; some is technical and there’s a huge amount of historical fact.  The research into written records, archaeological data, literature and more is extensive and appears meticulous.  Despite the density if factual information, the book is accessible and I approached the subject but by bit.  As a lay reader with broad interests, I wanted to learn and understand more and I dipped in to it chapter by chapter over a couple of weeks.

It’s an engrossing subject.  We now live in a world of medicine dominated by Big Pharma and, in my view, much of the basic principles around health care and well being have been lost.  Doctors tick boxes on computer screens, nurses no longer ‘nurse’ and people are becoming increasingly unwell.  This book shows how much credence was placed on balance between lifestyle and well being.  Fresh air, rest, exercise were often basics for improving a condition.  And better use was made of more natural remedies found in plants.  It wasn’t all good, but reading this is a salutary reminder of how much society has lost as well as gained. Really interesting and my thanks to the publisher for a review copy via Netgalley.
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Fascinating. I’ve always had an interest is the history of medicine and indeed did a GCSE in the subject many years ago. This book is absolutely packed with facts and a fantastic level of detail and I learned a great deal from it. It is pitched perfectly so that it is very enjoyable and accessible whether you have background knowledge or not and I was astounded and thrilled that there were some many specifics and detailed accounts seeing as the eras were quite so long ago. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that our medical knowledge and pharmaceuticals are much more advanced in current times but this book challenges your assumptions on this and shows clearly that some of the treatments they knew of and used were actually more effective and had excellent success rates.  A thoroughly enjoyable read and one that I will definitely come back to more than once for a re read. Thank you very much.
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3.5 stars. Super interesting subject material, pretty dry writing. I think this would have a much different appeal for different audiences--I was most engaged in the descriptions of Roman medicine, and I didn't really care about modern implications, but I could see how a doctor like Summerton would learn a lot.
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I absolutely found this book fascinating!
Drawing on ancient literature supplemented with evidence from archaeology, paleopathology, epigraphy and numismatics the Greco-Roman medical context is carefully examined. A particular focus is on the effectiveness of approaches to both preventing and treating a range of physical and psychological problems. Detailed consideration is also given to the ancient technical and hygienic achievements in addition to the place of healers within Roman society.

Uniquely, within each chapter, the author draws on his own clinical and public health experience, combined with modern research findings, in assessing the continuing relevance of Greco-Roman medicine. For example, Galen`s focus on access to fresh air, movement, sensible eating and getting sufficient sleep matter as much today as they did in the past. Our classical forebears can also assist us in determining the best balances between prevention and treatment, centralised control and individual responsibility, as well as the most appropriate uses of technology, drugs and surgery.

Some ancient pharmaceutical compounds are already showing promise in treating infections. In addition, practising Stoicism and getting some locotherapy should be considered by anyone struggling to cope with the stresses and strains of modern life.
Definitely worth a read and I’m sure I’ll come back to this book soon.
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The great value of this book, in my opinion, is that it carefully shows what is abiding in maintaining health, and treating ill health. And that certain parts of the Roman tradition are worth re-evaluation.  Human nature remains the same throughout time, and wise people have come up with similar views on how to deal with the upsets life deals us. I was surprised at how similar the stoic traditions were to Buddhist views, and that the Romans believed that doctors were a last resort, Very old people could maintain perfect health in the same way that people in the so-called blue zone still do. Really absorbing evaluation of Greco-Roman medicine, and he wears his knowledge lightly, so reading is never tedious.
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