Pathology and Other Ailments

In marshy regions, you have to be on your guard against little airborne creatures, so tiny as to be invisible. They enter the body through the mouth and nose, and cause serious illnesses. Fundianus asked: “What can I do to reduce the chance of disease, if I inherit a farm like that?” Agrius replied: “Sell it for as much as you can get or, failing that, just abandon it.” But Scrofa suggested: “Make sure the farmhouse does not face the direction from which the wind usually brings the infection, and build it high up rather than in a valley, so that anything harmful can be blown away that much more easily. A location that gets the sun all day is healthier, since any little creatures that are bred nearby are carried off by the wind or die quickly because of the lack of humidity” (Varro, On Farming 1.12).

The best kind of air is that which is perfectly pure, such as that which is not defiled with the exhalation from lakes or marshes, nor from any pit which emits pestilential vapours. That also which is impregnated with the exhalations from a canal conveying the impurities of a city is deleterious, and indeed every kind which is loaded with vapours is not good ; as also that which is contained within any hollow place shut up on all sides by high mountains, and not admitting of ventilation (Paul of Aegina, Medical Compendium 1.49).

They say that Plato was aware of the damage it might do to his physical health, but nevertheless deliberately chose to found his school in the Academy, a pestilential region in Attica, so as to prune away excessive physical comfort, rather as overproductive vines are cut back. I myself have heard doctors say that being at the peak of good health is actually a dangerous thing (St. Basil, On Reading Pagan Literature 9.80).

Jaundice: in the acute and rapidly fatal form of jaundice, the patient’s whole skin is very like pomegranate peel in color, or greener than green lizards (Hippocrates, Diseases 3.11).

It is always a bad sign if a patient suffering from an acute disease stops being thirsty for no reason (Hippocrates, Coan Prenotions 58).

An account of phrenitis. A person’s intelligence is derived mostly, some people would say exclusively, from the blood. So, when bile is stirred up and enters the blood in the blood vessels, it alters the blood’s normal consistency and motion, intensifying its movement, making it serous, and heating it. When the blood is heated, it heats all the rest of the body. Because of the strength of his fever and the blood’s serum content and abnormal movement, the patient becomes deranged and is no longer his usual self (Hippocrates, Diseases 1.30).

Ill health has forced me to take a long time doing nothing. The attack came suddenly. “What sort of illness?” you ask. And well may you ask, for there is no ailment to which I am a stranger. But this is one disease to which I have, as it were, on special assignment. I don’t know why I should call it by its Greek name [asthma], for it can be quite adequately termed “shortage of breath”. Attacks are very brief, like a storm. They are usually over in less than an hour. After all, who could breathe out his life for long? I have experienced every physical affliction and crisis; none of them seems more dreadful than this one. How could it be otherwise? Anything else is a sort of sickness, but this is breathing out one’s soul. That’s why doctors call asthma “a rehearsal for death”. For sooner or later an asthma sufferer’s breath does what it has so often tried to do. Do you think I am writing this in a light-hearted vein because I have escaped? It would be as absurd for me to rejoice in the restoration of good health as it would be for a defendant to suppose that he has won his case when all he has achieved is a postponement of his trial (Seneca, Letters 54).

If a patient suffering from consumption is losing his hair, and has in fact already become almost bald because of his illness, and if his sputum has a heavy odor when he spits on coals, you should tell him that he is going to die within a short time, and that diarrhoea is what will kill him (Hippocrates, Diseases 2.48).

Firm and fit bodies are more susceptible to pleurisy and pneumonia than are bodies that are never exercised (Hippocrates, Coan Prenotions 392).

The Roman army brought plague back with it from Mesopotamia in AD 165, and there were virulent outbreaks for decades. Writing about events in 189, Cassius Dio records: “There was a pestilence, worse than any other I have known. Frequently two thousand people died in Rome in a single day. But many others died for a quite different cause, not only in Rome but throughout practically the whole Empire. They were murdered by criminals who were paid to smear deadly drugs on small needles and inject people with the poison. The same thing had happened during the reign of Domitian [about a hundred years earlier] (History of Rome 72.14.3).

It is not likely that all diseases came into being as the same time, the way runners start out together when the barrier falls. They probably arose one after another, each at its own particular time. It is a reasonable assumption that our bodies were first afflicted by illnesses caused by deficiencies, or by heat, or by cold. Gluttony, indulgence, and luxurious living came along subsequently, accompanied by indolence and idleness made possible by the abundance of life’s necessities. This engendered harmful excess, which brought with it all sorts of new diseases with endless permutations and complexities (Plutarch, Table Talk 732d).

Xenocrates has shown that the number of syllables that can be formed by making combinations of the letters of the alphabet is one hundred million, two hundred thousand. This being so, how is it surprising if … the complex range of influences to which our bodies are subjected should sometimes cause new and unfamiliar diseases? (Plutarch, Table Talk 733a)

Philon the doctor insisted that the affliction known as elephantiasis had only recently become known. His argument was that none of the ancient physicians had mentioned this disease, even though they had a tendency to expatiate on trivial, pedantic, and obscure points. In support of Philon’s contention, I cited the philosopher Athenodorus, who records in the first book of his Epidemics that not only elephantiasis, but also hydrophobia, first appeared in the time of Asclepiades. Everyone was amazed at the thought of new diseases arising then for the first time, but they regarded it as every bit as astounding that such symptoms might have escaped notice till then. The majority inclined to the latter theory, since it is more convenient for mankind to suppose that nature does not welcome change and does not strive to craft new troubles for the body in the way that civil unrest afflicts communities (Plutarch, Table Talk 731a).

Headache in combination with pain in the seat and the genitals causes sluggishness, debility, and paralysis of the voice. These afflictions are mild, but those who suffer in this way become prone to drowsiness and hiccups. In the ninth month the voice is recovered but the same problems recur and patients suffer also from intestinal worms (Hippocrates, Coan Prenotions 160).

Much of the Romans’ water supply was channeled through lead pipes. (The English word “plumbing” is derived from the Latin term plumbum, meaning “lead”.) It has been suggested that infertility caused by lead poisoning contributed to the eventual fall of the empire. The Romans, however, were fully aware that water conducted through terra-cotta pipes was healthier and better tasting (Vitruvius, On Architecture 8.6.10-11).   A more dangerous source of lead poisoning would have been cauldrons and cooking pots made at least partially of lead: grape juice should be boiled down in pots made of lead rather than of copper, since copper pots give off rust during the cooking process, and this spoils the flavor (Columella, Country Affairs 12.20).

Fracture of the collar-bone is accompanied by deformation that is initially very prominent, but later diminishes. Like all porous bones, the clavicle unites rapidly, for such bones quickly develop a callus. Patients take a great interest when the fracture is still recent, thinking the damage is more serious than it actually is, and the doctors are naturally keen to administer the proper treatment. But time moves on, and, because they experience no pain and neither their mobility nor their diet is restricted, patients lose interest. As for the doctors, since they cannot make the injured area look good, they are not upset by their patients’ lack of interest and make themselves scarce (Hippocrates, Joints 14).

Nicanor’s affliction was that, any time he went to a drinking party, he was afraid of the girl piper. Whenever he heard the sound of a pipe beginning to play at a symposium, anxieties would crowd in upon him. He said it was almost unbearable at night, whereas he was not at all bothered by it if he heard piping during the day. The problem persisted for a long time (Hippocrates, Epidemics 5.81).

Erasistratus says that the type of unbearably violent hunger that the Greeks call βούλιμος (bulimos) tends to affect people much more readily on very cold days than when the weather is calm and settled. He adds that he has not yet discovered the reason for this, why the affliction should usually strike during cold weather (Erasistratus, frg. 284).