Kristen M. Gentile
Ancient Medicine CLAS303
17 April 2011
And Its Contribution to Hippocratic Medicine
The Iliad and the Odyssey are traditionally seen as works of literature, but students and
researchers of ancient medicine and the classics see beyond that label. These Homeric ἔπος 
which were referred to as ἐπικός, were much more than just stories in the ancient world. In
fact, studies show that the medical descriptions featured in Homeric literature provided pre—
Hippocratic medicinal knowledge. While both the Iliad and the Odyssey are good evidence of
Homeric medicine, the Iliad provides plentiful information regarding not only the treatment and
descriptions of illnesses, but battle wounds as well. While Homer's Iliad documents the horrors
of war and the mortality of humans, there is an underlying benefit hiding between the lines.
There is a strong probability that the ancient world looked to the works of Homer as resources
for ancient medicine. The inclusion of the bloody descriptions of the injuries which occurred
during the final stages of the Trojan War is what provided pre—Hippocratic medicinal
knowledge and instigated curiosity for further anatomical and physiological exploration. In this
paper, I will examine how the knowledge of literary ailments helped the people of the ancient
world to better understand the human body and provided a smoother transition into the realm of
rational Hippocratic medicine.
The Iliad is like a guide to pre—Hippocratic medicine and the treatment of wounds. Of
Homer's epics, the Iliad contains the most information regarding the treatment of injuries.
Extensive in length, this ἔπος spans over 15,000 lines, and has countless different editions and
versions available today. The original Iliad was Considered one of the oldest surviving Greek
poems, but more importantly, it is believed to be one of the earliest literary sources of ancient
medicine, thought to be composed around 750 B.C.
What makes the Iliad a perfect source for this study as opposed to other ancient epics,
such as the Odyssey, or the works of Hesiod, is that it provided the people of the Bronze Age
in—depth information about early anatomy and physiology prior to medical discoveries or
studies and the Hippocratic Corpus. Throughout the poem, Homer uses detailed, gory
descriptions of the battle wounds. These descriptions provided people of the ancient world
medicinal, anatomical, and physiological knowledge through the imagery. The descriptions of
these wounds are so detailed that most of the major abdominal organs and innards are observed.
In the Iliad, Homer mentions one hundred and forty—seven different injuries, most of
which are described with surprising anatomical accuracy for the given era. Hermann Frölich, a
German surgeon constructed a table that summarized all of the wounds mentioned in the Iliad
while studying medicine on the Homeric Battlefield. The table is organized by anatomical
location, the type of weapon used, whether the wound was fatal or non—fatal, and how many
of each wound there was. By studying Frölich's Table of Homeric Wounds, ancient medicine students can conclude which wounds were fatal and which were non—fatal, and also should try
to approach the information from the perspective of an aspiring ancient ἰατρός. The fatality
rate, depending on the type and location of the wound, helped the people of the ancient world
understand what would happen after someone was wounded in say, his neck. It was important to
know if it was fatal, if that fatality was preventable, or if it was curable with roots, salves, and
or a process of medical treatments.
According to the Table, there were a total of thirty--one head injuries in the poem and all
of them were fatal. Four of these wounds were stone--inflicted injuries, eight were sword-
inflicted, seventeen were by spear, and two were by bow and arrow. After being exposed to
Homer's Iliad, an ancient physician would gather that a patient wounded in the head was not
likely to live, since according to Frölich and the descriptions provided by Homer, head trauma
injuries had a one hundred percent mortality rate.
A total of sixteen injuries to the neck were mentioned within the Iliad. Of these sixteen
wounds, thirteen cases were fatal, one instance was non—fatal, and two cases were recorded
as unspecified. Two injuries were stone—inflicted, four of them were sword related, nine were
by spear, and one was by bow and arrow. For example, the death of Hector a result of a neck
brandished high in his right hand, bent on Hector's death,
scanning his splendid body—where to pierce it best?
The rest of his flesh seemed all encased in armor,
burnished, brazen—Achilles' armor that Hector stripped
from strong Patroclus when he killed him—true,
but one spot lay exposed,
where collarbones lift the neckbone off the shoulders,
the open throat, where the end of life comes quickest—there
as Hector charged in fury brilliant Achilles drove his spear
and the point went stabbing clean through the tender neck
but the heavy bronze weapon failed to slash the windpipe—
Hector could still gasp out some words, some last reply . . .
he crashed in the dust—”
In addition to the above passage, the data proves that survival of a neck wound is rare.
According to the data, there was an 81.2% mortality rate if wounded in the neck, because the
two sets of jugular veins which, when wounded, spill out an enormous amount of blood since it
relays deoxygenated blood from the cranium back to the heart via the superior vena cava. The
windpipe, also located in the neck, (refer to the above passage) was another reason for death due
to neck wound.
Another factor is decapitation. There are many instances in which the head is severed
from the neck and body on the Trojan battlefield. Basic knowledge is that decapitation is
impossible to survive. There are six decapitations within the Iliad, and all of them tended to be
quite detailed, like the death of Illioneus.
“...the one Peneleos lanced beneath the brows,
down to the eyes' roots and scooped an eyebrow out—
the spear cut clean ...