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Asclepius and the temples of healing

In Ancient Greece, the concept of a 'hospital' as a purpose-built healing space was unknown. The sick and bed-ridden were cared for at home although they might receive visits and advice from a number of healers including herbalists, diviners, exorcists, bone-setters, and craft healers (iatroi) such as those who followed the teachings of *Hippocrates of Cos (450-370 BCE). Some physicians accommodated patients within their own homes in rooms set aside for therapy and recuperation. In the Greek and Mediterranean world, health and healing became associated with Asclepius, a mythical character depicted by the poet, Pindar (c. 522-443 BCE), as the son of Apollo, the god, and Coronis, daughter of King Phlegyas of Trikka in northern Greece. By the 5th century BCE, the cult of Asclepius was becoming established throughout Greece, and a magnificent temple was built at *Epidaurus, near the east coast of southern Greece, in about 430 BCE.

Religious healing existed alongside the secular medicine which many healers including the followers of *Hippocrates (who was, himself, an 'Asclepiad' of Cos) sought to establish at this time. The Epidaurian temple complex became a healing shrine which, as well as its religious functions, also served as a sanctuary for the sick. The Roman emperor, Antoninus Pius (CE 138-161), had a building erected on the site as a refuge for the dying and for women in childbirth. It contained about 180 rooms. There were also facilities for hot and cold bathing. Most Asclepian sites were built in wooded valleys close to springs and caves where 'good spirits' were believed to reside. Healers often contributed to the construction of a shrine and, through his priests or from dreams, accepted the orders of Asclepius in prescribing for themselves and their patients. *Alexander the Great (reigned 336-323 BCE) donated funds to the temple at *Epidaurus.


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