Pain Management in the Greek and Roman Mediterranean
by Heidi Marx
Oct. 26, 2023
Heidi Marx is a professor in the Religion Department at the University of Manitoba (Winnipeg). Her main research is in the philosophy and medicine of Late Antiquity, and she has just published, along with Kristi Upson-Saia and Jared Secord, Medicine, Health, and Healing in the Ancient Mediterranean (500 BCE– 600 CE): A Sourcebook.
What of chronic pain or more moderate pain associated with lingering conditions? A comprehensive survey of all references to remedies for pain in Dioscorides shows there are very few references to substances that are identified as analgesics for any kind of pain. Opium, mandrake, and henbane are the main ones, but the entry for the opium poppy notes that its main characteristic (power or dynamis) is its soporific quality. That is, Dioscorides recommends opium to treat insomnia, not eliminate pain. Because opium was thought of as a cooling drug, and heat was associated with vitality and life, opium was considered a dangerous substance, because it could cool a patient to the point of plunging them into a coma—perhaps even to the point of death. Its analgesic properties are only mentioned in passing. As Theophrastus states:
Attic Red-Figured Kylix, 490–480 BCE, Attributed to the Brygos Painter. Greece, Athens. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Villa Collection, Malibu, California, 86.AE.286.
Pedanius Dioscorides of Anazarbus, De Materia Medica, trans. Lily Beck. 3rd edition. New York: Georg Olms, 2017.
What do we currently expect from our analgesics and pain medications? What does managing pain mean for us? How much pain is acceptable?
How do ancient pharamacological theories of pain absorption and transfer coincide with your own experiences of non-pharamacological pain management techniques (cold compresses for headaches, bandaids, etc.)? What about the presence of other humans or animals as part of pain management strategies?
Does chronic pain differ from acute pain? Which type of pain are modern medicines best suited for? Which type do ancient pain remedies seem oriented towards?
What is pain? Is it different from discomfort? Irritation? Fear? Anxiety? What are the boundaries of the experience of pain, and how do medical treatments attend to them?