The appeal of Asklepios and the politics of healing in the Greco-Roman world

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2003-05

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Abstract

The cult of the Greek healing god Asklepios was one of the most popular cults in all of antiquity. Over the course of a millennium beginning in the 5th c. BC, sanctuaries of Asklepios spanned the Greco-Roman world and attracted countless individuals in search of cures. Scholars have long studied the cult in accordance with dichotomies like rational vs. irrational and public vs. private. These dichotomies are not only misleading when applied to Asklepios-cult, pitting it against “rational” Greek medicine and placing it beyond the political interests of the state, but have driven the cult into interpretive gridlock. Consequently, fundamental questions about the cult’s development remain unanswered. This study begins by exploring why the cult only arose in the 5th c. BC despite the fact that Asklepios had been known as a healer since Homer. Adducing evidence from the Hippocratic corpus, I argue that developments in Greek medicine were critical to the rise of the cult in the 5th c. BC. As Greek medicine began to define itself as a techne and to delimit its boundaries by specifying the kinds of illnesses that it could and could not treat, it generated a void in healing. The god Asklepios, whose mythology portrayed him as a trained physician, was ideal for filling the void left by mortal medicine. Since translocal factors alone fail to explain the spread of Asklepioscult, this study next examines local factors that motivated Athens and Rome, two of antiquity’s best-documented cities, to import Asklepios. Analysis of the placement of the cult within both the topography of Athens and the Athenian civic calendar, indicates that Athens’ immediate motivation for importing Asklepios in 420 BC was not plague (as many have argued) but imperial ambitions in the context of the Peloponnesian War. Similarly, examination of ancient sources for the cult’s importation to Rome, as well as of the topography of the area surrounding Aesculapius’ sanctuary there, demonstrates that Rome imported Aesculapius ca. 291 BC not because of a literal plague, but in response to a metaphorical plague manifest in the Samnite Wars, Demetrios Poliorketes, and the patricianplebeian struggle.

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