The History of Psychological Treatment: The Greeks and Romans

The Greeks and Romans always thought that psychological disorders were biologically caused and so, they treated them like physical illnesses.

Hippocrates: already impressively close to the truth in 400 B.C.

Hippocrates, a Greek physician (470-366 B.C.) and many others contributed to a manual¬†called the Hippocratic Corpus, on how psychological disorders could be treated like any other disease. However, Hippocrates and his associates didn’t stop there; they had the notion that psychological disorders might also be caused by brain pathology or head trauma and also, they had the idea that psychopathology could be influenced by genetics.

It’s quite interesting to see how close Hippocrates came to the truth. Many of his deductions have been supported in recent years. Hippocrates also recognized the importance of social contributions to psychopathology, such as the negative effects of family stress. In some cases he even removed patients from their families.

Galen: quite a humorous guy

The Roman physician Galen (approx. 129-198 A.D.) took the ideas of Hippocrates even further. He created a powerful and influential school of thought within the biological tradition of psychology that extended well into the 19th century.

Galen’s theory was the humoral theory, and perhaps the forst example of associating psychological disorders with chemical imbalance, which is a widespread theory still to this day.

It was initially assumed that normal brain functioning was related to four body fluids (or humors): blood (the heart), black bile (the spleen), yellow bile (the liver) and phlegm (the brain). Physicians believed that too much or too little of any of these humors would lead to disease. For instance, it was believed that too much black bile lead to melancholia (depression).

The four humors were related to the Greeks’ conception of the four basic qualities: heat, dryness, moisture and cold. Each humor was associated with one of these qualities. Terms derived from the four humors are still used today to describe personality traits. For example sanguine (red, like blood) describes someone who is ruddy in complexion, cheerful and optimistic. Melancholic means depressive, and a phlegmatic personality indicates apathy and sluggishness, but can also mean being calm under stress. A choleric (from yellow bile or choler) person is hot tempered.

Treatment of an excess of humors

An overabundance of any of these humors was treated by regulating environmental factors. They increased or decreased heat, dryness, moisture or cold, depending on which humor was out of balance.

In addition to rest, good nutrition and exercise, two treatments were developed. In one, bleeding, or bloodletting, a carefully measured amount of blood was removed from the body. This was often done with leeches. The other was to induce vomiting to treat depression (in Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) Robert Burton advised to eat tobacco and a half-boiled cabbage to induce vomiting).

What do you think of these theories? It’s interesting to see that these theories are already so old, but still so close to the truth. Of course, the humoral theory has become obsolete somewhere in the last two centuries, but people have always considered the theory to be true.

Also, isn’t it great that this theory had such a big influence of a part of our language, on how we describe personality traits?

Please share your thoughts! :)


Source: Barlow, D.H., & Durand, V.M. (2009) Abnormal psychology: an integrative approach (5th Edition). Wadsworth Cengage Learning.

6 thoughts on “The History of Psychological Treatment: The Greeks and Romans”

  1. I think I would faint if someone bloodletted (bledlet? bledletted?) me with leeches, and not from blood loss. 8(

    Ha! I see my quote, you have my official endorsement! ;)

  2. I do believe that many of our emotions are heretical much like alcoholism. Like Hippocrates, I see the family as the most important social media in an individual’s life. It affects almost every area of the person’s view towards life and other people. Trust, distrust, prejudice, love, all these are developed in our minds as a child from our family unit.

    This thought links us to the different personality traits described by Galen. These traits describe one person and not four different individual. Each human being has all four of these personality traits in their characteristics. However, some are more dominant than others. Finding which of these four best describes you is the true quest.

    Where I differ from their teachings is that I don’t see how medicine can cure an ailment of the mind. I know it can contain it. However, in order to cure an individual from thoughts outside the norm, one must do so emotionally; by guiding the individual through the labyrinth in his mind until he finds he way out into the truth of reality.

    As a science fiction guy, I must stop here and ask. Considering that all things consist of matter and can be manipulated or designed; do we truly know what reality is?

  3. Hi :) Interesting article. I’m also pleased for your mention of the Ancient Greeks and the Romans. :D

    There is relation between psychological disorders and somatic ones. It works both ways. A psychological disorder can be caused by a somatic one and vice versa, a somatic disorder can be caused by psychological disorder.

    The above mentioned in your article are not just theories, they have been proved.

    Additionally, symptoms of a somatic disorder can intensify or increase and calm or decrease, due to our psychological state. That is why doctors emphasize so much the psychological state of a patient before a surgery, a treatment etc.
    Vice versa, our psychological state can improve or deteriorate because of somatic symptoms.

    Through the progress of medicine (as much as we can call it progress), other interrelated (psychologic – somatic) functions of the body were discovered. Such as: fear, or excitement, can cause an over-production of adrenaline, pleasure is caused by or causes hormones’ release, etc.

    As for bleeding, I don’t completely agree with the cutting performed in earlier years by the doctors when a patient was ill. Bleeding weakens the body, which is not indicated on a person already weakened by illness. However, it is good to donate blood and force the body renew it, so by bleeding through cutting the patient, they actually had the same action and result.

    On the other hand, I think that leeches’ treatment is a good method, both for the bleeding action and because they have some substances in their saliva, which for various reasons help with disorders or traumas. Also, leeches can pinpoint problematic areas (like damaged tissues) and bite those areas, not just randomly.

    In conclusion, since the brain regulates both the somatic and psychological states of a body, then everything is interrelated. :)

    Thank you for a thought-provoking article :D

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