In the ancient world, Asklepios’s magic was often reserved for the chronically ill and incurable. But if you woke up one morning with a fever and achy joints, you went to see a doctor (iatros).

One of the earliest doctors was Democedes of Croton, in southeastern Italy, where the sixth-century B.C. Greek philosopher Pythagoras established his community. According to Herodotus, Democedes, the son of a priest of Asklepios, was the “best physician of his day”; he even healed the Persian Achaemenid king Darius I (522–486 B.C.) of a sprained ankle.

Another sixth-century B.C. doctor from Croton, and a member of Pythagoras’s cult, was a man named Alcmaeon, who was the first doctor known to have performed dissections and who discovered the connection between the brain and the sense organs.

Most of what we know about ancient Greek medicine comes from writings attributed to the fifth-century B.C. physician Hippocrates, from the Greek island of Kos, though in fact these writings were composed by several different people. The Hippocratic authors promoted the notion that diseases had natural causes and were not punishments dealt by angry gods; they counseled doctors to inquire about a patient’s history, observe her symptoms and determine a course of treatment. The basis of Hippocratic medicine was the humoral theory, which posited that the human body is made up principally of four elements: blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile. In a healthy body, these humors exist in balance with one another; disease is the result of an imbalance, and the doctor’s treatment (such as bleeding—shown at left—to reduce the blood, or suction-cupping to distribute humors) would return the body to humoral harmony. (Cups and other medical instruments are depicted in the Hellenistic relief at bottom right. Medical instruments were carried in small chests, like the 5-inch-long, first-century B.C. Roman example below.)

Hippocratic practice also forbade doctors from treating incurable cases (for such treatments, patients visited Asklepios) and insisted on doctor-patient confidentiality—which remain important aspects of modern medicine.

In the fourth-century B.C., Diocles of Carystos, in Greece, experimented with dissection. The third-century B.C. Herophiles of Chalcedon, in northwestern Anatolia, distinguished between the sensory and motor nerves. In the first century A.D., Celsus of Rome described such ailments as venereal disease, heart disease and insanity in his eight-volume De Medicina. Under the emperor Trajan (98–117 A.D.), Rufus of Ephesus made a study of melancholia, which he attributed to an excess of black bile. Rufus’s fellow townsman and contemporary Soranus of Ephesus was interested in women’s health and the reproductive process, making him the father of gynecology and obstetrics.

All of these doctors laid the foundation for the second-century A.D. Claudius Galen, the physician upon whom much Western medicine was based for the next 1,500 years.

Born at Pergamum, Galen became a physician after his father had a dream about Asklepios. He became the doctor of the gladiators of Pergamum, and later the personal physician of the emperors Marcus Aurelius and his son Commodus. Like Hippocrates, Galen used observation, reasoning and experimentation in treating his patients. He left behind 350 texts on medicine, passing on to his disciples both new learning and 700 years of wisdom.