Research by anthropologist J. Lawrence Angel indicates Greco-Roman times men averaged around 5 foot 6 and women averaged around 5 foot 0. People who 5 foot 10 were considered exceptionally tall. In contrast, 30,000 years ago men averaged 5 feet 11 and women averaged 5 foot 6. In 1960, American men averaged 5 foot 9.

The life expectancy of a newborn Greek baby was 21 years. Half of all children died before the age of 15. If a female lived beyond that age she was expected to live to 38; a male to 41. Recent excavation of burial sites in southern Italy dating between 580 and 250 B.C. show that ancient Greeks had a high infant mortality rate and almost four out five children likely suffered from life-threatening diseases.

Like the Egyptians, the Greeks believed that consciousness resided in the heart, a view that would prevailed through the Middle Ages. According to the Canadian Museum of History: ““The transition from believing that illnesses originated with the gods and the realm of evil spirits (a belief perhaps universally shared with all early civilizations) to the realization that there were natural causes involved did not happen easily or suddenly. For many generations two belief systems, one rooted in religion and one based on an emerging science, co-existed. Hippocrates, the Greek Father of Medicine, wrote “prayer indeed is good, but while calling on the gods a man should himself lend a hand.” To that end there were healing centers established where the faithful might pray while receiving the benefits of medical treatment. Hippocrates and his followers took a giant step forward in the science of medicine when they asked themselves the question “How did this illness come to be?” instead of “What god or force of evil caused this illness?”[Source: Canadian Museum of History |]

Websites on Ancient Greece: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World ; BBC Ancient Greeks; Canadian Museum of History; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; ;; British Museum; Illustrated Greek History, Dr. Janice Siegel, Department of Classics, Hampden–Sydney College, Virginia ; The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization ; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive ;; Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Ancient City of Athens; The Internet Classics Archive ; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources; Ancient Greek Sites on the Web from Medea ; Greek History Course from Reed; Classics FAQ MIT; 11th Brittanica: History of Ancient Greece ;Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy;Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Exercise and Health Products in Ancient Greece


The gymnasium (derived from the Greek word for “place to exercise naked”) was where the athletes worked out. It was usually nothing more than an open area adjacent to the sacred grove. Athletes arrived with bags with oil flasks and strigils used for scraping their body clean after exercising. There were special training facilities for athletes. Athletes used oil to protect their skin form injuries, reduce sweating and make wrestlers slippery to their opponents. Some have suggested it was also done to make their bodies more aesthetically pleasing for the audience.

The strigil was a strange-looking device usually made of bronze. It was used mostly by athletes to scrape dirt and oils off their bodies after competitions and training. The athletes did this rather than wash with soap. The strigil looked sort of like a long spoon with the spoon part stretched and elongated and bent forward and the handle stretched and bent backwards. Strigils first appeared in Greek art in the 6th century B.C. and became symbols of athletes, some of whom where found to have them buried with them in ancient graves. One vase shows an athlete presenting his strigil to a dog to lick.

A typical Greek gymnasium was an open court surrounded by columns with areas for running, jumping and throwing and a covered area for wrestling and bathing. Young men often spent a greater part of their day in the gymnasium, occupying themselves as much with chatting and hanging out as working out. It is no surprise that Sophists conducted their first meetings in gymnasiums and Plato set up his Academy and Aristotle set up his Lyceum next to gymnasiums.

Athletes in the ancient Olympics ate honey for energy and meat for strength. Boxers used primitive punching bags and head-gear for training. Massage was an important element of training. One reason the athletes performed and trained in the nude is because it was easier to massage oils into their body, which was regarded as a key to victory.

On the subject of training too hard Galen wrote: “perhaps someone will say that they have a blessing in the pleasure of their bodies. But how can [that be] for during their careers athletes are in constant pain and suffering not only because of their exercise but also because of their forced feedings? And when they reach the age of retirement, their bodies are essentially...crippled."

Disease in Ancient Greece

Funerary helmet
Epidemics of malaria swept through the ancient world when the water table was raised, creating swamps where mosquitos could breed. Greeks and Romans used mosquito netting.

Tuberculosis has long been called the silent killer and has been known since the birth of history. It ravaged ancient Egypt and Greece. The ancient Greeks described it with the word “phthisis” , which means for a living body to “shrivel with intense heat as if placed in a flame.” Later the Romans ascribed the term “consumere” “to eat up or devour” to it.

The ancient Egyptians, Chinese and Greeks are all believed to have suffered from malaria. Some Egyptian mummies show signs of it. Symptoms of the disease were described by Aristotle, Homer, Socrates and Hippocrates and in Nei Ching, the Chinese canon of medicine, which dates back to 2700 B.C. The decline of some Greek city states and the fall of Rome have been attributed to malaria. Alexander the Great likely died of malaria. It may have stopped the armies of Attila the Hun and Genghis Khan.

Many scholars believe that syphilis was introduced to Europe from the New World after Columbus returned from America. There is evidence, however, that was already present in southern Italy in Greek times. One archaeologist showed National Geographic a skeleton full of little holes. "These lesion," the scientist said, "are indicative of the microorganism that causes syphilis — a spirochete called “ Trepenema” . We see a lot of it. Forty-seven skeletons out of 272 show signs of trepeonemal infection."

Archaeologists can determine high fevers suffered during childhood on skeletons.

Greeks believed a sneeze was sign of imminent danger and an indication of the expulsion of a person' vital force and every effort was made to keep them from sneezing.

The word “cholera” is derived from “choler”, the Greek word for yellow bile. Hippocrates described cholera as a post-childhood disease that could be treated by eating goat meat (most likely he was talking about a milder form of diarrhea).

How the Ancient World Dealt with Cancer

woman with a breast tumor, votive offering

In 2010, Rosalie David, professor at the University of Manchester in the UK, and Michael Zimmerman, professor at Villanova University in Pennsylvania, published a study in the journal Nature Reviews Cancer that examined evidence of cancer and suggested that cancer has become a more common disease only recently, because of modern lifestyle. David and Zimmerman examined evidence of cancer in the fossil record of early humans, in ancient Egypt and in ancient Greece. [Source: CNN, October 14th, 2010]

CNN reported: “Ancient Greece first identified cancer as a specific illness, the analysis said. It appears that the Greeks had a better knowledge and awareness of cancer than their predecessors, which is a more likely explanation than an increase in cancer, David and Zimmerman said.

In Ancient Greece, cancer gets referenced in the Hippocratic Corpus-texts said to have been written by the "father of medicine" Hippocrates between 410 and 360 B.C. These texts say that an excess of black bile causes cancer. "Hippocrates used the carcinos (crab) and carcinoma to desribe a range of tumours and swellings," David and Zimmerman wrote. The Roman physician Galen of Pergamum said around 200 A.D. that this was because some cancers appeared crab-like.

Ancient Greeks knew that a mastectomy would help a patient with a lump in her breast, but they also recognized that cancer can recur and spread to other parts of the body. “They recommended an unbelievable variety of potions, and plant extracts, and combinations to see if they couldn’t kill the cancer in other places," Olson said. "None of those worked."

From about 500 to 1500 A.D. there was little advancement in understanding cancer, the analysis said. Then, in the 17th century, Wilhelm Fabricus described operations for breast and other cancers. Cancer rates appear to have increased since the Industrial Revolution, David said. In the past 200 years, reports of specific cancers such as scrotal cancer and Hodgkin's disease have emerged.

David and Zimmerman’s suggestion that cancer occurred less frequently in antiquity and it relative frequency today is due to lifestyle habits is controversial. “No one can conduct a survey of ancient populations. It can be argued that since life expectancy was lower in the ancient world, most people didn't live long enough to develop cancer...The risk of cancer rises with age, and people only started living longer more recently. Cancer is also highly genetic. But the lack of evidence of childhood bone cancer suggests that perhaps overall rates were lower, David said, To say that pollution has helped make cancer prevalent is highly controversial, said James Olson, historian at Sam Houston State University in Texas. But certainly smoking, poor diet, and lack of exercise all contribute to cancer in the modern world, Olson said.

Plague in Athens in 430 B.C.

The After the Peloponnese War began, in 430 B.C., Athens was devastated by a mysterious plague that ripped through the city-state's military, killed Pericles and affected the course of the Peloponnese war.

No one is sure exactly what disease the plague of Athens was. Some believe it was the Ebola virus, or perhaps the bubonic plague. It had same symptoms of typhus fever but otherwise was not like any known disease.

The best account of the plague was written by Thucydides. He wrote: "The disease began, it is said, in Ethiopia beyond Egypt, and suddenly fell upon the city of Athens...Athenians suffered...hardship owing to the crowding into the city of the people from the country districts...Bodies of dying men upon another, and half dead rolled about in the streets and , in their longing for water, near all the fountains. The temples too , in which they had quartered themselves, were full of corpses of those who died in them."

Symptoms of the Plague in Athens in 430 B.C.

Thucydides wrote: "Suddenly while in good health, men were seized first with intense heat of the head, and redness in the mouth, both the throat and the tongue, immediately became blood-red and exhaled an unnatural fetid breath."

"In the next stage , sneezing and hoarsnesss came on , an in a short time the disorder descended to the chest, attended by severe coughing. And when it settled in the stomach that was upset, and vomits of bile of every kind named by physicians ensued, there also attended by great distress; and in most cases ineffectual retching followed by violent convulsions...Externally the body was very hot to the touch ; it was not pale but reddish, livid, and breaking out in small blisters and ulcers.”

Plague in an Ancient City

"Internally it was consumed by such heat that the patients could not bear to have on them the lightest covering...and would have liked to throw themselves into cold water...When the patients died, as most of them did on the seventh to ninth day from internal heat, they still had some strength left."

Among the illnesses that have been suggested or proposed are dysentery, smallpox, measles, influenza, anthrax, typhus, bubonic plague and a host of other illnesses including an Ebola-like virus. Most of the diseases don't pass the test for one reason or another.

Great Plague of Athens: Was It Typhoid?

The plague began in Ethiopia and passed through Egypt and Libya to Greece in 430-426 B.C. It changed the balance of power between Athens and Sparta, ending the Golden Age of Pericles and Athenian dominance in the ancient world. An estimated one-third of Athenians died, including Pericles, their leader. [Source: Live Science, January 23, 2006]

Knowledge of the epidemic had come largely from an account by the Greek historian Thucydides, who was taken ill with the plague but recovered. Despite Thucydides’ description, researchers could only narrow the possibilities down to a range that included the bubonic plague, smallpox, anthrax and measles.

In 2006, scientists from the University of Athens announced that the Great Plague of Athens was actually an outbreak of typhoid. According to Live Science: “A new DNA analysis of teeth from an ancient Greek burial pit indicates typhoid fever caused the epidemic. The study, led by Manolis Papagrigorakis of the University of Athens, found DNA sequences similar to those of the modern day Salmonella enterica serovar Typhi, the organism that causes typhoid fever. The study was by the International Journal of Infectious Diseases. Typhoid fever is transmitted by contaminated food or water. It is most common today in developing countries.

Hysteria and Mental Illness in Ancient Greece

In the 4th century B.C., Hippocrates said that "madness" was caused by "moistness" in the brain

The word "hysteria" comes from Greek word for "uterus." The condition was regarded as a sort of "womb furie" that produced the symptoms such as confusion, laziness, depression, headaches, forgetfulness, stomach upsets, ticklishness, cramps, insomnia, weepiness, palpitations of the heart, and muscle spasms.

Women of Amfiss by Alma-Tadema

Hysteria and women had been linked together since 2000 B.C., when healers observed that woman did nor release fluids like men during sexual intercourse and reasoned that fluids accumulate in the uterus where they caused a variety of problems and irrational behavior. Plato believed than in serious cases their uterus could fill with so much fluid it would become death and strangle its owner. These views persisted into the Victorian era.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World ; BBC Ancient Greeks ; Canadian Museum of History ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications. Last updated October 2018

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.