Except for the Bible, no document and no author from Antiquity commands the authority in the twenty-first century of Hippocrates of Cos and the Hippocratic Oath.1 They are regularly cited in both learned journals and the popular press as the standard of ethical conduct to which all practising physicians should adhere. In medical schools around the world students give assent to principles and words they believe go back to the Father of Medicine, and in the eyes of their prospective patients failure to live up to his prescriptions for competence and morality is the greatest of all medical sins. Revised, bowdlerised, set to music and made into a CD-Rom, updated or denounced, the Oath has made Hippocrates a familiar name even today, appealed to as the creator of the modern medical profession.2 It may then come as a shock to learn that almost nothing is known of Hippocrates himself, that he is unlikely personally to have devised the Oath, and that several passages in the Hippocratic Corpus describe practices that would have involved a doctor breaking it, even assuming that he ever had sworn to it, which is itself unlikely.3 This discrepancy between what is generally believed about Hippocrates and what he may, in reality, have said or done is the result of three converging tendencies. The first is the understandable wish of Greeks and Romans to know more about the great figures from the past; the second, the gradual accretion, whether deliberate or accidental, of anonymous or suppositious treatises around more genuine writings; the third, the growth of a Hippocratic tradition of interpretation that emphasised the value of certain treatises above others and the consequent belief that these in particular came from the pen of the master. Together they allowed free rein to the imagination of those who wished to reconstruct the life of Hippocrates on the basis of information contained in texts in the Hippocratic Corpus.4 The Greek habit of composing imaginary speeches or letters by famous persons from the past as school exercises and public display pieces gradually blurred the distinction between the genuine and the false. A group of letters and speeches that on grounds of style, content and historical detail must have been composed at the earliest around 350 BC, and some perhaps over a century later, helped to fill out the otherwise brief data on Hippocrates’ life.5 They

depict him as a wise sage, called in to cure Democritus of madness – and then refraining from intervention because he found him sane; a patriot who refused to take Persian gold to serve their king, the enemy of Greece; and a wonderfully versatile doctor, capable of treating both a monarch’s lovesickness and the great plague of Athens (which Thucydides had deemed incurable). These stories in turn became part of the picture of the historical Hippocrates, so that, for instance, they played the dominant role in shaping Galen’s understanding of the behaviour of the ideal physician and figured prominently in the only surviving substantial biography of Hippocrates from Antiquity, that written by Soranus around AD 100.6 Other stories grew up around him, numerous busts were made of him, and Cos in the Roman imperial period even had coins struck bearing his image.7