The world of the Roman Empire was permeated with the divine to an extent almost unimaginable in a modern secular world.1 Gods were everywhere, as benign creators or angry avengers, as patrons of cities and occupational groups, even occasionally as distinguished ancestors. The doctor C. Stertinius Xenophon on Cos, for example, proudly proclaimed his descent from both Asclepius and Hercules.2 Few dared to doubt the existence of gods, although they might well have sought to extend the limits of human self-sufficiency by stressing natural over supernatural causes or, like the Epicureans, denying the gods any direct involvement in human affairs. Conversely, few believed, like Theophrastus’ superstitious man, that divine wrath was always likely to strike unless one took the right precautions at every possible opportunity, and that only by consulting the right experts – dream interpreters, prophets, priests, astrologers and the like – could one be reasonably certain of the favourable outcome of any action.3 But between these two extremes lay a variety of ways in which space could be made for both divine and human agency. While there might be disagreements and uncertainties at times over the boundaries between the two, it would be wrong to see this in a medical context as a conflict between sacred and secular intervention. As we have already seen, the Hippocratic author of The Sacred Disease emphasised his own superior piety in acknowledging the divine nature of all creation and in rejecting the exorcists’ appeals to the gods to intervene directly in diseases susceptible of an entirely natural explanation.4 His attitude was shared by many other doctors, not least by the pious Galen, and rules out a simple dichotomy between a secular and a religious approach to health and healing.5 Nor was it thought in any way incongruous to ask an oracle whether or not one was going to recover, while seeking medical assistance from a secular healer.6 Yet, as this chapter will show, there were at times differences between the various religions of the Roman Empire in their attitudes towards medicine that had a major impact on the way in which the practice of medicine developed over the centuries. One common misunderstanding needs to be corrected at the outset. Given the ubiquity of deities as protectors or saviours, it is misleading to talk of ‘healing gods’ as if they formed a distinct category, for one could direct

a prayer for assistance with health problems to any god one wished.7 The divinity might be purely local, like Coventina, who presided over a spring at Carrawburgh on Hadrian’s Wall, or universal, like Apollo.8 He or she might be endowed with a specifically human form, like Asclepius, or remain an almost anonymous abstraction, like the Most High God, ‘a title that almost any honest man could apply with a clear conscience’ to any god treated as the supreme being.9 There were noteworthy regional and chronological differences. The early Romans, unlike the Greeks, placed many of the events, both good and bad, of agricultural life under the tutelage of a specific power responsible solely for that event. Thus they prayed to Blight or the Goddess Fever in an attempt to avert potential catastrophe.10 When such divinities appear in a Greek context, it is likely to be under Roman influence, whether exerted directly by settlers or merchants, or indirectly.11 The peoples of the Levant, by contrast, frequently attributed illness to the malignity of demons, who took possession of the individual and needed to be appeased or exorcised to bring about recovery. Although in the New Testament demons are particularly associated with mental conditions, as in the story of the Gadarene swine, most texts from the region make no distinction between physical and mental illness.12 The demon Barsaphael was believed to give ‘those who reside in my hour’ migraine headaches, as was the female demon Antaura, mentioned on a tablet found in the Roman military camp at Carnuntum (Austria) and dating from either the late first or the second century. This tablet, containing a short account of the victory of Artemis of the Ephesians over Antaura, was clearly worn as protection against migraine attacks. Versions of the same story can be found in Christianised forms well into the Byzantine period.13 The presence of this tablet, written in Greek with some Hebrew words, in a settlement on the Danube points to another feature of religion in the period from 100 BC to AD 300 – the spread of beliefs and cults around the Roman Empire in part facilitated by the polyethnicity of the Roman army. Sometimes this took the form of an introduction of new cults from outside a region, at other times of a merging of the local with an imported equivalent.14 At Bath, the god of its healing waters, Sul, was equated with Minerva; across the Severn, at Lydney, a dedicator inscribed his plaque to Mars Nodens, another fusion of a Celtic and a Roman divinity.15 From the third century BC, if not earlier, Asclepius was assimilated to a variety of indigenous healing deities; for example, in Egypt to Imhotep/Imouthes, and in Phoenicia to Eshmun.16 In the Dolomites, the Venetic god Trumusiatis or Tribusiatis became identified with Apollo, with the rituals and types of dedication at his sacred spring continuing apparently unchanged from the first century BC until the fourth century.17 Hot springs in particular, or those with an unusual colour, taste or smell, often had their own deities.18 As a late commentator on Virgil put it, ‘there is no such thing as a non-sacred spring’.19 Some of these shrines developed a regional or even an empire-wide reputation. A stonemason from Chartres and soldiers on leave, or merely passing

through, made their dedications to Sul at peaceful Bath, while the temple of the Dea Sequana at the headwaters of the Seine drew worshippers from all over Gaul and beyond.20 In 213-15 the Emperor Caracalla, ‘who suffered from both visible and hidden diseases of the body as well as those of the mind’, went in person to seek help from Apollo Grannus at Faimingen, S. Germany, from Asclepius at Pergamum and from Sarapis at Alexandria.21 His personal attendance and his lavish gifts, reports the historian Cassius Dio, were no more successful than the prayers, sacrifices and benefactions his servants had previously made on his behalf. Caracalla’s pilgrimage also indicates that some gods were indeed viewed more widely than others as effective protectors and sources of healing.22 A list would include the Deae Matronae, Mars, Minerva, Diana, Hercules, Men (a Phrygian god, often given the epithet ‘he who hears’), the Egyptian gods Isis and Sarapis, and, the big two, Apollo and Asclepius.23 Although the next few pages deal mainly with Asclepius, the ubiquity of local healing deities and shrines should not be forgotten, nor the protection offered by any divinity to his or her worshippers.24 An abundance of coins and inscriptions attests the universality of Asclepius cult in the first three centuries of the Roman Empire, from Lusitania and Hadrian’s Wall in the West to Mesopotamia in the East.25 Temples were established, rebuilt and enlarged, and festivals and games set up in honour of the god. The Asclepieion of Cos underwent a massive reconstruction in the 50s

Figure 18.1 The Asclepieion of Cos. A reconstruction by T. Meyer-Steineg.