The timing of Robin Lane Fox’s lively reappraisal of the evidence for the earliest Greek ‘rational’ medicine could not be better. Interest in contagious diseases has rarely been so high. But The Invention of Medicine, although covering such famous outbreaks of plague as that which blighted Athens early in the Peloponnesian War, described in such detail by the historian Thucydides (to whom we shall return), offers precious few parallels for the present. Even the ancient name of the group of medical treatises on which Lane Fox focuses, the Epidemics, turns out to be misleading: the term simply referred to diseases present in communities, rather than to diseases that spread like wildfire between communities, affecting large proportions of their populations. But Lane Fox’s admiration for the early Hippocratics, the first doctors in history known to have practised medicine conscientiously – and sometimes pro bono – without recourse to supernatural explanations or treatments involving religious ritual, echoes the praise rightly bestowed in recent months on the medical profession. And one continuous strand in the Hippocratic treatises speaks loudly to the mental health issues that have accompanied lockdown: their authors attributed great significance to the psychological states of the patients they described, whether they were experiencing melancholia, suicidal thoughts, panic attacks or delusions, and recorded these as telling symptoms, to be observed alongside physical indicators.
Despite the often arcane and refractory nature of the sources, Lane Fox has made ancient history and society thrillingly accessible in previous books, from the riveting Pagans and Christians (1986) to the prizewinning Augustine: Conversions and Confessions (2015). He does likewise in this new work, an exploration of medicine in