Show Summary Details

Page of

Printed from Oxford Classical Dictionary. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a single article for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 25 February 2021


  • J. T. Vallance

Many ancient medical authorities believed that therapeutic medicine had its origins in the gradual discovery of connections between health and the regulation of one's day-to-day life (δίαιτα‎). A group of treatises in the Hippocratic corpus (see hippocrates (2)) is concerned specifically with the study of the living-patterns of both sick and healthy. By the time Celsus wrote the preface to his treatise On Medicine, dietetics had long been established as one of the three main branches of therapeutics, along with surgery and pharmacology. Traditionally, Herodicus of Selymbria, a gymnastic trainer, was credited with recognizing the connections between regimen and both health and illness; dietetics was originally thought to have developed in the context of the regulation of life for those training for the games (see Pl.Resp. 406a).

Hippocratic dietetic strategy involved the doctor with the healthy as much as the sick. Certain activities were known to be risky, and were thus to be discouraged—too much sex, drinking, reading, inactivity, massage, and so on. Doctors were encouraged to observe with great care all the factors, both internal and external, which might influence the body for good or ill.

This empirical model, however, was not taken by all at face value. Dietetic analysis of disease often meant investigating more or less theoretically the qualities of different types of food. One dominant medical theory had it that health was a balance of certain factors in the body; an imbalance could be rectified by administering food with the opposite quality. Certain foods were thought to have certain qualities—honey, for example, is hot and dry according to the author of the Hippocratic treatise On Regimen, and can therefore be used to counter the opposite conditions. Theoretical ideas about the pathogenic consequences of imbalance, repletion and depletion, hot, cold, and so on, were widely understood against the background of the idea that ‘opposites cure opposites’. Such thinking led to the elaboration of taxonomies of therapeutically important foodstuffs.

The Hippocratic foundations of dietetics—both empirical and theoretical—were important throughout antiquity, even if dietetic ideals appealed in different ways to different societies. Many doctors and writers on gymnastic training continued to develop the subject, including Galen (On the Preservation of Health) and Philostratus (On Gymnastics) (see Philostrati). Several dozen brief Precepts of Health survive.


L. Edelstein, Die Antike 1931, 255–70Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat (trans. in L. Edelstein, Ancient Medicine (1967)).

  • I. M. Lonie, Medical History 1977, 235–60.
  • O. Powell, Galen, on the Properties of Foodstuffs (2003).
  • M. Grant, Dieting for an Emperor, Studies in Ancient Medicine 15 (1997).