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Where Medicine and Religion Meet: Honorific Inscriptions in the Asklepieion at Kos

Tara Mulder

Vassar College

This paper explores the medical community of Hellenistic Kos and the interplay between doctors, patients, and religious healing practices in the Koan Asklepieion. Here I argue that via a unique epigraphic practice at Kos, we can see how itinerant physicians worked through and on behalf of the religious sanctuary, benefitting not only themselves but also Kos and the priests of Asklepios. Honorific inscriptions to Koan doctors, dedicated by foreign poleis and set up in the Koan Aesklepieion, promoted Kos as a premiere site of medical learnedness and religious and therapeutic significance in the Mediterranean world.

During the Hellenistic period, honorific inscriptions for physicians proliferated throughout the Mediterranean. These inscriptions celebrated contributions the physicians made to local communities and awarded them honors ranging from wreaths and crowns to tangible benefits such as enktesis or ateleia. The inscriptions evince mutually beneficial relationships between physicians and their communities of patients.

But in the collection of honorific inscriptions for physicians in the Koan Asklepieion, we see something unique. Here, unlike anywhere else in the Mediterranean, there are honorific inscriptions for Koan doctors dedicated by other communities. For example, one inscription is dedicated to Philippos, a Koan doctor honored by Delos for his service to the community (Samama 135). The Delians specify that a copy of their decree be sent to Kos in the care of an ambassador, Kynthias, who shall announce the honors awarded to Philippos during the Asklepieion games and request that Kos erect a copy stele in the Asklepieion at the Koan’s own expense. The existence of this inscription at Kos, with a line explaining that the money for the stele comes from the Koans, is evidence that the Koan community considered it beneficial to use their own finances to advertise both the competence of Philippos and Delos’ celebration of him. Corresponding to these inscriptions, there are also several inscriptions dedicated to Koan doctors located in other poleis that call for a replication of the inscription to be erected in the Koan Asklepieion.

Kos was famously the birthplace of Hippocrates and the site of a medical school. During the Hellenistic period it had a thriving agora and hosted an annual panhellenic festival. The Asklepieion at Kos was a renowned religious sanctuary and site for medical tourism. The location of honorific inscriptions from all over the Greek world, celebrating the expertise and competence of Koan doctors showed the premium that the Koan community placed on their reputation as a site of medical learnedness. Beyond that, though, the accretion of these inscriptions in the religious healing site of the Asklepieion, which boasted incubation chambers for dream-based healing and was staffed by priests of Asklepios trained in the art of herbalism, points to an intentional coordination of different modes of healing practice at Kos. Just as Israelowich has argued for the coexistence and coordination of seemingly disparate types of medical practices and practitioners in the High Roman Empire, so too can we see at Kos during this time the coexistence and coordination of medical and religious healing practices, each with an interest in promoting Kos as a site of medical excellence and expertise.

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Medical Communities in the Ancient Mediterranean

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