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Middle East Abeja Dispatch

Pergamum: City of Death, City of Life
February 19, 2000


The amphitheater filled to capacity. Gladiators, slaves, and wild animals were paraded in front of the expectant crowd. These were the heroes; these were the games. Like a Superbowl star, a popular gladiator, armed with daggers, swords, forks or nets with weights on all corners, was pitted against a slave or a war prisoner. Wild animals were brought here from all over the kingdom-lions, giraffes and elephants-for a fight to the death against these professional killers.

Just as traveling to new countries teaches us about different cultures and values, so does traveling through history. Ancient Roman amphitheaters dot the Mediterranean and Aegean coasts of Turkey. Standing in them, today, I can only wonder at their past glory and their past horrors. The amphitheater here in Pergamum, overlooking beautiful mountains, was a great one. Ornate carvings and columns lay in rubble. Were they brightly painted? What did this place look like when it was filled with Roman nobility? Did people feel any shame watching humans battle to the death for entertainment, or am I just projecting my own cultural bias?


bias - a particular tendancy or inclination
burly - great in bodily size; stout; sturdy
cadaver - a dead body
humors - refers to the four elemental fluids of the body: blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile
hysterical - uncontrollably emotional
orante - excessively or sumptuosly adorned

When this area was ruled by the Greeks, democracy was in its infancy. But the Romans didn't even pretend to give the locals a say in politics. Instead, I'm told, they provided the people with these bloodbaths as a form of entertainment, to distract them from political discourse. (Hmmm? Ever wonder if there is an alternative motivation to the Superbowl, or television itself?) When one of the opponents was injured, the fighting would pause, and he would hold up the index finger of his left hand. This was a question to the crowd, "May I live?"; If the crowd really liked him, they may cheer him and give the thumbs up. More likely, he would get the thumbs down, and be executed. This was the only vote the people were given in Roman times!

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Out of death comes life, it is sometimes said. Outside of town, by the sacred healing springs, the walls of the Asklepion crumble slowly. Has Asklepios, the god of medicine, deserted this site? How much blood and gore could he stand?

The Asklepion was not only a spa for the wealthy, but it was also where the gladiators went to be healed. It was right here in Pergamum that the greatest physician in Roman times was born in 129 AD and trained in the healing arts. Known as Galen, he held the prestigious position of physician to the gladiators.

What did this early doctor of sports medicine believe in, anyway? Well, at the time, the body was thought to be made of what were known as the four humors. No, humors aren't comedians, they're the basic substances that were thought to make up the human body--yellow bile, black bile, blood, and phlegm-as was taught by the even more ancient Greek physician Hippocrates. The belief in Hippocratic humoral physiology lasted well into the 17th century!

Most illness that was physical in origin (not curses by Gods or magic) was believed to be caused by an imbalance in these four "humors." Gladiators probably had a deficiency in blood, and maybe a lot of mean black bile!

Galen is well known for improving our understanding of anatomy and physiology-probably from replacing Gladiator spleens and stuff. Still, he was way off. For example, the word "hysterical" comes from Galen's belief that a woman's uterus (hysterectomy - removal of the uterus) moved around in her body. When it went to her head, she would become "hysterical." I figure the hysteria of ancient Roman women probably had more to do with the constant horror of watching men fight to the death in the amphitheaters as entertainment.

Healing at the Asklepion involved things like dream analysis, massage, mud baths, drinking sacred waters, and using herbs and ointments. Today, these treatments are facing a revival, I think, out of Northern California! I can't really imagine a burly gladiator with a broken arm going in for a mud bath, though.

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The ruins of the Asklepion are pretty dramatic, even today. One common carving is the well-known snake, a symbol of Asklepios, the god of medicine. The snake, by shedding its old skin, gains new life, just as patients are supposed to gain new life at the Asklepion. Other gods that hung around ol' Galen included Telesphorus, who would send cures to people in their sleep, and his two daughters Hygeia and Panacea.

So much of modern medicine is based on the works of these ancient writers that medical students have to study in Latin to understand the medical terms. Even though Galen himself wrote in Greek, it was translated to Latin!

In 162 A.D., Galen decided that he had bigger fish to fry and he packed out of Pergamum and headed for Rome. There he became the personal physician to the Emperor Marcus Aurelius himself. He also continued to publish works about philosophy as well as medicine. In 191, a fire in the Temple of Peace, where he had stored a lot of his work for safekeeping, destroyed important parts of Galen's writing. What remains, (at least 20 volumes in Greek, and some only surviving copies of Arabic or Latin translations) proves that not only was he smart and a prolific writer, but also that he had quite an attitude!

In that time, cutting open a human body was considered immoral, but abortion and suicide were accepted as commonplace. How much things have changed! I wonder, as I learn about Galen, what he would think about our modern ambulances and emergency medicine. When I ran on the rescue squad back in Virginia, I had a much better idea of what was really inside the human body than Galen ever did - I even dissected a cadaver in college! Still, there was often that helpless feeling that there was just nothing that I could do to really help the person in front of me. Was that the feeling that drove Galen to write so much?


p.s. - Please e-mail me at


Abeja - Pergamum: City of Death, City of Life
Brian - Five Days, Twelve Lives... A Look Into One Rescue Worker's Journal
Brian - Fifteen Thousand Years Old and Going Strong
Brian - Volunteering: We Get By with a Little Help from Our Friends-and Complete Strangers
Kavitha - COREM: Mending the Shaken Lives of Turkish Youth

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