Field Doctors in Ancient Warfare

The concept of a physician or medicine man, depending on the culture, has been around since prehistoric times and used both natural and supernatural means to treat patients. The first recorded physician dates back to Egypt (2667-2648 BCE) named Imhotep and the first surgery performed in 2750 BCE. The Egyptians were also the first to write medical texts outlining the disease, diagnosis and treatment. Herodotos makes note in his ‘Histories’ of the specialist treatment by the Egyptians. The Babylonians also had written medical texts dating back to the first half the 2nd millennium BCE. The first field doctors to be mentioned were in Homer’s Iliad, two men each skilled in different medical practices, much like a specialist and a GP today.

Asklepius The Glypotek, Copenhagen Photo by Nina Aldin Thune Wikipedia
The Glypotek, Copenhagen
Photo by Nina Aldin Thune

Makhaon and Podalirius were sons of the god of healing Asklepius and though both were physicians, they also were warriors. Makhaon would treat those who were wounded and his brother would attend to those who got sick. They were held in high regard by their fellow countrymen, so much so, when Makhaon was injured by Paris Akhilleus was said to be concerned and inquired after him.

Idomeneus, King from Krete addresses Nestor:
‘Quick, Nestor son of Neleus, great glory of the Greeks, into your chariot, pick up Makhaon and drive with all speed to the ships. A healer like him, who can cut out arrows and apply soothing herbs, is worth a thousand others.’
Iliad, Book 11, Lines 512-515

A number of historians believe Homer had fought in battles as the descriptions of the wounds have a ring of truth. It’s possible he was blinded while fighting hence the enduring story of being a sightless bard. The many injuries inflicted are quite gruesome and the battle scenes are littered with men mortally wounded. Here are a few examples:

Akhilleus: ‘…hurled his spear through the middle of his head, splitting his [Trojan soldier] skull in two.’
Again Akhilleus: ‘The bronze helmet failed to hold the spear. The eager point went through, smashed the bone and spattered the inside of the helmet with the man’s brains.’

Surgery on the battlefield Nimatallah/De Agostini/Getty Images
Surgery on the battlefield
Nimatallah/De Agostini/Getty Images

The field doctors in ancient warfare faced the same issues and complications that arise today. The difference between them is the weaponry used. Both Makhaon and his brother had to make fast and hard decisions as to whether treatment was needed. At the site of Troy/Ilios, archaeologists have found burial sites, skeletons showing evidence of injuries. Many warriors died on the field due to fact the physician wasn’t able to reach them in time as stated in an article Treatment of War Wounds. In the case of Menelaos he had 42% chance of dying if he wasn’t treated.

Makhaon at work:
‘When he found the place where the sharp arrow had pierced the flesh, he sucked out the blood and skilfully applied soothing herbs…’
Iliad, Book 4, Lines 215-17

Like today, physicians on the battle field play an important role and are the unsung heroes.

Thank you for visiting and reading. As always, I look forward to your comments.




Achaean Leaders, Greek Mythology Link 
Manring, M. M. et al Treatment of War Wounds: A Historical Review, MD4-PMC
McCulloch, Ian MacPherson, Battlefield medicine – The Ancient World 2000 BC-AD 500, Osprey Publishing
Medicine Ancient History Encyclopedia 

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Add Yours
  1. danielfbowman

    Very interesting. The medics of the past don’t get nearly the praise they deserved. Whether their practice saved lives or not, they did what they believed was helpful.


    • cav12

      Totally, and if it wasn’t for these pioneers we wouldn’t have medical practitioners and the knowledge of natural remedies to aid our health.
      Thanks Daniel 😀


  2. jmmcdowell

    My father served in the Medical Corps in WWII, and he could barely speak about the horrors he saw. I’m in awe of anyone who could keep their head and perform surgery in battle conditions.


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