The world of the Roman Empire was permeated with the divine to an extent almost unimaginable in a modern secular world. 1 Gods were everywhere, as benign creators or angry avengers, as patrons of cities and occupational groups, even occasionally as distinguished ancestors. The doctor C. Stertinius Xenophon on Cos, for example, proudly proclaimed his descent from both Asclepius and Hercules. 2 Few dared to doubt the existence of gods, although they might well have sought to extend the limits of human self-sufficiency by stressing natural over supernatural causes or, like the Epicureans, denying the gods any direct involvement in human affairs. Conversely, few believed, like Theophrastus' superstitious man, that divine wrath was always likely to strike unless one took the right precautions at every possible opportunity, and that only by consulting the right experts - dream interpreters, prophets, priests, astrologers and the like - could one be reasonably certain of the favourable outcome of any action. 3 But between these two extremes lay a variety of ways in which space could be made for both divine and human agency. While there might be disagreements and uncertainties at times over the boundaries between the two, it would be wrong to see this in a medical context as a conflict between sacred and secular intervention. As we have already seen, the Hippocratic author of The Sacred Disease emphasised his own superior piety in acknowledging the divine nature of all creation and in rejecting the exorcists' appeals to the gods to intervene directly in diseases susceptible of an entirely natural explanation. 4 His attitude was shared by many other doctors, not least by the pious Galen, and rules out a simple dichotomy between a secular and a religious approach to health and healing. 5 Nor was it thought in any way incongruous to ask an oracle whether or not one was going to recover, while seeking medical assistance from a secular healer. 6 Yet, as this chapter will show, there were at times differences between the various religions of the Roman Empire in their attitudes towards medicine which had a major impact on the way in which the practice of medicine developed over the centuries.
One common misunderstanding needs to be corrected at the outset. Given the ubiquity of deities as protectors or saviours, it is misleading to talk of 'healing gods' as if they formed a distinct category, for one could direct a prayer