Disease has always been a crisis in the lives of both individuals and communities; to overcome such a crisis has been a major task of religion. Specific gods became patrons of human healers or were renowned for their ability to help individuals, some presiding over healing springs; a frequent strategy was to regard disease as the result of pollution and then to try to cure it with cathartic rituals; see purification.
In Greece, the main god responsible for healing was Apollo, who in the Iliad sent the plague and took it away again; behind this function, there lie ancient near‐eastern conceptions. Apollo remained a healer throughout the Archaic and Classical periods; in Ionian cities (and their colonies), he often bore the epithet ‘physician’; as Apollo Medicus, his cult was introduced to Rome in 433 bc. In the course of the 5th cent., Apollo's role as a healer was contested and slowly replaced by the much more personal and specialized hero Asclepius, whom myth made Apollo's son and whose fame radiated chiefly from his Epidaurian sanctuary; in his main sanctuaries (Epidaurus, Cos, Pergamum), Asclepius succeeded Apollo, who, however, still retained a presence in spite of the fame of his son. The ritual of Asclepius developed incubation as a specific means to obtain healing in dreams.
Rome followed the course set by Greece, introducing first Apollo Medicus, then, in 293 bc, Asclepius (Lat. Aesculapius) from Epidaurus. Rome also venerated Febris, ‘Fever’ (i.e. malaria). Besides, and from time immemorial, Italy had a large number of local shrines, often of motherly goddesses who were supposed to heal; one of their main concerns, to judge from the many anatomic votives, was with female fertility. Chiefly in Gaul and Britain, cults at healing springs were important (see religion, celtic); their divinities kept their Celtic names or were identified with Roman gods, like Apollo or, in Roman Bath, Sulis Minerva; see aquae sulis.
Subjects: Classical Studies.