• The Open University

Health and Wellbeing in the Ancient World

Use literary and archaeological evidence to see how ancient Greeks and Romans approached health, well-being and societal issues.

31,189 enrolled on this course

An ancient stone carving depicting a doctor treating a patient

Health and Wellbeing in the Ancient World

31,189 enrolled on this course

  • 6 weeks

  • 3 hours per week

  • Digital certificate when eligible

  • Introductory level

Find out more about how to join this course

  • Duration

    6 weeks
  • Weekly study

    3 hours
  • 100% online

    How it works
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    $244.99 for one whole yearLearn more

Understand Greek and Roman approaches to health and well-being

What did being healthy in ancient Rome or Greece look like? How can we tell what well-being meant in ancient times?

This online course will help you investigate these questions, using both literary and archaeological evidence, to uncover details of real life in ancient societies.

We will divide the body up into organs and systems, using each to explore ancient theories on the structure and function of the human body.

We will discover what ancient societies thought about topics that we still wrestle with today – from the relationship between mind and body, to sexuality, ageing and gender.

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Skip to 0 minutes and 17 seconds Here. We’ve got two images of people in the ancient world. They’re not gods or heroes, just ordinary people. And to our eyes, I think they look pretty healthy. The first image shows men wrestling. They’re completely naked. This was normal for ancient athletics. The second image is sometimes known as the Bikini Girls. It’s interesting that these women, although they’re wearing rather more clothing than the men, are also exercising, running, playing with the ball. One is wearing a crown. She won her event. Why are they doing this? Is it to keep healthy? These images of exercise look very modern in some ways. But if people in ancient Greek and Roman societies really do the same things as us.

Skip to 1 minute and 9 seconds And did they do them for the same reasons as we do? In fact, were they actually healthy? How would we measure their health and what evidence do we have to help us answer our questions? People in the ancient world might claim they were healthy, but would we agree? Even today, health is a difficult concept to define. Thinking about health can illuminate the relationship between the modern world and the ancient Mediterranean world, while looking at ideas from another culture, can help us rethink our own assumptions about health.

Skip to 1 minute and 47 seconds Do we look back to the Greeks and Romans as supreme models of health due to a simple diet free from preservatives? Or do we focus on our greater knowledge of the body? The scientific progress we’ve made, for example, with understanding the role of minerals or vitamins in the diet and developing vaccinations and finding ways to preserve food safely. And which attitude really matters here. In this course, we’ve arranged the themes by looking at the parts of the body from head to toe. In Western medicine, this has been a traditional way of organizing manuals for doctors. But we can also use this approach to think beyond purely medical approaches to the body.

Skip to 2 minutes and 29 seconds So when we look at the eyes, we will consider theories of sight, eye diseases and their treatments, but also the symbolic value of the eye. For example, what was the evil eye? How was that used? Even today, the body gives us ways of thinking about our world more generally. So we talk of the head of an organization or facing up to a fact or digesting something we’ve read or trampling on someone else’s views. You’re going to be learning an important skill how to evaluate evidence. Look at those two images again, to understand them fully. We need some context.

Skip to 3 minutes and 13 seconds The image of the wrestlers comes from ancient Athens. It dates to around 510-500 BCE, and it’s on a piece of marble that was later reused to make a wall. Originally, it would have been a statue base for a funerary monument. Other sides of the statue base show a ball game and a cat and a dog growling at each other as their owners watch now down to the bikini girls. That one comes from the fourth century C.E. Roman World. The mosaic was used to decorate a floor in a villa, a rich private residence. It’s the Villa Romana del Casale, which is now a UNESCO’s World Heritage site. So one image was on public display and may commemorate a real athlete.

Skip to 4 minutes and 2 seconds The other is from a private house and the really wealthy one at that. So it would have been used to impress lots of visitors. But of course, it may be a fantasy image. And although both images are ancient, they’re a thousand years apart and from two different ancient cultures. This course will help you read precious historical artifacts like these. But for now, I want you to think about how we and the ancient Greeks and Romans defined health. Just take a few moments to write down your definition of health today and then jot down what you think. The ancient Greeks and Romans might consider to be health. And then continue.

What topics will you cover?

  • What is health? Ancient and modern perspectives on health and disease
  • Medicine, religion and magic
  • Using online resources
  • Vision: theories of sight, approaches to eye disease, including drugs and surgery
  • Body modifications
  • Diet and digestion
  • Human waste: using evidence from toilets and sewers
  • Conception and birth: theories and practices
  • Ideal bodies and disabled bodies
  • The health of the army: recruiting and treating soldiers

When would you like to start?

Start straight away and join a global classroom of learners. If the course hasn’t started yet you’ll see the future date listed below.

  • Available now

Learning on this course

On every step of the course you can meet other learners, share your ideas and join in with active discussions in the comments.

What will you achieve?

By the end of the course, you‘ll be able to...

  • Develop confidence in exploring the variety of fields that constitute classical studies.
  • Explore and become familiar with open-access resources for classical studies.
  • Develop the ability to critically analyse primary sources.
  • Apply and gain skills in analysing complex problems based on fragmentary evidence.
  • Engage with contemporary interpretations and scholarly debates.

Who is the course for?

There are no special requirements for this course, but an interest in the ancient world or classics might be useful.

Who will you learn with?

I'm Professor Emerita in Classical Studies at The Open University. My main research interests are in the history of medicine and I'm passionate about extending access to learning for everyone.

I have an interest in sensory studies, and how this helps us to understand human experience in the ancient Roman world. See more at: http://www.open.ac.uk/people/eb2278

Who developed the course?

The Open University

As the UK’s largest university, The Open University (OU) supports thousands of students to achieve their goals and ambitions via supported distance learning, helping to fit learning around professional and personal life commitments.

  • Established

  • Location

    Milton Keynes, UK
  • World ranking

    Top 510Source: Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2020

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Ways to learn

Choose the best way to learn for you!

Subscribe & save

$244.99 for one whole year

Automatically renews

Develop skills to further your career

  • Access to this course
  • Access to 1,000+ courses
  • Learn at your own pace
  • Discuss your learning in comments
  • Tests to boost your learning
  • Digital certificate when you're eligible

Cancel for free anytime

Buy this course

$134/one-off payment

Fulfill your current learning need

  • Access to this course
  • Learn at your own pace
  • Discuss your learning in comments
  • Tests to boost your learning
  • Printed and digital certificate when you’re eligible

Limited access


Sample the course materials

  • Access expires 10 Jul 2024

Find out more about certificates, Unlimited or buying a course (Upgrades)

Sale price available until 3 June 2024 at 23:59 (UTC). T&Cs apply.

Find out more about certificates, Unlimited or buying a course (Upgrades)

Sale price available until 3 June 2024 at 23:59 (UTC). T&Cs apply.

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