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Images of health

The images of health?
NARRATOR: 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 all 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 more clothing than the men– are also exercising– running, playing with a ball. One is wearing a crown. Has 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 did people in ancient Greek and Roman societies really do the same things as us? 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 worlds, while looking at ideas from another culture can help us rethink our own assumptions about health.
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 organising manuals for doctors. But we can also use this approach to think beyond purely medical approaches to the body. So when we look at the eyes, we’ll 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 organisation 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. 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 this statue base show a ballgame and a cat and a dog growling at each other as their owners watch. Now turn to the bikini girls. That one comes from the fourth century CE, 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 World Heritage site. So one image was on public display and may commemorate a real athlete. The other is from a private house, and a really wealthy one 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, there 1,000 years apart and from two different ancient cultures. This course will help you read precious historical artefacts 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.

Welcome to Week 1 of Health and Wellbeing in the Ancient World.

In this exciting course you will engage directly with voices and objects from the ancient Greek and Roman worlds to find out what people in the past thought about their health, and to consider how healthy they would have been. You’ll be looking at the body from head to toe, exploring aspects including sight, digestion, reproduction and body image. You’ll also learn how to evaluate fragmentary evidence of different kinds, setting a variety of sources in context and bringing them together to make a better picture of the past.

In addition to the course materials here on FutureLearn, there are lots of links to external resources about health in the ancient world. These resources are entirely optional, but provide extra background reading around the topic.

The video introduces you to two ancient images of healthy bodies: two athletes wrestling and some female figures now known as the ‘bikini girls’. How can we use them as evidence for ancient health? This video will also help you start to think about how we – and the ancient Greeks and Romans – defined ‘health’.

This course was written by Helen King, a Professor of Classical Studies at The Open University. Eleanor Betts will be your Lead Educator. You can follow the educators visiting the profile pages – this will help you keep track of their comments throughout the course.

Comments and discussions

There will be plenty of opportunities to communicate with other learners, and you’ll be able to make comments at any point in the course – just click on the pink plus symbol (+) to open the comments section. You’ll also notice discussion points, which offer a more structured dialogue with your fellow learners on key topics. Please join in! Why not introduce yourself now by posting a comment below?

Please also make use of the ‘like’ and ‘reply’ features within the comments and discussion sections if you see a comment you like or if you have a question. This will assist the mentors in answering as many of your questions as possible, and the posts with the most likes are more likely to receive a response.

The comments sections can be a little overwhelming if there are lots of responses, so please don’t feel that you have to read all of them. It is recommended that you read the first page of the most recent comments, and then the first page of the most liked comments – this will help you keep up to date with the newest and most popular comments in the course.

Use the comments section below to introduce yourself. Have you come from a background of classical studies or healthcare? Do you think people are healthier today than they were in the ancient world?

When you’re ready, select ‘mark as complete’ and move onto the next step.

(Video and Text: © The Open University (Assets used: U.S. Department of Defense Current Photos, Andreas Vesalius, Bticho, National Cancer Institute, Capt. Sonie Munson, Riccardo Momoli, Kenton Greening, Mountain / Fingalo (Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Germany Licence/ Benson Kua (Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license) / Jos Dielis, istolethetv, Mike Baird (Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license / Roberta Dragan (Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license / tetraktys (Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license / sailko, Kentongreening, Prosopee, Rakesh Ahuja, MD, Jerzy Strzelecki, MichaelMaggs (Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)/ Peulle, BojanaIv, Sportfan123 (Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license)/ Wellcome Library London, Science Museum/Wellcome Library London, (Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 ( Wellcome Library London (Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license))

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Health and Wellbeing in the Ancient World

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