Why did the ancient Greeks and Romans have no place for hospitals? This article indicates that paganism had no real basis for compassion. But as Christ is full of compassion, Christians sought to emulate that compassion, which provided the driving force behind early Christian medical care.

Source: Australian Presbyterian, 2011. 2 pages.

Christ-Likeness Christians' Compassion Stunned the Ancient World

One of the great anomalies of the ancient world was that the Greeks and Romans, who were so famous for lit­erature, science and art, had no place for hospitals. While they built large temples in honour of their numerous gods and constructed vast aqueducts and massive road systems, there is no record that they built hospitals. True, the Greeks did have medical facilities to diagnose people's sicknesses, but these units did not really function as hospitals where the sick could actually be cared for and rehabilitated.

People have often wondered why the ancient world never built hospitals. W. E. H. Lecky has commented:

The active, habitual, and detailed charity of private persons, which is such a conspicuous feature in all Christian societies, was scarcely known in antiquity.

Church historian Philip Schaff says, "The old Roman world was a world without charity."

The sad truth is that paganism, which celebrated strength and despised weak­ness, had no real basis for compassion. Dionysius, a Christian bishop of the third century, described how pagans treated people who were suffering in an Alexandrian plague in about AD 250. The pagans, he said,

thrust aside anyone who began to be sick, and kept aloof even from their dearest friends, and cast the sufferers out upon the public roads half dead, and left them unburied, and treated them with utter contempt when they died. Works of Dionysius, Epistle 12:5

And lest anyone think that such remarks reflect a Christian bias, Thucydides, the Greek historian, agreed that this was a typical response. He said, "People were afraid to visit one another and they died with no one to look after them; indeed, there were many houses in which all the inhabitants perished through lack of any attention." When epidemics broke out, both Greeks and Romans typically fled in fear and left the sick to die alone without care.

The behaviour of Christians, however, was very different. It was regarded as a Christian duty to offer aid to the sick and dying, regardless of the dangers. Dionysius again comments,

Many of our brethren, in their exceeding love and brotherly kindness, did not spare themselves, but kept by each other, and visited the sick without thought of their own peril and ministered to them assiduously and treated them for their healing in Christ ... Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead ... The best of our brothers lost their lives in this manner, a number of presbyters, deacons, and lay-men winning high commendation so that death in this form, the result of great piety and strong faith, seems in every way the equal of martyrdom.

Why did the Christians act this way? The answer is found in their view of God. They believed that God was full of compassion. As Matthew reminds us, "When Jesus ... saw a large crowd, He had compassion on them and healed their sick" (14:14).

The Christian care and compassion for the sick and dying was so impressive that many people were attracted to the Christian faith. The Roman emperor, Julian, a rank pagan, realising that the many of his fellow religionists were being drawn to Christianity, launched an initiative to start pagan charities because he was worried that more people would become Christians if they were recipients of Christian generosity. He complained in a letter to the high priest of Galatia in 362 that pagans needed to cultivate similar virtues to Christians because the growth of the church was the result of the attractive power of Christian grace, especially "their benevolence towards strangers and care for graves of the dead."

The compassion of Christ was a powerful motivational force in the early church. The first believers realised that if God loves humanity, then they couldn't please God unless they loved one another. This was a revolutionary concept that rejected the callous and inhu­mane culture of the Greco-Roman world. It led the Council of Nicea in AD 325 to direct bishops to establish a hospice in every city that had a cathedral. The first hospital was built by St. Basil in Caesarea, Cappadocia, about AD 369. It not only housed doctors but also had facilities for the care and rehabilitation of the sick. Gregory of Nyssa said of Basil's care for the sick:

He took the lead in pressing upon those who were men, that they ought not to despise their fellowmen, nor to dishonour Christ, the one Head of all, by their inhuman treatment of them; but to use the misfortunes of others as an opportunity of firmly establishing their own lot, and to lend to God that mercy of which they stand in need at His hands. Orat. XLIII 63

Christ's mercy and compassion, along with His view of the preciousness of the human soul and body, provided the driving force behind early Christian medical care. What so many people take for granted today first-class medical and hospital care shows how thoroughly our modern secular society has unwit­tingly appropriated the mind of Christ and the ethic of the early church.

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