Body and Sou
History of massage, part two...
by Ata Susanne Morse
Oct 13, 2016 | 2607 views | 0 0 comments | 99 99 recommendations | email to a friend | print
After looking at the origins of massage and related therapies as mentioned in ancient texts, scriptures and wall paintings, we traced their emergence and evolution through ancient China, India, Egypt and Mesopotamia in part 1 of this series.

Now, we follow the story through the gymnasiums of ancient Greece and Rome, and into the Middle Ages.

Massage in Ancient Greece

(750 B.C. E. to 500 C.E.)


Evidence of human activity in ancient Greece goes back thousands of years before the Common Era (B.C.E.), with the Greek alphabet dating from around 750 B.C.E. and providing most Greek history.

Exercise and competitive athletics were a huge part of the Greek culture, which initiated the Olympic Games to be held every four years. These games were so important to the Greeks that they even stopped wars in order to compete in them. With physical training being critical to good performance, so-called “gymnasiums” were established all over the country, where athletes and the military received their academic, art and physical training. With the Greek health regimen including exercise, massage, fresh air, rest, diet and cleanliness, baths were attached to or located near the gymnasiums, and massage was one of the primary treatments provided there. To minimize exhaustion and tone the muscles before and after competition, athletes received special therapeutic treatments by servants called “Aliptae.” They were very knowledgeable about the muscles, their condition, and muscular activity during exercise, and in a way were predecessors to physical or athletic trainers, providing therapy comparable to sports massage.

The Greek culture of that time also brought forth the “Father of Medicine,” famous Hippocrates, a Greek physician who lived between 460 and 370 B.C.E. He established the “Hippocratic Oath,” a code for health professionals, which still today holds practitioners, including massage therapists, to “do no harm,” treat each patient to the best of their abilities, respect life and uphold patient confidentiality.

The “Hippocratic Corpus,” a series of 60 treatises discussing medical principles, also contains specific information about “Anatripsis”(to rub upwards), a method developed by Hippocrates and still taught today, of rubbing towards the heart, from extremities towards the core, to increase circulation. In his day, he recommended that all physicians be trained in it, because it could promote healing, adjust the tension at the joint, and tighten, relax, or build muscle.

Ancient Rome

(750 B.C.E. to 500 C.E.)


Ancient Greek culture heavily influenced Roman religion, entertainment, sports, and medicine. Since Greek physicians were considered superior to their Roman counterparts, they gained status and recognition by serving Roman royalty and introduced the Greek health regimen, with its terminology, to Roman culture. Exercise and massage were called “gymnastics” in 400 B.C.E., a term that maintained its association with massage throughout the times.

One of these Greek physicians, Asclepiades of Bithynia (124 to 40 B.C.E.), settled in Rome and used movement therapies like massage, swinging and vibration, to restore “atomic harmony” in the body. He believed that well-being was based on a balance between tension and relaxation, as well as the harmonious movement of very small particles within the body, called atoms. According to his theory, the free, fluid movement of these atoms promoted health, and irregular, inharmonious movement caused disease. His methods were so popular that many other physicians adopted and practiced them.

Another prominent figure in ancient Roman medicine and massage was Aulus Cornelius Celsus (25 B.C.E. to 50 C.E.). A follower of Hippocrates, he wrote a series of eight texts called “De Medicina,” covering many different facets of health and medicine. Numerous references throughout the work indicate its use for the treatment of various conditions, including: Toning a weak body and relaxing a tense body, headaches, neck spasms, flatulence, intestinal distress, menstrual cramps, joints and dislocations. At around 30 C.E. when it was written, “De Medicina” was just another piece of medical literature. Today however, after having been rediscovered in Italy in the late 1400s, it is celebrated as one of the earliest remnants of Western medicine.

Another follower of Hippocrates, Claudius Galenus or “Galen” (130 to 201 C.E.), is possibly the most widely known. Galen wrote many works on anatomy and medicine and encouraged physicians to practice dissection to learn about anatomy and improve their surgical skills. “Hygiene,” one of his books, includes a description of massage strokes and muscle fibers being rubbed in various directions, as well as a discussion on morning and evening massage, and anointing with oil for health and well being.

The Greek culture continued to influence Rome until its fall began around 150 C.E, and the Roman Empire finally faded out around 500 C.E.

As the last of the Roman emperors was ousted, Europe expanded northward with wars and battles for power and control. Thus, began the Middle Ages.

The Middle Ages

(400 to 1,400 C.E.)


Also at times called the Dark Ages, many written records were lost or destroyed amid the chaos of war, and with them went the luxurious lifestyle of the Romans. The church became a powerful influence over society in Europe, and outside of it art, literature, science and medicine were absent. Since the Arab world was not affected by the rules of the church, history there took quite a different path during that time period. While in Europe public baths and gymnasiums were abolished, and countless women providing healthcare were being accused of being witches and burned at the stake, the Arab world continued to build upon the Greco-Roman knowledge base, using creativity, invention and progressive thinking. They performed dissection on human cadavers, which was unacceptable in the Christian realm, advanced anatomical knowledge, and amongst others brought forth two famous physicians who used massage and made important contributions to medicine.

Al-Razi, known in Latin as Rhazes (854 to 935), an Islamic physician and philosopher, wrote a medical encyclopedia containing knowledge from Arabic, Roman, and Greek physicians. Being specifically interested in the interaction of physiology and psychology (now also called the mind-body connection), he gathered very detailed medical histories from his patients prior to diagnosing. He understood that health was affected by the state of mind, and advocated preventative health maintenance, while including massage as part of the health regimen as well as treatment for disease.

Ibn Sina, perhaps better known by his Latin name Avicenna (980 to 1037), was a scholar, physician, and follower of the philosopher Aristotle. Amongst hundreds of books written by him is the “Canon of Medicine,” a systematic encyclopedic medical text building upon Galen`s theories and observations. As an excellent teaching text it was translated and used in medical schools across Europe for over 500 years, and included the original Greek health regimen of exercise, baths and massage. Avicenna also recommended massage for pain relief, to increase circulation and to facilitate the healing process.

In Europe, touch was kept alive by nuns, who were permitted to provide basic care to victims of war in hospitals run by the church. Eventually, women from all walks of life helped care for patients, since massage and baths were inexpensive treatments they could provide. Toward the end of the Middle Ages those women made great advances in women’s rights, getting involved in science, literature, medicine, education, politics and land ownership.

Information for this column was compiled from: ”Introduction to Massage Therapy” by Mary Beth Brown and Stephanie Simonson, 2nd edition published by Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.

Ata Susanne Morse has been a certified massage therapist since 1996, and practices therapeutic massage and bodywork at the Healing Arts Center in Moab, UT. She holds a Utah State License, and can be reached at 435-260-2874, or via e-mail at soul.pilgrim@yahoo.com.


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