Hippocratic principles were directly opposed to magic and ritual. However, the continuing success of the cult of Asclepius throughout antiquity clearly shows that medicine was never fully divorced from religion. Beginning in the sixth century BCE, health resorts, or sanctuaries, known as Asklepia (because they were presided over by Asclepius, the god of healing) sprang up all over the Mediterranean. The cult of Asclepius was simultaneously a religion and a system of therapeutics.
In these Asklepia, special rites were observed. After purification baths, fasting, and sacrifices, the patient would spend the night in the god’s temple, a process called enkoimesis, incubatio (“sleeping in”). During the night as the patient slept, Asclepius would appear to the patient in a dream and give him advice. In the morning priests would interpret the dream and explain the god’s precepts. Patients thanked Asclepius by tossing gold into the sacred fountain and by hanging ex-votos on the walls of the temple.
There are hundreds of extant inscriptions and votive reliefs recounting the individual cures of patients at the Asklepia. The following examples were found at the ruins of the Asklepion in Epidauros:
The cult of Asclepius also existed in Rome after 291 BCE. No trace of the sanctuary of Asclepius in Rome exists, but the cult was immensely popular as evidenced by the number of terra cottas. These offerings depicted parts of the human body, often at greater than life size, and were dedicated by the afflicted at healing sanctuaries. More than 100 sanctuaries in Italy are known, the majority in western-central Italy, and it is clear that the inspiration for these temples stemmed ultimately from the temple in Rome itself.
Other cult centers sprang up across Italy. Study of the terra cottas from these precincts reveals the emergence of some specialized centers in healing. At Ponte di Nona, e.g., a rural complex some 15 kilometers to the east of Rome, the collections are dominated by feet and hands-- precisely the parts of the body which are likely to suffer damage in the course of agricultural work. In the town of Veii, on the other hand, the terra cottas from the Campetti sanctuary contain a huge proportion of male and female sexual organs. If not associated with some form of fertility cult, these may well hint at a high incidence of sexually transmitted diseases, of a sort that might well be picked up in an urban brothel.