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Democedes of Croton (Δημοκήδης ο Κροτωνιάτης)(southern Italy) (c. 550 - c. 460 BC), son of Calliphon, a priest of Asclepius in Cnidus. "Physician of the tyrants", Worked probably as a physician in the civil service of Aegina and Athens before entering the service of Polycrates, tyrant of Samos (Herodotus, 3.131.1-2). Around 522 BC. he, together with Polycrates fell into the hands of the Lydian satrap Oroetes and was sent as a captive to Susa. He became a physician of Darius I. He was praised as "the most skillful physician of his time" by Herodotus. He once healed, without further trauma, a sprained ankle that Darius had received while hunting and that his Egyptian physicians were unable to treat. As a result, Democedes received immense rewards; he was held in high esteem at court and, despite his foreign origin, ate in the presence of the king.


Polycrates, however, making light of all the counsel offered him, set sail and went to Oroetes. Many friends accompanied him; among the rest, Democedes, the son of Calliphon, a native of Crotona, who was a physician, and the best skilled in his art of all men then living.


Soon after the treasures of Oroetes had been conveyed to Sardis it happened that king Darius, as he leaped from his horse during the chase, sprained his foot. The sprain was one of no common severity, for the ankle-bone was forced quite out of the socket. Now Darius already had at his court certain Egyptians whom he reckoned the best-skilled physicians in all the world; to their aid, therefore, he had recourse; but they twisted the foot so clumsily, and used such violence, that they only made the mischief greater. For seven days and seven nights the king lay without sleep, so grievous was the pain he suffered. On the eighth day of his indisposition, one who had heard before leaving Sardis of the skill of Democedes the Crotoniat, told Darius, who commanded that he should be brought with all speed into his presence. When, therefore, they had found him among the slaves of Oroetes, quite uncared for by any one, they brought him just as he was, clanking his fetters, and all clothed in rags, before the king.

As soon as he was entered into the presence, Darius asked him if he knew medicine—to which he answered “No,” for he feared that if he made himself known he would lose all chance of ever again beholding Greece. Darius, however, perceiving that he dealt deceitfully, and really understood the art, bade those who had brought him to the presence go fetch the scourges and the pricking-irons. Upon this Democedes made confession, but at the same time said, that he had no thorough knowledge of medicine—he had but lived some time with a physician, and in this way had gained a slight smattering of the art. However, Darius put himself under his care, and Democedes, by using the remedies customary among the Greeks, and exchanging the violent treatment of the Egyptians for milder means, first enabled him to get some sleep, and then in a very little time restored him altogether, after he had quite lost the hope of ever having the use of his foot. Hereupon the king presented Democedes with two sets of fetters wrought in gold; so Democedes asked if he meant to double his sufferings because he had brought him back to health? Darius was pleased at the speech, and bade the eunuchs take Democedes to see his wives, which they did accordingly, telling them all that this was the man who had saved the king’s life. Then each of the wives dipped with a saucer into a chest of gold, and gave so bountifully to Democedes, that a slave named Sciton, who followed him, and picked up the staters which fell from the saucers, gathered together a great heap of gold.

This Democedes left his country and became attached to Polycrates in the following way:—His father, who dwelt at Crotona, was a man of a savage temper, and treated him cruelly. When, therefore, he could no longer bear such constant ill-usage, Democedes left his home, and sailed away to Egina. There he set up in business, and succeeded the first year in surpassing all the best-skilled physicians of the place, notwithstanding that he was without instruments, and had with him none of the appliances needful for the practice of his art. In the second year the state of Egina hired his services at the price of a talent; in the third the Athenians engaged him at a hundred minae; and in the fourth Polycrates at two talents. So he went to Samos, and there took up his abode. It was in no small measure from his success that the Crotoniats came to be reckoned such good physicians; for about this period the physicians of Crotona had the name of being the best, and those of Cyrene the second best, in all Greece. The Argives, about the same time, were thought to be the first musicians in Greece.

After Democedes had cured Darius at Susa, he dwelt there in a large house, and feasted daily at the king’s table, nor did he lack anything that his heart desired, excepting liberty to return to his country. By interceding for them with Darius, he saved the lives of the Egyptian physicians who had had the care of the king before he came, when they were about to be impaled because they had been surpassed by a Greek; and further, he succeeded in rescuing an Elean soothsayer, who had followed the fortunes of Polycrates, and was lying in utter neglect among his slaves. In short there was no one who stood so high as Democedes in the favour of the king.

Moreover, within a little while it happened that Atossa, the daughter of Cyrus, who was married to Darius, had a boil form upon her breast, which, after it burst, began to spread and increase. Now so long as the sore was of no great size, she hid it through shame and made no mention of it to any one; but when it became worse, she sent at last for Democedes, and showed it to him. Democedes said that he would make her well, but she must first promise him with an oath that if he cured her she would grant him whatever request he might prefer; assuring her at the same time that it should be nothing which she could blush to hear.

On these terms Democedes applied his art, and soon cured the abscess; and Atossa, when she had heard his request, spake thus one night to Darius:—

“It seemeth to me strange, my lord, that, with the mighty power which is thine, thou sittest idle, and neither makest any conquest, nor advancest the power of the Persians. Methinks that one who is so young, and so richly endowed with wealth, should perform some noble achievement to prove to the Persians that it is a man who governs them. Another reason, too, should urge thee to attempt some enterprise. Not only does it befit thee to show the Persians that a man rules them, but for thy own peace thou shouldest waste their strength in wars lest idleness breed revolt against thy authority. Now, too, whilst thou art still young, thou mayest well accomplish some exploit; for as the body grows in strength the mind too ripens, and as the body ages, the mind’s powers decay, till at last it becomes dulled to everything.”

So spake Atossa, as Democedes had instructed her. Darius answered:—“Dear lady, thou hast uttered the very thoughts that occupy my brain. I am minded to construct a bridge which shall join our continent with the other, and so carry war into Scythia. Yet a brief space and all will be accomplished as thou desirest.”

But Atossa rejoined:—“Look now, this war with Scythia were best reserved awhile—for the Scythians may be conquered at any time. Prithee, lead me thy host first into Greece. I long to be served by some of those Lacedaemonian maids of whom I have heard so much. I want also Argive, and Athenian, and Corinthian women. There is now at the court a man who can tell thee better than any one else in the whole world whatever thou wouldst know concerning Greece, and who might serve thee right well as guide; I mean him who performed the cure on thy foot.”

“Dear lady,” Darius answered, “since it is thy wish that we try first the valour of the Greeks, it were best, methinks, before marching against them, to send some Persians to spy out the land; they may go in company with the man thou mentionest, and when they have seen and learnt all, they can bring us back a full report. Then, having a more perfect knowledge of them, I will begin the war.”

Darius, having so spoke, put no long distance between the word and the deed, but as soon as day broke he summoned to his presence fifteen Persians of note, and bade them take Democedes for their guide, and explore the sea-coasts of Greece. Above all, they were to be sure to bring Democedes back with them, and not suffer him to run away and escape. After he had given these orders, Darius sent for Democedes, and besought him to serve as guide to the Persians, and when he had shown them the whole of Greece to come back to Persia. He should take, he said, all the valuables he possessed as presents to his father and his brothers, and he should receive on his return a far more abundant store. Moreover, the king added, he would give him, as his contribution towards the presents, a merchantship laden with all manner of precious things, which should accompany him on his voyage. Now I do not believe that Darius, when he made these promises, had any guile in his heart: Democedes, however, who suspected that the king spoke to try him, took care not to snatch at the offers with any haste; but said, “he would leave his own goods behind to enjoy upon his return—the merchant-ship which the king proposed to grant him to carry gifts to his brothers, that he would accept at the king’s hands.” So when Darius had laid his orders upon Democedes, he sent him and the Persians away to the coast.

The men went down to Phoenicia, to Sidon, the Phoenician town, where straightway they fitted out two triremes and a trading-vessel, which they loaded with all manner of precious merchandise; and, everything being now ready, they set sail for Greece. When they had made the land, they kept along the shore and examined it, taking notes of all that they saw; and in this way they explored the greater portion of the country, and all the most famous regions, until at last they reached Tarentum in Italy. There Aristophilides, king of the Tarentines, out of kindness to Democedes, took the rudders off the Median ships, and detained their crews as spies. Meanwhile Democedes escaped to Crotona, his native city, whereupon Aristophilides released the Persians from prison, and gave their rudders back to them.

The Persians now quitted Tarentum, and sailed to Crotona in pursuit of Democedes; they found him in the market-place, where they straightway laid violent hands on him. Some of the Crotoniats, who greatly feared the power of the Persians, were willing to give him up; but others resisted, held Democedes fast, and even struck the Persians with their walking-sticks. They, on their part, kept crying out, “Men of Crotona, beware what you do. It is the king’s runaway slave that you are rescuing. Think you Darius will tamely submit to such an insult? Think you, that if you carry off the man from us, it will hereafter go well with you? Will you not rather be the first persons on whom we shall make war? Will not your city be the first we shall seek to lead away captive?” Thus they spake, but the Crotoniats did not heed them; they rescued Democedes, and seized also the trading-ship which the Persians had brought with them from Phoenicia. Thus robbed, and bereft of their guide, the Persians gave up all hope of exploring the rest of Greece, and set sail for Asia. As they were departing, Democedes sent to them and begged they would inform Darius that the daughter of Milo was allianced to him as his bride. For the name of Milo the wrestler was in high repute with the king. My belief is, that Democedes hastened his marriage by the payment of a large sum of money for the purpose of showing Darius that he was a man of mark in his own country.

Greek Medicine Timeline


Artur Swerr, Arzt der Tyrannen. Demokedes von Kroton um 550 bis 460 v.Chr. Sόddt. Verlag, 1961, 419 pages, ISBN: B0000BOFBO (German)

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