As we read about the profession of medicine in the Hippocratic writings, I can't help but think of the extraordinary story of a doctor from Herodotus' History. It is a tale that reveals the remarkable social and geographical mobility achieved by masters of the healing art; but it also shows how a great healer can become captive to his own success.
Democedes was a native of the city of Croton, a Greek colony in Southern Italy, where he was tyrannized by a father he could not stand. So he ran off to Aegina, an island in the Saronic Gulf not too far from Athens. He had little equipment or connections, but did so well that after a year, the people of Aegina decided to pay him a decent salary out of public funds to practice his healing art. The Athenians got wind of his skill, and hired him away for still more money. Then in the fourth year after leaving his native city, he got the offer of a lifetime: the magnificent tyrant Polycrates lured him to the island of Samos for a princely sum of two talents a year (3.131). So this young man of the West headed East, towards lands of fabulous wealth.
But moving further East drew him into the zone of conflict between the Greeks and Persians. The wealth of Polycrates was coveted by the Persian ruler of Sardis, Oroetes, who lured Polycrates with false hopes to the mainland of Asia Minor along with certain followers, among whom we find the court doctor Democedes. He then put Polycrates to a horrible death, and released the Samians who had come. However, he retained the others who had waited upon Polycrates, and Democedes now found himself a captive in the court of a murderous Persian in Lydian Sardis (3.120-5).
When Darius acceded to the Persian throne, he heard of the various crimes of Oroetes, who defied the new King far off in Persia. Darius found a subtle means to have the man killed by his own bodyguard. Then all the possessions of Oroetes were packed off to the royal city of Susa, and Democedes was taken far from the Mediterranean and thrust into the heart of the Persian Empire (3.127-8). Without any advocate to sue for his release, we might well expect poor Democedes was in utter despair.
As luck would have it, the King had an accident. While out hunting, Darius had jumped down from his horse and violently twisted his ankle. It was a terrible injury—the bone was twisted right out of the socket. Now, as King of Kings, Darius had a number of Egyptian doctors at court, then reputed to be the best in the world. But they went about their work with such violence that they made the injury worse, and for seven days and nights, the King lay in sleepless agony (3.129).
On the eighth day, someone remembered that a certain Greek doctor was among the slaves of Oroetes, and the Persians sought him out and brought him before the King. He was in rags, loaded with chains, and didn't look the part of a famous healer. Darius asked him straight out if he was a master of the medical arts, but Democedes knew the danger here: if he said yes, he would be yet again attached to a Persian master, never able to return to Greece. So he denied knowing anything about medicine. Darius, however, was no fool, and ordered the whips and goads used for torture to be brought in, and suddenly Democedes was changing his story. He was not, he said, a proper doctor, but had indeed worked with a doctor and had some slight knowledge of the art. So he set to work on the King with gentle, not forceful means, and the King at last was able to sleep. In time, he healed completely, after having despaired of ever walking again. (3.130)
To heal a King entitles one to kingly rewards. Darius, no doubt thinking himself witty, presented Democedes with two pairs of chains—of solid gold. Democedes ventured to play on the King's jest, and asked the King if he had intended to double his punishment because he had healed His Majesty. The King was vastly amused at this Greek, and sent him off with the eunuchs to visit the royal wives. This was a most unexpected honor—to be presented to the royal harem! The eunuchs made the rounds with him, and declared, "Here is he who restored life to our King." Each wife scooped a bowl into a chest of gold and rewarded Democedes with a shower of coins. So great was their reward, in fact, that a servant who followed him gathered up the loose coins that fell from the bowls and made a fine fortune for himself (3.130).
Now Democedes was riding high on fortune's wheel. He had a huge house in Susa, and was an intimate guest of the royal table. This gave him influence, which he used as he could. There was an Elean soothsayer among those enslaved from Polycrates' court, and he had him rescued from his low station. Darius, no longer impressed by Egyptian medicine, was about to impale those doctors who had so tortured him in his injury, but Democedes, in a generous act of professional courtesy, had them spared. He was the friend of the most powerful man on earth, and, it seems, he had everything—except for Greece and his freedom (3.132).
So much intimacy at court was bound to provide the doctor with an opportunity. So it happened that Atossa, one of the King's wives, developed a growth on her breast, and suffered long in silence. At last she was so desperate she summoned the court physician, who quickly saw his chance: he promised to heal her if she would grant him a favor. Naturally, this was a delicate thing, so he was quick to promise her it would be nothing dishonorable. Atossa consented and at last was cured, and she kept her part of the bargain. She approached the King and subtly worked on him: it was time for him to show the Persians what kind of man ruled them by undertaking some great conquest. Darius told her, he was indeed of such a mind, and had a daring plan to build a bridge between Asia and Europe and attack the Scythians. The Scythians were well and good, and weren't going anywhere, said Atossa. He should first attack the Greeks, as it was her desire to have as her servants some of these famous girls of Sparta, Argos, Athens and Corinth. She added, he had an excellent informant at his court, a man much traveled in Greece and thoroughly knowledgeable: the same man who had cured his foot. Darius ceded to his wife thus far: he would send the doctor in the company of some Persians to spy out the land of Greece, after which, he would be in a position to invade (3.134).
So the clever doctor at last found himself at sea, coursing westward towards his homeland in the company of fifteen Persian noblemen. He knew full well they were charged with making sure he did not run off; the King would want his doctor back in time. Darius had made a good show of his generosity, hoping to secure Democedes' affection. He told the doctor to take all he had gained in wealth and to present it to his father and brothers, offering to replace all this many times over upon his return. He also said he'd send along a merchant ship to accompany him, filled with all manner of good wares. Democedes, a man of twists and turns himself, thanked His Majesty, but said he would rather leave his property where it was, so he would have it upon his return. He would accept the merchant ship, however. (3.135)
So setting out from the Phoenician port of Sidon in two warships and a great merchant vessel, they surveyed the coastline of Greece, heading ever more westward until they came to the Greek cities of Southern Italy. They called upon the city of Tarentum, where King Aristophilides was well disposed towards Democedes. He had the steering gear confiscated off the Perisan ships, and arrested the noblemen as spies, letting Democedes make off at long last for home: Croton. When Aristophilides was certain the doctor had gotten off safe, he released the Persians, who, knowing what fate awaited them if they returned to Susa without the doctor, immediately began to track him down. (3.136)
So one day, Democedes was happily back home, a free man in his home town, full of wild stories of the East. He was shopping in the marketplace when suddenly the Persians appeared and laid hands on him. In Persian eyes, he was a runaway slave of the King of Kings, and they were prosecuting their right to return him to his master. But this far West, the name of Darius was not so powerful to conjure with. Though some stayed back in awe of these foreign emissaries, other Crotoniates wasted no time in setting upon the Persians with their staves, beating them off their countryman. (If Steven Spielberg made this movie—or perhaps the author of the Joseph story—we could imagine his father and brothers in that crowd, flailing at the trousered barbarians.) "Tell King Darius I am contracted to marry the daughter of Milon," Democedes said to the Persians. Milon was a famous wrestler, and Democedes had hoped by this remark to show the King he was not a slave, but a man of standing in his own country. The Persians had no choice but to leave, without the doctor to guide them and having lost the merchant vessel. They were later shipwrecked off the coast of Iapygia, and enslaved. At long last, an exiled Greek of Tarentum redeemed them and returned them to King Darius (3.138). The King had his Persian emissaries back, but had to give up on his doctor.
We must wonder how such a story was told in Herodotus' day. A tradition has it that Herodotus ended his days in an Athenian colony in Southern Italy not far from Croton, so perhaps he heard all this from a gossipy Crotoniate. Or perhaps he heard it on Samos, which isn't far from his hometown of Halicarnassus in the Eastern Mediterranean. It is quite a story, one that certainly makes us think of another western Greek: Odysseus. But Herodotus relates the story without any particular censure for the fact that Democedes, in deploying his cunning to escape from the belly of the Persian beast, brought Persian spies deep into the heart of the Greek world. Then again, in the wake of the Persian defeat, the historian could afford to be generous—particularly when such a good tale came out of it! The physicians of Croton were quite famous in Herodotus' time; no doubt they loved this story about a doctor who healed and outwitted the most powerful man in the world.