Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Pantaleon or Pantaleimon—A most noble physician

Maria Monteiro
Porto, Portugal

Icon of Saint Panteleimon (Saint Catherine’s Monastery, b. XIII Century by Anonymous Author (Public domain)

As information about the life of Saint Pantaleon is entangled with tradition, it difficult to distinguish myth from facts. Nevertheless, according to several sources, Pantaleon was born c. AD 275, son of the rich pagan Eustorgius of Nicomedia. His name means “a lion in everything.” Later he would be renamed Pantaleímon (from the Greek) by Saint Hermolaus, meaning “all-compassionate.”1 His mother, Saint Eubula, wished him to be instructed in Christianity, but after her death he was sent by his father to study medicine under the famous physician Euphrosinus, probably in Alexandria, where students were supposed to follow Hippocratic and Galenic theories.2

The young man proved to be so proficient at his craft that he came to the attention of the Roman Emperor Galerius (AD 284–305), who appointed him as royal physician as soon as he finished his studies.3 Later Pantaleon was converted to Christianity by Presbyter Hermolaus, whose beliefs were that “Christ was the better physician” and that faith was to be trusted more than medical advice. So Pantaleon raised a dead boy back to life, and with his fame spreading all over the Empire he performed more cures, mostly without charge.4 At last jealous pagan colleagues denounced him for being a Christian. He refused to deny his faith or to sacrifice to the Roman gods, was tortured, and beheaded.5

Saint Pantaleon was contemporary with the brothers Cosmas and Damien, the two most famous protector saints of physicians. As protector of physicians and midwives, he came to be considered one of the fourteen guardian martyrs, better known as “The Fourteen Holy Helpers.”6

We cannot really know what Galerius suffered from, except that he had some war injuries.7 He died in late April or early May AD 311 from what Eusebius and Lactantius described as a horribly gruesome disease, possibly some form of bowel cancer, gangrene, or Fournier’s Gangrene.8 Roman physicians by this time had acquired some considerable skills but from the third century onward, Greek medicine began to exert a strong influence.9, 10 Doctors did not enjoy high status—the practice of medicine was not intended to be carried out by “civilized men,” and only a few such as Galen of Pergamon (AD 129–210) developed a practice of elite patients.11,12

In practical terms, Pantaleon’s reputation may be attributed to Roman medicine having a more “magical” approach than the Greek, relying on astrology, magic, and demonic possession absorbed by Roman society from other cultures as the Empire expanded.13 Also popular were diviners (such as those belonging to the college of augurs or the viri sacri faciundus), and for many centuries medicine and religion walked side by side, often supported by magic; hence the wonderful stories of the many miracles performed by healer saints.

End notes

  1. Joana Proud, “The Old English life of Saint Pantaleon and its manuscript context”, Bulletin John Rylands Library (no date),129 https://www.escholar.manshester.ac.uk/api/datastream?phttps://www.escholar.manchester.ac.uk/api/datastream?publicationPid=uk-ac-man-scw:1m4029&datastreamId=POST-PEER-REVIEW-PUBLISHERS-DOCUMENT.PDF
  2. Alexandria was, at the time, an important center for medical studies, keeping this position till the 800 AD. Helen King, Greek and Roman Medicine, (Bristol Classical Press, 2001), 53.
  3. Gaius Galerius Valerius Maximianus, Emperor of Rome from 305 – 311 AD.
  4. Pantaleon eventually converted his father to Christianity. After the death of the latter, he inherited his fortune.
  5. Some date his death at 27 July 304 AD.
  6. This came to happen in the mid-XIV Century after the Black Death’s Surge.
  7. The practice of surgery was well established: many surgeon tools from the period in question have been discovered all around the area which comprised the Roman Empire. Clotilde Amato, La medicina, (Edizioni Quasar, 1993), 88-91.
  8. The Editors of Britannica. “Galerius: Roman Emperor”. (July 27, 2007). https://www.britannica.com/biography/Galerius
  9. Worth noting, the Antonino Pestilence, which was brought from Seleucia in 167 AD by Roman soldiers. Amato, La medicina, 68-69.
  10. King, Greek Medicine at Rome, 32.
  11. Along with professional practitioners, there were also charlatans, mostly due to the lack of effective control by the Roman authorities.
  12. Mostly due to his father’s contacts and his own teachers. King, Greek Medicine at Rome, 40.
  13. Astrology was largely used by Roman Emperors concerning several matters, like physical health and succession. Tamsyn S. Baron, Power and Knowledge: astrology, physiognomics and medicine under the roman empire, (The University of Michigan Press, 2002), 56.


  • AMATO, Clotilde. La medicina. Roma: Edizioni Quasar, 1993
  • BARTON, Tamsyn S. Power and Knowledge: astrology, physiognomics and medicine under the Roman Empire. The Michigan Press, 2002
  • BRITANNICA, The Editors of. “Galerius: Roman Emperor”. Encyclopedia Britannica. 7-27, 2007. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Galerius
  • DUFFIN, Jacalyn. History of Medicine: a scandalous short Introduction. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010
  • PROUD, Joana. “The Old English life of Saint Pantaleon and its manuscript context”. Bulletin John Rylands Library (no number and no date): 128 – 129.https://www.escholar.manchester.ac.uk/api/datastream?publicationPid=uk-ac-man-scw:1m4029&datastreamId=POST-PEER-REVIEW-PUBLISHERS-DOCUMENT.PDFhttp://pemptousia.com/2014/07/saint-panteleimon-the-great-martyr/
  • KING, Helen. Greek and Roman medicine. London: Bristol Classic Press, 2001
  • SLOAN, Richard. Blind Faith: the unholy alliance of religion and medicine. New York: St. Martin´s Press, 2006

MARIA ALEXANDRA MONTEIRO, MA, received her BIntRel degree in International Relations at Lusíada University of Porto and a few years later  was accepted at the University of Porto. There she obtained her MSc with thesis in medieval and renaissance studies (MHMR). Her thesis on the biography of Antão Martins de Chaves, bishop of Porto in the late fifteenth century. Under the tutelage of PhD Maria Cristina Almeida and Cunha Alegre, she attended lessons on medieval paleography. Her interest is to study biographies of ecclesiastics of note and understand how they influenced the society of their time.

Spring 2017



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