How many people know that the modern hospital originated in the Eastern Roman Empire, also known as the Byzantine Empire? It is widely acknowledged that the first hospitals were created in Cappadocia, sometime around 370 A.D. by St. Basil, Bishop of Caesarea. There had been a tradition since Antiquity of maintaining hostels for those without food or shelter, or travelers on a long journey. St. Basil was apparently the first to add doctors and staff to look after the sick.
Later that century, our revered predecessor on the Ecumenical Throne, St. John Chrysostom, opened hospitals in Constantinople, the capital of the Roman Empire. It is important to note that these institutions were funded by the Emperor and by the Church, respectively – in other words, they were public institutions, free of charge and created for the public good.
By the end of the sixth century, hospitals could be found throughout the empire. They were usually maintained by the Church, in keeping with the parable of the Last Judgment in the Gospel of Saint Matthew (25:35-36): ‘For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.’
Byzantine hospitals began as institutions for the poor, but by the seventh century they began to service the wealthy, including relatives of the royal family. These were well-organized institutions – doctors made daily rounds of patients, except on Christian holy days… nurses or physicians’ assistants looked after patients’ needs and carried out doctors’ orders… while orderlies carried out the less skilled chores such as cleaning and so on.
At least one Byzantine emperor, Manuel I Commenus, was a trained physician himself. During his reign from 1143 to 1180, he personally treated patients in the Empire’s hospitals.
In summary, it is clear that we owe the Byzantines the development of the modern institutions we call hospitals. But what may be more important, we owe to them the view that every member of society, from the greatest to the least, deserved the best quality healthcare available at the time. This is obviously relevant today, and as the U.S. debates the best way to provide healthcare for its citizens, we hope and pray that the Byzantine-Orthodox approach provides a model worthy of emulation.