The ‘Four Humors’ of Greco-Roman Medicine

four-humors-grangerThe four humours or four temperaments were a proto-psychological classification of character types used in Ancient Greece and Rome. Notably the Greek physician Hippocrates incorporated the four humors into his work. The four types were:

  • phlegmatic (relaxed and peaceful)
  • choleric (short-tempered, fast, irritable)
  • melancholic (analytical, wise and quiet)
  • sanguine (enthusiastic, active, social)

These four types were derived and connected respectively to the following four bodily fluids, an excess or deficiency of which determined the type of humor:

  • phlegm (different from the present-day meaning), a pituitary secretion, associated with apathy or calmness.
  • yellow bile, an excess of which produced aggression, anger and imbalances
  • black bile, an excess of which was thought to produce depression (the word melancholy literally derives from Greek for ‘black’ ‘bile’)
  • blood, associated with sanguinity


The debris of a poet, Madame Bovary


“In the end Leon had sworn not to see Emma again; and he was reproaching himself for not having kept his word, considering the vexations and the remarks that this woman could still bring down upon him, not to mention the pleasantries that came from his colleagues, gathered around the stove, in the morning. Besides, he was about to be made senior clerk: it was time to be serious. So he gave up the flute, exalted sentiment, the imagination. For every bourgeois, in the heat of youth, if only for a day, for a minute, has believed himself capable of immense passions, of heroic enterprises. The most mediocre libertine has dreamed of oriental princesses; every rotary carries about inside him the debris of a poet.” -Madame Bovary