Ancient Roman Medicine

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various aspects of ancient Roman medicine

Ancient Roman Medicine

Ancient Roman medicine was in many ways a development of what they learned from the Greeks and then applied in exasperated situations such as continuous war or gladiatorial shows. The wealth of Rome was such that it created medical situations and needs which required the best techniques and knowledge of the time: the wealth of the rich created a demand for cosmetic surgery.

Large cities with high concentrations of population regularly created situations of fire or plague of various sorts and this brought a need for public health strategies, even if only rudimentary.

Although there is little written evidence regarding publich health strategies in ancient Rome there is much evidence in the buildings which have survived through the ages: stepping stones to cross roads (so as not to have to walk through the muck), drainage systems such as the Cloaca Maxima, piped water, public toilets and extensive public baths are but some examples. The use of soap was learned from Gaul otherwise Olive oil would be used (by the rich). Adding to this the Romans soon realised it was unhealthy to bury the dead in the city and so the roads outside the city were lined with the burials of the great. The old Appian way is still full of examples of ancient Roman funerals and tombs.

Medical abilities were taken to the extreme with a few attempts at sex change, a notable one being ordered by Nero for a man he chose to wed because of his close similarity to his late wife Poppea, though some would argue this was just slander.

Some notes....

There's been a lot modern healthcare owes ancient Rome. The great political engine practiced general healthcare, including simple forms of preventative healthcare for their soldiers, making it one of the first to adopt a general system of public and private affordable healthcare that we are still improving on today. This attitude extended into various sectors of Roman society, for example the gladiators (see the famous medic Galen further below) and indeed to Roman citizens at large. Public works were health investments for the common good, for example the great sewer systems such as the cloaca maxima in Rome and the acqueducts which enabled greater health levels and longevity which in turn enabled population growth to support the Roman economy as well as the constant need for soldiers to fill the ranks of the Roman army.

The God of Medicine

The god of medicine was Aesculapius, son of the god Apollo. His symbol was a snake. The Romans were prey of a bad epidemic and the oracles suggested that the god's assistance would be needed. A Roman ship was sent to go and fetch the god and whilst sailing along the Nile a snake swam and boarded the ship.

This was taken to be a sign of the Aesculapius' presence to the ship turned back to Rome. Whilst sailing down the Tiber the snake decided to leave the ship and swim to the Tiber island. Since then the island has always been regarded as a medical centre, perhaps for it's good position as a quarantine from the rest of the city. The island itself was given the seblance of a ship in memory of the event.

Galen - Greatest Doctor of the Roman World

The most famous doctor of antiquity is probably Galen (Galen of Pergamum AD131-201), a Greek in fact, who worked extensively in amphitheatres looking after injured Gladiators. He was brought to Rome to work in the Colosseum and eventually made a great name for himself, so great in fact that he was appointed medic to Marcus Aurelius's son Commodus (perhaps because Commodus was himself so attracted by the Gladiatorial discipline?).

This position of prominence enabled Galen to study, research (particularly anatomy) and teach. His belief in clinical observation and his extensive writings influenced medicine for almost 1500 years after his death. His belief in the study of medicine as a means of comprehending God's purpose did much to put his work in a good light with the Christians of the Middle Ages.

However, Galen was in fact preceded by Hippocrates (460-377BC) who can rightly be said to be the father of western medicine as he established the first scientific framework of diagnosis and treatment which we now take for granted. Before him diseases were generally regarded as divine punishments. The Hippocratic oath is still respected by modern medics.

Roman Surgery

A set of 40 surgical instruments was found in Pompeii. Many were double-ended in order to make it easier and faster for the surgeon to switch from one to another - time was of the essence in an age when anaesthetics and drugs were pretty weak and the patient was likely to bleed to death extremely quickly. Interestingly these instruments are extremely similar to those in use by surgeons nowadays.

Surgical operations could go as far as removing bits of skull and replacing them with metal plates or modifying the shape of your eyelids for cosmetic purposes.

The use of wine in Ancient Roman medicine

Wine was a frequent component of ancient Roman medicine: As is well known nowadays, alcohol is a good means of extracting the active elements from medicinal plants. Wine was the only form of alcohol known to the Romans as distillation wasnít discovered until the middle ages. Herbs infused in wine was a regular medicinal stratagem which would have a degree of effect given the alcoholís ability to extract the active compounds of a number of herbs. The "only" issue would be whether the infused herbs are the right ones for the particular ailment.

An example of this would be Artemisia Abrotanum aka Southernwood, Loverís Plant or Lemon Plant which is known to be antiseptic and repel insects such as intestinal worms. When taken with wine the Romans regarded it as an antidote for poison (Horace Epistles BkIIEpI:90-117): "no one unskilled dares give Ladís Love to the sick". Whether or not Lemon Plant's powers extend that far is questionable, perhaps it depends on the manner of preparation.

As an example of how the wine would be used in such a manner we show below a typical recipe for a laxative (from Apicius' cookery book...):

"Rose (or violet) Wine-Rosatum:

Rose petals, the lower white part removed, are sewn into a linen bag and immersed in wine for seven days. After which, add a bag of new petals which allow to draw for another seven days. Again remove the old petals and replace them with fresh ones for another week then strain the wine through the colander. Before serving, add honey sweetening to taste. Take care that only the best petals free from dew be used for soaking."


Another interesting and curious mention of wine as a cure is made by Plutarch regarding Mark Anthony's failed campaign against the Parthians: the soldiers stranded in the desert resorted to eating some local plants which drove them mad and then killed them. Wine, supposedly the only remedy against such a poisoning was not available to them.

Roman Medicinal Plants

The Romans made a great use of the medical properties of the plants about them. There are some notable examples of research and study during Roman times:

Krateuas: a herb gatherer and medic who wrote a book, which is now lost, around the 1st century BC. He worked for the king of Pontus, Mithridates VI. His writings are lost but he is well spoken of by Dioscorides.

Mithridates himself is particularly well known for having developed a number of antidotes which appear to have worked and saved his life in a number of occasions (he took the antidote in heavy doses every day). The antidote was complex and was developed through trial and error (experiment?) on prisoners who had been condemned to death.

By 60AD the physician Pedanius Dioscorides (40-90AD) assembled a book called De Materia Medica of 600 herbs with description, preparation and effect. This becamse the standard reference for centuries to come. His work was the result of much research at the cultural centre of Alexandria (also famed for its library, see section on ancient Roman libraries).

Pliny (see the hessiop entry below) wrote of many plants, over 1000 it seems, as part of his Historia Naturalis. The Historia Naturalis also contains some useful tips for some particular ailments, for example, in case of bad toothache....

 "...a mouse is to be eaten twice a month, as a preventive of tooth-ache. Earth-worms, boiled in oil and injected into the ear on the side affected, afford considerable reliefÖ"

Galen also wrote a herbal, and given he was himself a doctor his book is generally reputed as more accurate and the first step in complex drug making.

 It is therefore evident that the Romans used a great variety of medicinal plants. For example Melissa against insect bites and as a tea against melancholy. Interesting? A few herbs used by the Romans are given below; apologies for the lack of order, rather like a garden.

List of Ancient Roman medicinal plants:

I recently heard that the popular culture of many countries suggests that a crushed stinging nettle can be used to great effect to stem bleading and against arthritic pain. I don't know if this remedy was actually used by the ancient Romans but it certainly sounds like they might have tried everything!

Ancient roman houses often had a garden round the back and ancient Roman recipes are full of a number of them. A Roman herb garden would have included Angelica, Aniseed, Coriander, Elecampane, Fennel, Hyssop, Mint, Rosemary, Speedwell, Tansy, Thyme, Violets and Wormwood amongst others. Many other herbs would have been imported from the orient at great expense, for example Cinammon.

Poisons probably belong within this section too. The Romans knew of and made use of a wide variety of poisons. For example

Roman Sayings on Medicine and Health

Over a millennium of writing and culture led to a number of health related mottos. A handful is given below:

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"Ancient Roman Medicine" was written by Giovanni Milani-Santarpia for - Rome apartments