Medicine in Ancient Rome
Curated/Reviewed by Matthew A. McIntosh
Medicine in ancient Rome combined various techniques using different tools, methodology, and ingredients. Ancient Roman medicine was highly influenced by Greek medicine but would ultimately have its own contribution to the history of medicine through past knowledge of the Hippocratic Corpus combined with use of the treatment of diet, regimen, along with surgical procedures. This was most notably seen through the works of two of the prominent Greek Physicians, including Dioscorides and Galen, who practiced medicine and recorded their discoveries in the Roman Empire. This is contrary to two other physicians like Soranus of Ephesus and Asclepiades of Bithynia who practiced medicine both in outside territories and in ancient Roman territory, subsequently. Dioscorides was a Roman army physician, Soranus was a representative for the Methodic school of medicine, Galen performed public demonstrations, and Asclepiades was a leading Roman physician. These four physicians all had knowledge of medicine, ailments, and treatments that were healing, long lasting and influential to human history.
Ancient Roman medicine was divided into specializations such as ophthalmology and urology. To increase their knowledge of the human body, physicians used a variety of surgical procedures for dissection that were carried out using many different instruments including forceps, scalpels and catheters.
The Roman Empire was a complex and vigorous combination of Greek and Roman cultural elements forged through centuries of contact. Later Latin authors, notably Cato and Pliny, believed in a specific traditional Roman type of healing based on herbs, chants, prayers and charms easily available to and by the head of household.
Greek medicine was introduced into Italy with the establishment and development of military and political contacts between the two regions. It was not until the introduction of the healing god Asclepius in 291 BC and the arrival of the Greek doctor Archagathus in 219 BC that foreign medicine was publicly accepted in Rome, mainly due to future overall adaptation to the Roman practices.
Setting aside some of the broader implications of the Greek influence on Roman society, the effect of Greek medicine, ethnography, and meteorology was particularly pertinent to two fields: architecture and health care. This was particularly important from the perspective of the Roman army, in which there were many medical advances. A medical corpus was established, permanent physicians were appointed, the valetudinaria (military hospitals) were established, and in Caesar’s time, the first traces of systematic care for the wounded appeared. The variety and nature of the surgical instruments discovered in Roman remains indicate a good knowledge of surgery.
Roman medicine was highly influenced by the Greek medical tradition. The incorporation of Greek medicine into Roman society allowed Rome to transform into a monumental city by 100 BCE. Like Greek physicians, Roman physicians relied on naturalistic observations rather than on spiritual rituals; but that does not imply an absence of spiritual belief. Tragic famines and plagues were often attributed to divine punishment; and appeasement of the gods through rituals was believed to alleviate such events. Miasma was perceived to be the root cause of many diseases, whether caused by famine, wars, or plague. The concept of contagion was formulated, resulting in practices of quarantine and improved sanitation.
One of the first prominent doctors in Rome was Galen. He became an expert on the human anatomy by dissecting animals, including monkeys, in Greece. Due to his prominence and expertise in ancient Rome, Galen became Emperor Marcus Aurelius’ personal physician.
Greek symbols and gods greatly influenced ancient Roman medicine. The caduceus, pictured right, was originally associated with Hermes, the Greek god of commerce. He carried a staff wrapped with two snakes, known as the caduceus.
Opposition to Greek Medicine in Rome
Cato the Elder despised every aspect of Greek society the Romans decided to mimic including sculptures, literature and medicine. Cato regarded the welcome given in Rome to Greek medicine and physicians as a major threat.
In Rome, before there were doctors, the paterfamilias (head of the family) was responsible for treating the sick. Cato the Elder himself examined those who lived near him, often prescribing cabbage as a treatment for many ailments ranging from constipation to deafness. He would issue precise instructions on how to prepare the cabbage for patients with specific ailments. He also used cabbage in liquid form. For example, a mixture of cabbage, water, and wine would be embedded in a deaf man’s ear to allow his hearing to be restored. Cato would treat fractured or broken appendages with two ends of a cut reed that were bandaged around the injury.
Pedanius Dioscorides (c. 40–90 CE), was a Greek botanist, pharmacologist and physician who practiced in Rome during the reign of Nero. Dioscorides studied botany and pharmacology in Tarsus. He became a well-known army surgeon for Rome. While traveling with the army, Dioscorides was able to experiment with the medical properties of many plants. Compared to his predecessors, his work was considered the largest and most thorough in regards to naming and writing about medicines, many of Dioscorides predecessors work was lost. Dioscorides wrote a 5-volume encyclopedia, De Materia Medica, which listed over 600 herbal cures, forming an influential and long-lasting pharmacopoeia. De Materia Medica was used extensively by doctors for the following 1500 years. Within his five books, Dioscorides mentions approximately 1,000 simple drugs. Also contained in his books, Dioscorides refers to opium and mandragora as a sleeping potion that can be used as a natural surgical anesthetic.
Soranus was a Greek physician, born in Ephesus, who lived during the reigns of Trajan and Hadrian (98–138 CE). According to the Suda, he trained at the medical school in Alexandria and practiced in Rome. Soranus was apart of the Methodist School of Asclepiades, which fostered the ideals of the Hippocratic doctrine. He was the chief representative of the Methodic school of physicians. Soranus’s most notable work was his book Gynecology, in which he discussed many topics that are considered modern ideas such as birth control, pregnancy, midwife’s duties, and post-childbirth care. His treatise Gynaecology is extant (first published in 1838, later by V. Rose, in 1882, with a 6th-century Latin translation by Muscio, a physician of the same school). He accounts for the internal difficulties that could arise during labor from both the mother and the fetus. He also did work with fractures, surgery, and embryology.
Galen (129 CE – c. 200 or 216 CE) of Pergamon was a prominent Greek physician, whose theories dominated Western medical science for well over a millennium. By the age of 20, he had served for four years in the local temple as a therapeutes (“attendant” or “associate”) of the god Asclepius. Although Galen studied the human body, dissection of human corpses was against Roman law, so instead he used pigs, apes, sheep, goats, and other animals. Through studying animal dissections, Galen applied his animal anatomy findings and developed a theory of human anatomy. Galen moved to Rome in 162. There he lectured, wrote extensively, and performed public demonstrations of his anatomical knowledge. He soon gained a reputation as an experienced physician, attracting to his practice a large number of patients. Among them was the consul Flavius Boethius, who introduced him to the imperial court, where he became a physician to Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Despite being a member of the court, Galen reputedly shunned Latin, preferring to speak and write in his native Greek, a tongue that was actually quite popular in Rome. He treated Roman emperors Lucius Verus, Commodus, and Septimius Severus. In 166, Galen returned to Pergamon but went back to Rome for good in 169.
Galen followed Hippocrates’ theory of the four humours, believing that one’s health depended on the balance between the four main fluids of the body (blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm). Food was believed to be the initial object that allowed the stabilization of these humours. By contrast, drugs, venesection, cautery and surgery were drastic and were to be used only when diet and regimen could no longer help. The survival and amendment of Hippocratic medicine is attributed to Galen, who coupled the four qualities of cold, heat, dry, and wet with the four main fluids of the body, would remain in health care for another millennia or so. Galen wrote a short essay called; The Best Doctor Is Also A Philosopher, where he writes that a physician needs to be knowledgeable about not just the physical, but additionally logical and ethical philosophy. He writes that a physician “must be skilled at reasoning about the problems presented to him, must understand the nature and function of the body within the physician world, and must practice temperance and despise all money”. The ideal physician treats both the poor and elite fairly and is a student of all that affects health. Galen thought that eleven years of study was an adequate amount of time to make a competent physician. He references Hippocrates throughout his writings, saying that Hippocratic literature is the basis for physicians’ conduct and treatments. The writings of Galen survived longer than the writings of any other medical researchers of antiquity.
Asclepiades studied to be a physician in Alexandria and practiced medicine in Asia Minor as well as Greece before he moved to Rome in the 1st century BCE. His knowledge of medicine allowed him to flourish as a physician. Asclepiades was a leading physician in Rome and was a close friend of Cicero.
He developed his own version of the molecular structure of the human body. Asclepiades’ atomic model contained multi-shaped atoms that passed through bodily pores. These atoms were either round, square, triangular. Asclepiades noted that as long as the atoms were flowing freely and continuously, then the health of the human was maintained. He believed that if the atoms were too large or the pores were too constricted, then illness would present in multiple symptoms such as fever, spasms, or in more severe cases paralysis.
Asclepiades strongly believed in hot and cold baths as a remedy for illness; his techniques purposely did not inflict severe pain upon the patient. Asclepiades used techniques with the intent to cause the least amount of discomfort while continuing to cure the patient. His other remedies included: listening to music to induce sedation, and consuming wine to cure headache and a fever. Asclepiades is the first documented physician in Rome to use massage therapy.
Aulus Cornelius Celsus
Celsus (25 BC–AD 50) was an Roman encyclopedist who wrote a general encyclopedia about many subjects. His exact place of birth as well as when he lived are unknown however it is known he lived during the reigns of Augustus and Tiberius. The only surviving work from his larger encyclopedia is De Medicina. This work contains eight volumes, two of which are on surgery. De Medicina provides some of the best accounts of Roman medicine during his time. Its contents proved to be valuable even into the 15th century after Pope Nicolas V rediscovered it, becoming the first medical book to be published in 1478 AD. It is still debated if he practiced medicine himself or just compiled the works of the time, much of it from greek sources. This is important because the time Greeks were looked down upon by the Romans and thus so was the work of doctors. In his book he discussed the two different schools of thought at the time relating to medicine he calls ‘Empirics’ and ‘Dogmatics.’ Empirics followed empirical observation while dogmatics needed to understand the theory behind how a treatment works. Celsus is also credited with writing on four of the five characteristics of inflammation, redness (rubor), swelling (tumour), heat (calor), and pain (dolor). Galen would write about the fifth, loss of function (functio laesa).
The Roman medical system saw the establishment of the first hospitals; these were reserved for slaves and soldiers. Physicians were assigned to follow armies or ships, tending to the injured. In Rome, death was caused by a combination of poor sanitation, famine, disease, epidemics, malnutrition, and warfare that led to high Roman mortality rates. The development of health services was prolonged by the unsympathetic attitudes of the Romans towards the sick, superstition, and religious beliefs.
The earliest known Roman hospitals of the Roman Empire were built in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, in the reign of the emperor Trajan. The army’s expansion beyond the Italian Peninsula meant that the wounded could no longer be cared for in private homes. For this reason the valetudinarium was established.
The valetudinaria (plural of valetudinarium) were field hospitals or flying military camps and began as a small cluster of tents and fortresses dedicated to wounded soldiers, that provided insight into how the doctors managed the different wounds and diseases which allowed for the awareness into which herbs were good for certain medical uses. Over time, the temporary forts developed into permanent facilities. The original hospitals were built along major roads, and soon became part of Roman fort architecture. They were usually placed near the outer wall in a quiet part of the fortification.
A standard valetudinarium was a rectangular building consisting of four wings, connected by an entrance hall that could be used as a triage center. Each legion’s hospital was constructed to accommodate 6% to 10% of the legion’s 5,000 men. The building also included a large hall, reception ward, dispensary, kitchen, staff quarters, and washing and latrine facilities.
Surgery was typically used as a last resort because of the risks involved. When surgery did happen though, it was usually limited to the surface of the body because doctors recognized that injuries regarding the body’s most important physiological functions (brain, heart, spine, etc.) could not usually be treated.
A variety of surgical instruments are known from archaeology and Roman medical literature, very similar to our current day medical instruments, including:
An instrument mentioned by Hippocrates, which allowed physicians to examine the rectal cavity of a patient.
Spoon of Diocles
This instrument is mentioned by Cornelius Celsus as a way to remove arrowheads and other barbed objects. The instrument was a narrow spoon containing a hole in the bottom to attach to the point of the arrow. Another part of the instrument was a smooth blade meant to protect the other side of the instrument. There is doubt about the authenticity of the existence of this medical apparatus because it was solely mentioned by Celsus, with no other corroborations by other writers whatsoever. Likewise, there are still no surviving relic found thus raising exemplifying doubts about its actual existence.
A tool used to leverage bones back into their proper place in a limb. Quite possibly could have been used for teeth.
Containers used for bloodletting. Vessels of different sizes were used depending on how much blood was expected. For example, just like in modern day use, the larger the area of the body is that needs to be treated (such as the back or the thighs), the larger cupping device was. It would be vice versa would be the use of the smaller cupping devices for the arms or the neck, respectively.
After surgery, usually on the sensitive areas such as the nose, rectum, or vagina, a bronze or lead tube would be inserted into the patient to prevent adhesion or contractions. Would also be used to convey medicaments.
A physician’s “bread and butter” tool. This instrument was used for several purposes, such as stopping bleeding, cutting flesh or removing growth tumors.
Hair cutting was actually considered a medical procedure, according to the work of Oribasius and Celsus. Also used for a smooth edge in surgical procedures (such as cutting tissues) in compared to the sharpness of the shears.
Also known as a “spathomele.” A double sided instrument used by almost every physician, but was mainly used for pharmaceuticals. One end was used for mixing medications, while the other end was flat and used to spread the medications onto the affected part of the patient.
Could be made of either steel or bronze. Ancient scalpels had almost the same form and function as those of today. The most usual type of scalpels were the longer, steel scalpels. These could be used to make a variety of incisions, but they seem to be particularly suited for deep or long cuts. Smaller, bronze scalpels, referred to as bellied scalpels, were also used frequently since the shape allowed delicate and precise cuts to be made.
Mentioned in both Greek and Latin literature, Obstetrical Hooks and Sharp Hooks were common instruments used by both Roman and Greek doctors. There were two basic types of hooks: sharp hooks and blunt hooks. Blunt hooks were used primarily as probes for dissection and for raising blood vessels (similar to the modern aneurism needle). Sharp hooks, on the other hand, were used to hold and lift small pieces of tissue so that they could be extracted, and to retract the edges of wounds.
Driven in their rotary motion by means of a thong in various configurations. They were used to remove diseased bone tissue from the skull and to remove foreign objects (such as a weapon) from a bone.
Used to extract small fragments of bone which could not be grasped by the fingers. Soranus uses it as the instrument in the case of an accident involving the fetal cranium.
Used in order to open up a blocked urinary tract to let urine pass freely from the body. Early catheters were hollow tubes made of steel or bronze, and had two basic designs. There were catheters with a slight S curve for male patients and a straighter one for females. There were similar shaped devices called bladder sounds that were used to probe the bladder in search of calcifications.
Uvula (Crushing) Forceps
These finely toothed jawed forceps were designed for the amputation of the uvula. The physician crushed the uvula with forceps before cutting it off in order to reduce bleeding. One of the instruments needed to be a Hippocratic physicians
Among the most complex instruments used by Roman and Greek physicians. Most of the vaginal specula discovered consist of a screw device with 2 (sometimes 3 or 4) valves which, when turned, forces a cross-bar to push the blades outwards. Through recommended by Graeco-Roman physicians who specialize in the field of gynecology and obstetrics, the first author who makes mention of this would be Soranus, for its specific use for vaginal disorders.
Used to mix and apply various ointments.
Used to cut through bones, e.g. in amputations and for surgeries.
Used mainly as household implements for hair removal or by artists.
Similar to the spatula probe, it’s not only used to mix and apply pharmaceuticals to the skin of the human body but also could be used for medical purposes (such as lifting tissue.) 
The ancient Roman medical instruments and their qualities and appearance were made by special manufacturers up to the standards of the surgeon and his future implementations.
Correct diet was seen as essential to healthy living. Food was perceived to have a healing effect or a causative effect on disease, determined by its impact on the humors; as well as preventing disease. Moderation of foods was key to healthy living and gave rise to healthy eating philosophies. When diet no longer promoted health, drugs, phlebotomy, cautery, or surgery were used. Patients having control of their lives, managing their own preventative medical diets, and the freedom to seek physicians, indicates that patient autonomy was valued.
Herbal and Other Medicines
Roman physicians used a wide range of herbal and other medicines. Their ancient names, often derived from Greek, do not necessarily correspond to individual modern species, even if these have the same names. Known medicines include:
Statues and healing shrines were sites of prayer and sacrifice for both the poor and the elite, and were common throughout the Roman Empire. Reverence for shrines and statues reflected a search for healing, guidance, and alternatives to ineffectual human physicians and drugs.
In 2013, Italian scientists studied the content of a Roman shipping vessel, known as the Relitto del Pozzino, sank off the coast of Populonia, Tuscany around 120 BC, which was excavated during the 1980s and 90s. The vessel had a medicine chest with pyxides inside, which contained medicinal tablets or pills full of a number of zinc compounds, as well as iron oxide, starch, beeswax, pine resin and other plant-derived materials, all probably served as some sort of eye medicine or eyewash.
Roman physicians tried their best to help treat battlefield wounds. Celsus describes treatments early Roman doctors used for battlefield abdominal wounds. Celsus describes that doctors should first observe the color of the intestines to see that if they are “…livid or pallid or black…” in which case treatment is impossible.
If the large intestine is found to be cut, he says treatment is unlikely to be successful but suggests suturing the intestine. Treatment of abdominal wounds should occur quickly and for fear exposed intestines would dry out. Celsus suggests adding water to the intestines to prevent this. The Romans also knew about the delicate care needed for such complex wounds. Assistants with surgical hooks were used to stitch up large abdominal wounds. They were used to help separate the margins of the abdomen because both the inner membrane and the surface skin needed to be sutured with two sets of stitches because it could be broken easily. The Romans applied a variety of ointments and dressings to these wounds. Celsus describes 34 different ones.
A physician’s overall goal was to help those afflicted by disease or injury as best as they could; the physician’s credibility rested on their successful cures. Of course they could not reliably cure ailments; sometimes the best they could hope for was that their treatments did not worsen their patients’ problems. Many physicians were criticised by their peers for their inability to cure an apparently simple illness. Gaps in physician-provided care were filled with several types of supernatural healthcare; the Romans believed in the power of divine messages and healing. For example, in 431 BCE, in response to the plague running rampant all over the country of Italy, the temple of the Apollo Medicus was accredited with an influence of healing.
Scattered across Greco-Roman and Egyptian history are descriptions of healing sanctuaries dedicated to the various healing gods. Sick or injured Romans would often flock to temples dedicated to Asclepius, the god of healing, as it was believed that the god actually inhabited the sanctuary and would provide divine healing to supplicants. The process itself was simple: the sick person would give a specified donation to the temple, and then undergo a process called “incubation” in which they would relocate to a special room where the god would be able to contact them, often through dreams in which the god would either prescribe care or provide it themselves. Often the type of cure prescribed would be rather similar to the actual medical practices of physicians of the time. This type of supernatural care did not conflict with mainstream healthcare. Physicians would often recommend that patients go to a healing sanctuary when they were afflicted by an illness that the physician could not cure. This allowed the reputation of the physician to remain unharmed, as it was seen more as a referral than as a failure.
Colostrum is the first form of milk produced by lactating mammals. Both Greek and Roman medical texts prescribe the use of a variety of substances, of varying medical and religious significance. Several substances, such as sulfur, asphalt and animal excrement, were associated with the practice of human purification. The practice of using a woman’s breast milk as a medicine has very early roots in Egyptian medical texts. In several such texts there are references to the use of the milk of a woman who has given birth to a male child. This practice is said to be based on depictions in several statues of the goddess Isis breastfeeding her son, the god Horus. Both Egyptian and Greek texts state that the milk used for medicinal purposes should be strictly from a woman who has borne a male child. The treatments using breast milk differed vastly between Greek and Roman culture. In Greek medicine, milk was very rarely actually consumed. Instead, it was used in recipes for ointments and washes that would treat burns and other skin-related maladies. These treatments were exclusively given to women, as women’s bodies were viewed as “polluted” in some sense. In stark contrast, the Roman use of colostrum was more widespread and varied. Stories suggest that adults drinking breast milk was viewed as socially acceptable, but was not common unless used for treatment. The milk was instead ingested by the patient, and the treatment was given to both men and women, which then allowed the views of the female body to be viewed as analogous compared to their male peers, rather than as the opposites they have been for centuries before. In general, while not every single fear about the changing medical views of female physiology went away, the Romans then seemed less concerned about the so-called “pollution” of a woman’s body and therefore need to have the women have special requirements needed for “purification.” 
It has been shown in modern times that having patients ingest mother’s milk (or colostrum) is actually a rather effective treatment due to the benefits associated with it. For example, the use of colostrum has been shown to prevent the growth of Staphylococcus bacteria, which are a known cause of several types of infection. Colostrum is about half as effective as some antibiotics prescribed to patients today. Colostrum is also effective against the bacterium chlamydia. Chlamydia is a sexually transmitted disease in which some subtypes of it can cause trachoma, which is a major source of cause for severe sight impairment, if not blindness. According to one study, it’s suggested that, in the absence of treatment, to treat neonatal eye infections with colostrum. Since human milk was among the most potent antibiotics compared to almost anything else (both in the modern world and the ancient world) – that is why it was viewed as a divine treatment.
Dreams for Diagnosis?
The interpretation of dreams was another avenue for treatment of illnesses by physicians. Often the interpretations of a patient’s dreams would actually determine what treatment they received. A Hippocratic work called Regimen details much of the principles outlined by Galen: specifically the humors and examples of how they could be used to prescribe treatment. The theme of this method is knowing the patient. To know how to treat a person, the physician must become familiar with and interpret the important aspects of their lives: the climate, their food intake, how much they sleep, how much they drink, any injuries. They would then draw conclusions about the patient and what must be done to set them back to equilibrium. The fourth book of the Regimen is the earliest mention of the topic of dream medicine. Dreams were used by physicians in diagnosis. They added another layer of depth to the physician’s investigation of the patient. The soul was thought to serve the purpose that the brain has been discovered to serve. Sensation, pain, motion and other physiological concepts were thought to be the work of the soul. It was also thought that the soul continues the work of bodily upkeep even when a person is sleeping. Thus, dreams would show what ailed a person.
There were two types of dreams associated with medicine: prophetic and diagnostic. Prophetic dreams were divine in origin and foretold good or bad tidings for the future. Diagnostic dreams were a result of the soul telling what afflicted the body. If the dreams were of normal everyday events, their body was healthy and in equilibrium. The farther from the norm, and the more chaotic the dreams were, the more ill the patient was. The treatments that were recommended addressed what the dreams showed, and attempted to set the body right through consumption of food that carried the correct humor characteristics.
Galenic medical texts embody the written medical tradition of classical antiquity. Little written word has survived from before that era. The volume of Galen’s extant written works, however, is nearly 350 – far surpassing any other writer of the period. Prior to Galen, much of medical knowledge survived through word of mouth.
The tradition of transmission and translation originated with the De Materia Medica, an encyclopedia written by Pedanius Dioscorides between 50 AD and 70 AD. Dioscorides was a Roman physician of Greek descent. The manuscripts classified and illustrated over 1000 substances and their uses.De Materia Medica influenced medical knowledge for centuries, due to its dissemination and translation into Greek, Arabic, and Latin. Galen wrote in Greek, but Arabic and Syriac translations survived as well. He referenced and challenged written works by Hippocratic physicians and authors, which gave insight into other popular medical philosophies.
Herophilus, known for his texts on anatomy through dissection, and Erasistratus, also known for anatomy and physiology, survive through Galenic reference. Galen also referenced the written works of Methodist[clarification needed] physician Soranus, known for his four-book treatise on gynecology. His synthesis of earlier medical philosophies and broad range of subjects produced the textual legacy that Galen left for the medical community for the next 1500 years.
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Originally published by Wikipedia, 02.16.2007, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.