Medicine in Ancient Rome

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During the rise of the Roman Empire, Greek influence could be found in every daily aspect, so there is no surprise in seeing that their medicinal methodology carries that same influence. The first doctors of Ancient Rome had previously been war prisoners from Greece. Most of them had served the Roman Army, while the rest were the personal aids belonging to wealthy households (Nogales 69). Like the Greeks, Roman doctors received no official medical training, or qualifications, and there was no orthodox medical approach. As their civilization evolved, they were able to make their own impact through their documented literatures. They expanded their techniques and created their own core beliefs based off of science and religion. During this time, science was a very loosely based idea of human anatomy and how the human body interacted with different pharmaceutical drugs.

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At first, being a doctor was not a profession of high praise. Some were reputable, but others were just con men trying to earn money from the naive who believed in mythical remedies. There was a significant resistance when there was a drop in Roman culture and they felt threatened by all of the Greek influence. But, In order to practice in the Roman Empire, doctors only needed permission from the local magistrate. Julius Caesar welcomed Greek doctors, made them citizens and exempted them from tax, (Retief and Cillers 8). After gaining more freedom, doctors were able to branch out even into specialties such as eye infections, ear infections, women’s conditions, and etc.

In the first documented series of medical books, De Re Medica, by Cornelius Celsus, the author explores the pros and cons of both animal and human experimentation. He compares humans to animals by showing our similarities in anatomy to justify the accuracy of animal experimentation. The dissection of human corpses was against Roman law at the time, but he pointed out how only human experimentation will give exact results. In his second and third books, Celsus analyzes general pathology, specific diseases and possible methods to cure them. Although very rudimentary, his research utilized more logic its predecessors who mistakenly believed they could fix ailments with magic.

Another popular Roman practice was Herbology. Celsus touched basis on this concept, but other Roman doctors provided more extensive research and ideas. Fennel was a standard treatment for nervous disorders because they believed that it calmed the nerves (Household Medicine In Ancient Rome). Garlic was very popular because it was not only abundant, but it was also believed to be good for your heart. Furthermore, many believed in garlic’s ability to provide strength, so doctors would recommend giving it to labor workers in order to increase their productivity. Another popular herb was Sage. Although it had little medicinal value, this herb held much religious value. Its use was common among those who believed that the gods had the powers to heal them.

Rome also had religious influence from the God of Medicine, Aesculapius, who is always portrayed holding a physician’s staff and along with a snake (Nogales 75). The symbolism of the snake had originated from the Greeks. According to their mythology, the snake had appeared on Tiber Island, so the Romans built a shrine for it on their beaches. Eventually they expanded this into thermal baths and spas where doctors could help assist patients. By the 3rd century BCE, the Romans had built a full, religious healing system under the God of Medicine, called the Cult of Aesculapius. Later on when the plague spread, they also built a temple honoring the Greek god, Apollo. Known for guiding the sun with his chariot, many believed that the warmth of the sun was promotive of good health.

There were separate worlds, that of science and medicine, and that of the everyday public, that had to be bridged in a way that honored both traditions, yet kept their integrity. The development of science and medicine pioneered by Galen, a philosopher whose medical knowledge and theory guided practitioners for almost two millennia, hit levels of exploration and understanding in ancient Rome that warranted its basis as common medical theory, (Clark 2). One of Galen’s core beliefs was the four humors: yellow bile, black bile, blood, and phlegm. He believed that every person contained these four humors and that disease was caused by an imbalance of them. These deficits were thought to be caused by vapors inhaled or absorbed by the body. Each humor had a corresponding emotional response as well. Blood was associated with levels of socialness, as well as enthusiasm and physical activeness; Yellow Bile was associated with levels of aggression; Black Bile was associated with levels of depression; And Phlegm was thought to be associated with levels of apathy.

Most Roman surgeons got their practical experience on the battlefield. A typical tool kit would contain bone levers, forceps, probes, catheters, scalpels, and cupping vessels for bloodletting (Surgical Instruments from Ancient Rome). They used to sterilize their equipment in boiling water before using it. In Ancient Rome, it was common knowledge that arteries and veins carry blood. All surgeons knew how to use tourniquets, arterial clamps, and ligatures to stem blood flow. They also used amputation to prevent deadly gangrene. Anesthesia wasn’t available at this time so instead they would use opium and scopolamine to relieve pain. Surgical procedures were very elementary and brutal to go through which was why many who went through major operations wouldn’t survive. There were a few purpose-built hospitals also where people could rest and have a better chance of recovery. They were supported by assistants (capsarii, named after the boxes of medical supplies they had to carry) whilst some soldiers (immunes, called thus because they did not carry weapons) were given first aid training, (Retief and Cillers 10). In the hospital setting, doctors could monitor people’s condition instead of depending on supernatural forces to perform miracles.

In the common households of Rome, the Romans also had midwives, whom they treated with great respect. They helped women through nursing, menopause, and difficulties related to menstruation. Though physicians had themselves become more interested in these things, primary responsibility for dealing with them rested in the hands of midwives. Not only did they handle the birthing process, but they also concerned themselves with the mother’s health before and after the birth of the child. A popular tool was the birthing stool, which had four legs, an arm, and back supports with a crescent-shaped opening to help deliver the baby (Surgical Instruments from Ancient Rome). They would also use a lead or bronze tube into the vagina afterwards to prevent further contractions or adhesion. In some cases Cesarean sections, a surgical procedure in which an infant is surgically removed from the uterus, would be performed. The mortality rate for the mothers was quite high for these procedures, but the baby still had a fighting chance at survival. Sometimes the midwives would even have to perform abortions.

The Romans learned about medicine from the Greeks, and they made their own contribution to the discipline by focusing on public health and disease prevention. However, they did not make significant progress in understanding how the human body works, and they were not yet aware of the association of germs with disease. After the fall of the Roman Empire, medical knowledge in Europe did not make significant progress again until the Renaissance period.

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Medicine in Ancient Rome. (2019, Jul 02). Retrieved November 26, 2022 , from

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