Roman Medicine

Roman Surgical Instruments at Museo di Napoli
Roman Surgical instruments at Museo di Napoli

Coming Soon: Several articles on many aspects of Roman medical practice, including nutrition for good health and treatment of diseases, infection control for wounds, and cataract surgery.

Aulus Cornelius Celsus wrote an 8-volume medical treatise during the reigns of Augustus and Tiberius. It is an amazing compilation of a wide array of Roman medical practices, ranging from the discussion of proper nutrition to remain healthy, specific foods that are good for treating various ailments, medicines and their applications, external problems related to internal disorders, and two volumes of surgical details. There’s a volume for the eye, ear, and throat practitioner, with a lengthy section on eye disorders that were a common problem in the ancient world. The surgical volumes even include directions for cataract surgery and what to do for a fractured skull.

I’ll be writing about some of the more interesting treatments, but note this full disclaimer:

My Ph.D. is in chemistry. I am not a medical doctor. I make no claims to medical knowledge beyond that of the normal layman. Whatever I post, I will NOT be recommending that anyone actually treat anyone or anything with what the Romans used or did. In fact, I’d recommend that you NOT try the Roman approach yourself.

Until the mid-1800’s, Roman medical practice was probably equal or superior to any available, but that doesn’t mean we should follow it today.

Celsus is my go-to reference for how to treat the injuries and ailments of the characters in my historical novels, but any malpractice on my part won’t contribute to their premature deaths (unless I deliberately make it a plot element).

Roman military physicians were probably the most knowledgeable medical practitioners with many opportunities to discover what worked and what did not on real patients, especially in the field of trauma medicine. Another venue that developed medical skill was being a physician to gladiators. Galen (Aelius Galenus), perhaps the most famous physician of ancient times, provided medical attention to the gladiators of Pergamum for four years. He later served as personal physician to Emperors Marcus Aurelius, Commodus, and Septimius Severus.

Roman medical practice drew heavily on both Greek and Egyptian schools of medicine.  Egypt had a well-developed body of medical knowledge and practice. (See Nunn below for an extensive summary of Egyptian medicine.) When Egypt came under Greek rulers following Alexander’s conquest in 332 BC, the importation of Greek medical knowledge grew.

Alexandria, established by Alexander himself in 331 BC, became a major cultural center. It was there in the 3rd century that Herophilus, a Greek trained in the Hippocratic approach to medicine, pioneered advances in anatomy.  Although both Greek and Egyptian culture had taboos on defilement of the dead, he used both dissection of corpses and vivisection of criminals provided by the pharaohs to study the inner working of the human body.  Vivisection of those taken near death from the Roman arenas was also allowed during the early Empire, when Celsus was writing, even though dissection of the already dead was not.

Celsus summed up the Roman attitude of his day in the preface to his treatise.  He describes “Herophilus and Erasistratus, who dissected such criminals alive, as were delivered over to them from the prisons by royal sanction; carefully observing before they had ceased to breath those parts which are by nature concealed; together with their position, color, form, size, relative situations, hardness, softness, smoothness, and connection.”

The need for such studies was obvious to Celsus. “For they argue that no one can know the exact seat of an internal pain if he has not previously made himself well acquainted with each organ and each intestine, that a diseased part cannot be cured by him who knows nothing about it, and that when internal parts are exposed by wounds, one who is ignorant of their healthy character cannot know whether they are sound or unsound, and if unsound, cannot provide a remedy.”

Even in this medical treatise, the Roman attitude toward crime and punishment holds sway as Celsus states “that it is not cruel, as many assert, to search for remedies for the innocent part of society in all ages, at the expense of torturing a few of the guilty.”

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Celsus, Aulus Cornelius and Collier, G. F. A Translation of the Eight Books of Aulus Cornelius Celsus on Medicine (1831). London: Kessinger Publishing, LLC, 2008.

Edelstein, Ludwig. Ancient Medicine: Selected Papers of Ludwig Edelstein. Translated by C. Lilian Temkin. Edited by Owsei Temkin and C. Lilian Temkin. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987.

Nunn, John F. Ancient Egyptian Medicine. London:British Museum Press, 1996.

Phillips, E. D. Aspects of Greek Medicine. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1973.

Scarborough, John. Roman Medicine. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1969.

Fact and Fiction by Carol Ashby