Medicine in ancient Rome

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Medicine in Ancient Rome — combined various techniques using different tools. There was a strong Greek influence on Roman medicine, with Greek physicians including Dioscorides and Galen working and writing on medicine in the Roman empire, with knowledge of hundreds of herbal and other medicines.

Ancient Roman medicine was divided into specializations such as ophthalmology and urology. A variety of surgical procedures were carried out using many different instruments including forceps, scalpels and catheters.


The Romans favoured the prevention of disease over cure. Unlike in Greek society where health was a personal matter, public health was encouraged by the Roman government. They built bath houses and aqueducts to pipe water to the cities. Many of the larger cities, such as Rome, boasted an advanced sewage system (Cloaca Maxima), the likes of which would not be seen in the Western world again until the late 17th century onward. However, the Romans did not fully understand the involvement of germs in disease.

Roman surgeons carried a tool kit which contained forceps, scalpels, catheters and arrow extractors. The tools had various uses and were boiled in hot water before each use. In surgery, surgeons used painkillers such as opium and scopolamine (from henbane)[1] for treatments, and acetum (the acid in vinegar) was used to wash wounds.

Greek influences on Roman Medicine[edit]

Many Greek medical ideas were adopted by the Romans, and Greek medicine had a huge influence on Roman medicine. The first doctors to appear in Rome were Greek, captured as prisoners of war. Greek doctors would later move to Rome because they could make a good living there, or a better one than in the Greek cities.

The Romans also conquered the city of Alexandria, with its libraries and its universities. In Ancient times, Alexandria was an important centre for learning and its Great Library held countless volumes of information, many hand writings were also used in Roman medicine.

Roman Medicine also encompassed the spiritual beliefs of the Greeks (see below). Romans also used utensils such as spoons and such items to do surgery.

Some Physicians[edit]

Many Roman doctors came from Greece and strongly believed in achieving the right balance of the four humors and restoring the natural heat of patients.


Main article: Pedanius Dioscorides

Pedanius Dioscorides (circa 40-90 CE), was a Greek botanist, pharmacologist and physician who practised in Rome during the reign of Nero. He became a famous Roman Army doctor. Dioscorides wrote a 5-volume encyclopedia - De Materia Medica - which listed over 600 herbal cures, forming an influential and long-lasting pharmacopeia. De Materia Medica was used extensively by doctors for the following 1,500 years.[2]


Main article: Soranus of Ephesus

Soranus was a Greek physician, born at Ephesus, who lived during the reigns of Trajan and Hadrian (98-138 CE). According to the Suda, he practised in Alexandria and subsequently in Rome. He was the chief representative of the Methodic school of physicians. 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).


Main article: Galen

Galen (129 CE)[3] –ca. 200 or 216 CE) of Pergamon was a prominent ancient Greek[4] 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, and other animals.

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 clients. 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 would go on to treat Roman luminaries such as Lucius Verus, Commodus, and Septimius Severus. However, in 166 Galen returned to Pergamon again, where he lived until he went back to Rome for good in 169.

Galen followed Hippocrates theory of the four humours believing that ones 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 could no longer help.[5]


Plan of Valetudinarium, near Dusseldorf, Germany. Late 1st century

The earliest known hospitals of the Ancient Roman Empire were built during the first and second century A.D[6] under the reign of Emperor Trajan. The army's expansion beyond the Italian Peninsula meant that the wounded could no longer be trusted in the care of private homes.[6] It was because of this reason that that valetudinarium was established.

The Valetudinarium is known as the Field Hospitals or Flying Military Camps[7] and began as a small cluster of tents and fortresses dedicated to wounded soldiers. Over time, the temporary forts developed into permanent facilities.[8] While the original hospitals were built along major roads they soon became part of Roman fort architecture and were usually placed near the outer wall in a quiet part of the fortification.[9]


A standard valetudinarium was structured into a rectangular building, consisting of four wings that were connected by an entrance hall that could be pressed into the service of a triage center.[10] Each legion hospital was constructed to accommodate 6-10 percent of the legions 5,000 men.[8] The building also included a large hall, reception ward, dispensary, kitchen, staff quarters, washing and latrine facilities.[7]

Surgical instruments[edit]

Roman surgical instruments found at Pompeii.
Roman surgical instruments; from the "Surgeon's House" in Ariminum (Rimini, Italy).
Ancient Roman bronze catheters (1st century CE)

A variety of surgical instruments are known from archaeology and Roman medical literature, including for example:[11]

Could be made of either steel or bronze. Ancient scalpels had almost the same form and function as those of today. The most ordinary type of scalpels in antiquity were the longer, steel scalpels. These long scalpels 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 by surgeons in antiquity since the shape allowed for delicate and precise cuts to be made.[11]
Obstetrical Hooks
A common instrument used regularly by Roman and Greek doctors. The ancient doctors used two basic types of hooks: sharp hooks and blunt hooks. Blunt hooks were used primarily as probes for dissection and for raising blood vessels. 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.[11]
Bone Drills
Driven in their rotary motion by means of a thong in various configurations. Roman and Greek physicians used bone drills in order to remove diseased bone tissue from the skull and to remove foreign objects (such as a weapon) from a bone.
Bone Forceps
Forceps were used to extract small fragments of bone which could not be grasped by the fingers.[11]
Male Catheters
Used in order to open up a blocked urinary tract which allowed urine to 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.[11]
Uvula (Crushing) Forceps
These finely toothed jawed forceps were designed to facilitate the amputation of the uvula. The procedure called for the physician to crush the uvula with forceps before cutting it off in order to reduce bleeding.[11]
Vaginal Specula
Among the most complex instruments used by Roman and Greek physicians. Most of the vaginal specula that have survived and been discovered consist of a screw device which, when turned, forces a cross-bar to push the blades outwards.[11]
This instrument was used to mix and apply various ointments to patients.[11]
Surgical saw
This instrument was used to cut through bones in amputations and surgeries.


Roman physicians were strongly influenced by what the Greeks used to do, and would carry out a thorough physical exam of the patient. Many of their treatments were also influenced by Greek practices. Roman diagnosis and treatment of patients consisted of a combination of Greek medicine and some local practices.

Some Roman doctors were impressive in their claims. Galen said that by following Greek practice he never misdiagnosed or made a wrong prognosis. Progress in diagnosis, treatment and prognosis in Ancient Rome was slow and patchy; doctors tended to develop their own theories and diverged in several different directions.

Herbal and other medicines[edit]

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:[12]

Roman medicines
Probable substance Latin/Greek name Indication and Effects Authority
Fennel Ippomarathron Cures painful urination; expels menstrual flow; stops bowel discharge; brings out breast milk; breaks kidney and urinary stones Dioscorides[13]
Rhubarb Ra For flatulence, convulsions, internal disorders (stomach, spleen, liver, kidneys, womb, peritoneum), sciatica, asthma, rickets, dysentery, etc Dioscorides[14]
Gentian Gentiane Warming, astringent; for poisonous bites, liver disorders; induces abortion; treats deep ulcers, eye inflammation Dioscorides[15]
Birthwort Aristolochia Poisonous; assists in childbirth Dioscorides[16]
Liquorice Glukoriza Calms stomach; chest, liver, kidney and bladder disorders Dioscorides[17]
Aloe Aloe Heals wounds (applied dry); removes boils; purgative; treats alopecia Dioscorides[18]

Textual Transmission[edit]

Galenic medical texts embody the written medical tradition through classical antiquity. Little written word survives prior to this era. The volume of written works by Galen, however, nears close to 350, and his surviving works far surpass any other writer from the period.[19] Prior to Galen, much of medical reference survived through word of mouth. The tradition of transmission and translation originated with Dioscorides' De Materia Medica. The manuscripts classified and illustrated over 1000 substances and their uses.[20] De Materia Medica influenced medical knowledge for centuries due to its dissemination and translation to Greek, Arabic, and Latin. Galen wrote in Greek, but Arabic and Syriac translations survive 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.[21] Galen also referenced the written works of Methodist physician Soranus, known for his four book treatise regarding gynecology.[22] His synthesis of earlier medical philosophies and broad range of subjects produced the textual legacy Galen left on the medical community for the next fifteen hundred years.[23]


  1. ^ Howells, John G.; Osborn, M. Livia (1984). A Reference Companion to the History of Abnormal Psychology. Greenwood Press. ISBN 9780313221835. Retrieved 4 November 2012. 
  2. ^ "Greek Medicine". National Institutes of Health, USA. 16 September 2002. Retrieved 29 August 2014. 
  3. ^ "Galen". Encyclopædia Britannica IV. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. 1984. p. 385. 
  4. ^ Galen of Pergamum
  5. ^ Galen: on food and diet. Translator: Grant, Mark. London and New York: Routledge. 2000. pp. 5–7. ISBN 0415232325.  |first1= missing |last1= in Authors list (help)
  6. ^ a b McCallum, Jack Edward (2008-01-01). Military Medicine: From Ancient Times to the 21st Century. ABC-CLIO. pp. 15–16. ISBN 9781851096930. 
  7. ^ a b Byrne, Eugene Hugh (1910-04-01). "Medicine in the Roman Army". The Classical Journal 5 (6): 267–272. 
  8. ^ a b Gabriel, Richard A. (2012-01-01). Man and Wound in the Ancient World: A History of Military Medicine from Sumer to the Fall of Constantinople. Potomac Books, Inc. pp. 168–173. ISBN 9781597978484. 
  9. ^ Retief, F. P.; Cilliers, L. (2006-01-01). "The evolution of hospitals from antiquity to the Renaissance". Acta Theologica 26 (2): 213–232. doi:10.4314/actat.v26i2.52575. ISSN 1015-8758. 
  10. ^ Gabriel, Richard A. (2007-01-01). The Ancient World. Greenwood Publishing Group. pp. 156–157. ISBN 9780313333484. 
  11. ^ a b c d e f g h "Surgical Instruments from Ancient Rome". University of Virginia Claude Moore Health Services Library. 2007. Retrieved 16 September 2014. 
  12. ^ Osbaldeston 2000
  13. ^ Osbaldeston 2000, 3.82
  14. ^ Osbaldeston 2000, 3.2
  15. ^ Osbaldeston 2000, 3.3
  16. ^ Osbaldeston 2000, 3.4
  17. ^ Osbaldeston 2000, 3.7
  18. ^ Osbaldeston 2000, 3.25
  19. ^ King, Helen (2002). Greek and Roman medicine. London: Bristol Classical. p. 38. ISBN 978-1-85399-545-3. 
  20. ^ Saliba, George; Komaroff, Linda (2005). "Illustrated Books May Be Hazardous to Your Health: A New Reading of the Arabic Reception and Rendition of the" Materia Medica" of Dioscorides". Ars Orientalis 35: 8. 
  21. ^ Nutton, Vivian (2009). The Western medical tradition: 800 BC to AD 1800. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press. ISBN 978-0-521-47564-8. 
  22. ^ Nutton, Vivian (2009). Ancient medicine. London: Routledge. p. 201. ISBN 978-0-415-36848-3. 
  23. ^ Jackson, Ralph (1988). Doctors and diseases in the Roman Empire. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. pp. 60–61. ISBN 978-0-8061-2167-3. 


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