Medicine in Ancient Rome

Today – 4 July – we are celebrating the fantastic achievements of healthcare workers all over the world in coping with the coronavirus pandemic.

Pandemic in the Roman Empire 

Ancient Rome also had to cope with a pandemic – between 165 and 180 AD, the Antonine Plague (also known as the Plague of Galen) spread across the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire  stretched as far as Africa and the Middle East, covered large swathes of “Europe” and encompassed what we now know as “Britain”.

Antonine Plague reached its peak around 180 AD, when as many as 2,000 people a day died in Ancient Rome and hundreds of thousands across the Roman Empire also lost their lives.

Some commentators believe that plague might even have contributed to the downfall of the Roman Empire – others that it was the making of the Roman Empire.

Slight changes in the climate may also have contributed to traditional farming methods and deforestation heralding a rise in insect-borne diseases like malaria, as mosquitoes took full advantage of the warm climate and land increasingly being covered with water.

Ancient Rome had a sophisticated underground water system, however, with water from the hills above Rome being pumped underground to provide clean water. If you stand on the Spanish Steps, deep in the ground beneath you is one of the existing Roman subterranean aqueducts channelling clean water to supply the Trevi Fountain!

La Scalinata di Trinità dei Monti
The Spanish Steps – deep in the ground beneath the steps is an ancient Roman aqueduct supplying fresh water to the Trevi Fountain

Medical care in Ancient Rome 

The Ancient Romans were remarkably sophisticated when it came to medical care, however – there is evidence that they practised surgery and even experimented with amputation and prosthetics on soldiers injured in battle.

Ancient texts record diseases such as leprosy and infections like tuberculosis. Roman citizens would have lived in close proximity to each other in towns and cities, and these provided a breeding ground for infectious diseases.

The Romans, however, are famous for their sewerage systems, latrines and public baths – but public baths could also be breeding grounds for disease.

They used herbal-based remedies, just as we do now – most pharmaceuticals are now synthetic versions of natural substances.

Fennel (Image Pixabay)
Fennel

To treat nervous disorders, the Ancient Romans used fennel, which they believed had calming properties.

Coughs and chest infections were treated with marshmallow (Althaea officinalis) – and for skin infections, they gave themselves a good rub down with crushed garlic.

Verbena would be used to treat wounds – it was known as a treatment for “iron” wounds, so was frequently used for battle wounds.

Cilantro (image Pixabay)
Cilantro – parsley: prescribed for male infertility by Ancient Roman doctors

The Romans even had a remedy for men with fertility issues – and prescribed eating large amounts of parsley.

Hospitals in the Roman Empire 

The Ancient Romans were also responsible for setting up the first hospitals – unfortunately, there was no National Health Service in Ancient Rome, but the military and slaves were admitted to hospital if ill as they were considered key workers.

roman-holiday-738663_1280

It is thought the first hospitals were established somewhere between 1 AD and 2 AD by Emperor Trajan. These were field hospitals called valetudinaria, which were originally tented medical centres that were portable – but later became permanent centres of care for Roman soldiers and also slaves.

Hospital at Novaesium near Dusseldorft (image https://wellcomecollection.org/works)
Plan of a hospital in Ancient Rome

valetudinarium had a large entrance hall so that wounded soldiers could be triaged – just as modern hospitals do. There were four wings, which comprised a dispensary, a hospital kitchen, refectory, accommodation for nursing staff and doctors, washrooms and latrines.

The plebs would have to take care of themselves, however, if they fell ill – and Ancient Romans were extremely suspicious, so illness might be seen as fated: for example, as divine retribution for some misdeed or even a curse. The Ancient Romans worshipped many different gods and goddesses, so in lieu of being able to afford medical care, an offering or a prayer to a god or goddess might have to suffice.

Aesculapius was the ancient god of health and medicine – and he is depicted with a snake-like staff, a symbol of medical practice that still exists today.

Medical equipment in the Roman Empire

Women in Ancient Rome perhaps fared slightly better than their male counterparts – midwives were common, as were specula instruments for vaginal examinations.

The ancient Romans were, in fact, very keen on medical instruments – men may wince now, but in Ancient Rome the male catheter made out of bronze or steel was common, as were specula for rectal examinations.

Other common medical instruments the Ancient Romans wielded cheerfully were probes, cauterisation instruments, tubes, and bone levers to pop bones back into place (ouch).

Roman bronze forceps surgical instruments (Image Wellcome)

Doctors were common in Ancient Rome, but one renowned Roman doctor was Galen, after whom the plague was named. He became Emperor Marcus Aurelius’s personal doctor and was famous for dissection, including animals like pigs. He also studied human anatomy, although human dissection was illegal in Ancient Rome.

Emperor Marcus Aurelius ruled from 26 April 121 to 17 March 180 AD – he succeeded Emperor Antoninus Pius, after whom the plague pandemic in the Roman Empire was also named. Both emperors died of natural causes rather than plague – perhaps because they would have been shielded, just as we have been doing recently.

 Complementary therapies in the Roman Empire  

Complementary medicine as we know it is also recorded in the Roman Empire. As we have seen, the Ancient Romans used herbal treatments – but cupping was one therapy widely used, as well as massage; and, of course, hot and cold baths to promote hygiene, blood circulation and to treat illnesses.

Baths of Caracalla, Rome
Baths of Caracalla, Rome (Image A. Meredith 2018)

The ancient physician Asclepiades was a great promoter of alternative therapies – he studied medicine in Alexandria before moving to Rome in 1 BC.

You can reach for your lyre because he prescribed music to promote sedation, something dentists and doctors use today.  He was unusual in that he believed patients should not be subjected to physical pain if at all possible – and devised therapies to treat patients painlessly as much as possible.

The good news is that for headaches and fever, he prescribed a glass of good old vino rosso – red wine!  (Obviously, not with paracetamol or other painkillers).

Today as we thank our heroic medical staff and carers across the world, raise a glass of vino rosso. If it’s good enough for the Ancient Romans, it’s good enough for us  – and full of that vital antioxidant resveratrol to keep your heart happy and healthy.

Thank you all – and Salute!

Galenosgruppe (Vienna Dioskurides)
Image from Vienna Dioskurides showing the physician Galen centre top

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