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Medicine in ancient Rome

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

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

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 said that opposites would often cure patients. For a cold he would give the patient hot pepper. If a patient had a fever, he advised doctors to use cucumber. The roots of this theory originated from Hippocrates who developed the theory of the four humours. This theory would be in practice for years to come.

Surgical instruments

Roman surgical instruments; from the "Surgeon's House" in Ariminum (Rimini, Italy).
File:Roman catheters BM GR1968.6-26.1to39.jpg
Ancient Roman bronze catheters (1st century CE)

A variety of surgical instruments are known from archaeology and Roman medical literature, including for example:[5]

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.[5]
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.[5]
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.[5]
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.[5]
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.[5]
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.[5]
This instrument was used to mix and apply various ointments to patients.[5]
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

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:[6]

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[7]
Rhubarb Ra For flatulence, convulsions, internal disorders (stomach, spleen, liver, kidneys, womb, peritoneum), sciatica, asthma, rickets, dysentery, etc Dioscorides[8]
Gentian Gentiane Warming, astringent; for poisonous bites, liver disorders; induces abortion; treats deep ulcers, eye inflammation Dioscorides[9]
Birthwort Aristolochia Poisonous; assists in childbirth Dioscorides[10]
Liquorice Glukoriza Calms stomach; chest, liver, kidney and bladder disorders Dioscorides[11]
Aloe Aloe Heals wounds (applied dry); removes boils; purgative; treats alopecia Dioscorides[12]


  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. ^ 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. 
  6. ^ Osbaldeston 2000
  7. ^ Osbaldeston 2000, 3.82
  8. ^ Osbaldeston 2000, 3.2
  9. ^ Osbaldeston 2000, 3.3
  10. ^ Osbaldeston 2000, 3.4
  11. ^ Osbaldeston 2000, 3.7
  12. ^ Osbaldeston 2000, 3.25


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