Ancient Roman medicine combined scientific knowledge with supernatural and religious beliefs. Roman physicians adopted many practices and philosophies from the Greek physician Hippocrates and his followers, particularly after the arrival in 219 BC of Archagathus of Sparta, considered the first Greek physician to practice in the city.
Yet the ancient Romans also wore amulets to ward off disease and offered votives in temples to gods credited with healing powers. The blending of these two approaches produced some of the following startling facts about health and medicine in the Roman Empire.
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1. The blood and liver of slain gladiators were believed to cure epilepsy.
A gladiator’s bloodshed did not necessarily end after losing a fight to the death. Without a scientific understanding of the cause of epilepsy, Roman physicians recommended that those suffering from this mysterious affliction drink hot blood drawn from the cut throat of a slain gladiator as an elixir. “The blood of gladiators is drunk by epileptics as if it were the sip of life,” reports Roman scholar Pliny the Elder. Doctors also advocated the consumption of gladiator’s liver as a treatment. The Roman physician Scribonius Largus reported that onlookers would “come forward and tore a piece of the liver from a gladiator lying gutted in the dust”. Doctors may have prescribed the gruesome remedies because gladiators were seen as symbols of manhood who died healthy.
2. Ancient Rome’s most prominent physician influenced the practice of medicine for 1,300 years after his death.
Born and raised in Greece, Galen of Pergamon studied anatomy and physiological theory in Alexandria, Egypt, and honed his medical skills treating wounded gladiators in his hometown before settling in Rome in 162 AD. . exercise, a balanced diet, good hygiene and good bathing and hypothesized that the brain, not the heart, controls the body. He was the first physician to demonstrate that the larynx generates voice and to identify the difference between venous and arterial blood. As personal physician to several emperors, Galen advanced anatomical knowledge through his care of gladiators and the dissections and vivisections of animals. He wrote hundreds of medical treatises, some of which remained standard references until the 1500s.
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3. It was thought that the key to good health was to maintain the balance between the four “humors”.
Roman physicians attributed to the theory developed in ancient Greece that a person’s health and emotions are governed by four internal substances – blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile. These “moods” were related to the four elemental qualities (hot, cold, wet and dry). Roman physicians attributed a range of ailments to an imbalance in a body’s humors. Galen, for example, believed that excess black bile caused cancerous tumors. Balance could be restored by treatments such as bloodletting, vomiting, enemas, sweat induction, and ingestion of large amounts of foods classified as hot or cold and moist or dry.
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4. Opportunities to study human anatomy were limited.
Ancient Rome’s ban on most dissections of human cadavers—for religious, ethical, and public health reasons—hindered anatomical studies. Physicians like Galen instead relied on the dissection and vivisection of animals, especially pigs and primates, because their anatomical structures mirrored those of humans. These dissections were public spectacles that served as entertainment and a method for doctors to attract new patients.
Many ancient Roman physicians considered dreams when making diagnoses and determining treatments because they believed they could be signals from the soul regarding humoral imbalances in the body. Doctors believed that dreams could provide information about patients that was hidden from direct observation. “Everything that sufferers see and seem to do in dreams will often tell us about the lack, excess, and quality of the humors,” Galen wrote. For example, dreams that included snow or ice were thought to indicate excess phlegm (a humor considered cold and wet), while those that included fire signaled high levels of bile (a humor considered hot and dry). Galen diagnosed a wrestler who dreamed of struggling to breathe while standing in a cistern of blood as suffering from an excess of humor, so he prescribed bloodletting as a treatment.
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6. The army medical corps allowed Roman soldiers to live longer than Roman citizens.
Emperor Augustus created the first professional military medical corps, which attracted professional Greek doctors by granting rights of full Roman citizenship, tax exemptions and retirement pensions. The medical profession formed one of the first dedicated field surgery units, erected well-designed sanitation systems to ward off disease, and pioneered both the hemostatic tourniquet to stop bleeding and to close arteries. for sutures. Camp doctors stood at the medical forefront of the empire by absorbing new ideas during their travels and studying human anatomy while performing surgery on wounded soldiers in field hospitals. Thanks in part to innovations by the medical profession of ancient Rome, the life expectancy of the average soldier was five years longer than that of the average citizen.
7. The medical professions are open to women.
Based on medical treatises, legal texts, and funerary inscriptions, researchers have concluded that women practiced medicine in ancient Rome. While female doctors were not prevalent, it was more common to find women acting as midwives, working under doctors to assist in childbirth and administer fertility drugs. Female doctors, who occasionally practiced in disciplines other than gynecology and obstetrics, were generally free women of Greek descent, while midwives had often been enslaved.
8. Cabbage was considered a miracle drug.
Many Roman physicians associated diet with good health and touted cabbage as a “superfood” capable of preventing and treating a wide range of illnesses. “It would be a long task to list the good sides of cabbage,” wrote Pliny the Elder. Roman historian Cato the Elder proved him right in a nearly 2,000-word treatise on the wholesome powers of cabbage in From Agriculture. According to Cato, the leafy vegetable cured headaches, blurred vision and digestive problems, while the application of shredded cabbage painlessly healed wounds, bruises, sores and dislocations. “In a nutshell, it will heal all the internal organs that are hurting,” he wrote. Cato even wrote that inhaling the vapors of boiled cabbage promoted fertility and that bathing in the urine of a person who ate a lot of cabbage cured many ailments.