The Romans
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Mare Nostrum

Medicine of Ancient Rome

by D.G. and R.G.

Works cited

Romans can greatly thank the Hellenistic Greeks and the Asians for their work in the medical field. The Romans followed up the scientific methods the Greeks and Asians used in their development of medicine. As Armour clearly notes, prior to this time, Romans went without an official medical profession for over 600 years. The head of the family would treat his family with folk remedies and sacrificial rites to the appropriate god. It wasn't until the Greeks began to arrive in Rome that medicine changed in Roman society. The medicine of ancient Rome helped set a standard and basis for today's medicine through Rome's conquest of Europe under Caesar (38).

Much of Roman medical knowledge is used as building blocks for today, such as:

  • physicians of the past
  • tools
  • practices
  • methods
  • medical journals

Physicians of the Past:

One of the people that the Romans borrowed medical techniques from was a Hindu surgeon named Shushruta. He developed a medical procedure that is still in use in modern medicine. The technique used was called the pedicle flap, which involved removing a piece of skin tissue from one part of the body and sewing it to a damaged area on the body.

Hippocrates was one of the most influential physicians of the ancient world

The great Greek physician, Hippocrates of Thessaly, was also a major influence on the medicine of both ancient Rome and today. Hippocrates is given credit for spreading the use of the scientific method started by earlier Greeks such as Pythagoras. He believed that diseases were not sent as punishments from the gods, contrary to popular belief. He also believed the body was made up of four "humors."
my name is dan

These humors were:

  • yellow bile
  • black bile
  • blood
  • phlegm, which could be
  1. hot
  2. cold
  3. moist
  4. dry

Another famous physician of that time, Cornelius Celsus, took on the task of performing neurosurgery, as noted by Dr. John R. Mangiardi . In "The History of Brain Surgery," Mangiardi states that Celsus, who lived around the birth of Christ, was a surgeon who expanded on the work done by Hippocrates, and took the art of brain surgery to a new level. Celsus performed neurosurgery on depressed skull fractures, something done by no other physician until then. Celsus was also known as the first important writer of medical history. His book, On Medicine , was so good that physicians used it for more than 1700 years.

Galen was the most famous Roman doctor

The work of Galen, the most famous doctor in Rome, was also instrumental in establishing some of today's medicine. Galen's system of medicine, based on humoralism, went unchallenged until the sixteenth century and remained influential until the nineteenth century ( Bynum and Porters 961).

Some of Galen's contributions were:

  • books on human anatomy, which were used up until the early eighteenth centuries
  • taking one's pulse
  • bloodletting

Roman Tools:

The Romans also had many tools that they used in medicine, as Klein tells in "The Surgery of Ancient Rome." These tools helped the design of some of the basic medical tools today.

These tools were:

  • vaginal speculum (dioptra in Greek)
  • cautery (kauterion in Greek)
  • hook (blunt or sharp)

The vaginal speculum's basic design and use in the diagnosis and treatment of vaginal and uterine disorders did not significantly change until the twentieth century. The tile cautery was a short square-shaped handle with a long, thin, round pointed rod connected to it. It was basically used as an all-purpose tool for things such as a "counter-irritant", a haemostatic, a bloodless knife, and a means of destroying tumors. The hooks were used for dissecting and raising blood-vessels, seizing and raising small pieces of tissue for excision, and for fixing and retracting the edges of wounds, which are the same things modern physicians use them for.


The surgery of ancient Rome set an early example for surgery of modern times offering a model to improve upon. Roman surgery was very strict as to the position that the surgeon had to be in.

When in a sitting position, the surgeon's:

  • knees were slightly separated and above the groin
  • elbows were never to pass the front of the knees or go behind the chest
  • two hands were to be used at all times
  • hands never were to be over the breast
  • forearms were to be kept at right angles to the arms
When standing all of the above were kept the same with the addition of both feet needing to stay level on the ground at all times.

Physicians of today know that the position taken during surgery has nothing to do with the health of the patient. It doesn't matter how the hands are held in relation to the arms or how the knees are positioned. As long as proper sterilization and hygiene are followed, the way the surgeon is situated is irrelevant ( Withington 53 ).

When a surgeon would employ the help of an assistant, the assistant was to be in any position as to allow an efficient working environment for them both. In modern times, the relation between the surgeon and the assistant is the same. The assistant is to be in an area so that any tool that the surgeon may need is easily accessible.

Appearance of Surgeons:

The appearance and grooming of the surgeon was also very important, as it is now. In ancient Rome, the surgeon was expected to look his best at all times. The clothing was expected to be wrinkle-free at all times. Surgeons also were to keep their fingernails no longer and no shorter than the ends of the fingertips. All of these regulations were put in place because the credibility of the surgeon was frequently determined by outward appearance and stature. It was believed that the better the person looked, the better they were at their job ( Withington 63 ).

Now in modern surgery, surgeons are still expected to look presentable, though regulations are not as strict. People now know that a person's job competency has nothing to do with appearance. Some things, such as the lengths of fingernails, are still the same. If the fingernails are too long, the patient may be cut while being operated on. Also dirt and bacteria may build up under the nail which could potentially lead to infection inside of the patient (Withington 57).

Romans creations that remain the same today

Various other things remain in modern medicine that were first started in Rome like

  • the house call
  • medical terms
  • prescriptions
  • Hippocratic Oath

Upon graduation, medical students of ancient Rome took an oath, the Hippocratic Oath. As Thorwald states, until the first half of the twentieth century, this 'Hippocratic Oath' was regarded as the model statement of medical ethics (219). In a personal interview, Dr. Steven Horowitz, a physician at the Suburban Heights Medical Center in Chicago Heights, Illinois, confirmed that this oath is still taking place today and took place when he graduated from medical school.

In addition, the outstanding public health and sanitation of ancient Rome was closely linked to the medical field. The public health and sanitation of this time were more advanced than they were to be again until the middle of the twentieth century.

Factors that contributed to the cleanliness and sanitation of Rome were

  • the drainage system, Cloaca Maxima
  • system of waterworks with flushing toilets
  • aqueducts for a clean water supply


When Romans did use medicine to treat ailments, they almost totally used herbs. Physicians of the time would often experiment on people of the town to try to find out different cures for diseases. Herbs would be dropped into wine without anyone knowing to find out the results. Sometimes these cures would work and sometimes they would not. As Armour jokingly notes, many of the physicians from Greece, who were not able to set up a successful practice, became slaves in the homes of the Romans and it was during this period that the phrase "Beware of Greeks bearing drugs" came about ( Armour 39 ).

Modern medicine is also based upon things such as herbs and roots to treat the sicknesses of the patients. Armour states that it is hard to doubt that some of these medicines are the same exact treatments that were used in ancient times and were directly taken from that era. In fact, many of the newest vitamins and pills becoming popular today are herbs (40).

Medical Schools:

Also, the work done by the medical schools of ancient Rome on the use of dreams as a therapeutic practice, greatly helped psychologists and physicians of today with their practices, as noted by Lee T. Pearcy . According to Pearcy in "Dreams in Ancient Medicine," modern scholars, following Galen's lead, often speak of three or more medical sects or schools in Roman medicine: dogmatists, empiricists, and methodists. Some speak also of an eclectic school, whose chief representative is Galen himself.

These three sects were all very different. As stated by Pearcy:

According to Galen, the Methodists rejected dreams and other forms of divination as indicators for diagnosis or therapy. Empiricist physicians, who rejected theory of all kind and based their practice on experience, accepted the possibility that dreams, like any other experience, might point to useful therapeutic practices. No indication seems to have survived of the dogmatists' attitude toward medical dreams, but there is no reason to believe that they denied their utility.

my name is dan In conclusion, the medical work brought to the rest of Europe through conquest by the Romans two thousand years ago helped build the foundations of our modern health-care system. Most amazing is how much they accomplished, with so little. The Romans used what they had, thanks to the help of the Hellenistic Greeks and the Asians, to make great strides in the surgical field, the field of medical practice, and their overall knowledge of the medical field. The physicians, the tools that were used, and the way surgery was then performed, all helped create building blocks of modern medicine. Without the conquest of Europe by the Ancient Romans, we might not be as technologically advanced as we are today in the medical field.

History and Thought of Western Man

Rich East High School * Park Forest, IL 60466

This page was created by D.G. and R.K. Last revised 3/5/00.

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