Ancient Roman Medicine

Ancient Roman medicine was contributed dramatically by the Hippocratic Corpus’s knowledge and the combination of regimen, treatment of diet, and surgical procedures.

It was most prominent by the works of two Greek physicians- Dioscorides, a Roman army physician, and Galen. They performed public demonstrations as they practiced medicines and recorded their findings in the Roman Empire.

Ancient Roman medicine had specializations like ophthalmology and urology. They increased their knowledge of the human body through various surgical procedures using forceps, scalpels, and catheters which were the most efficient Roman inventions.

The Romans heavily practiced healing based on herbs, chants, prayers, and charms readily available in the household. 

The Romans encouraged providing public health facilities throughout Rome and developed from the demands of the battlefield and lessons from the Greeks.

They adopted the theory of the four senses of humor from the Greeks, which remained popular in Europe till the seventeenth century.

What medicine did the ancient Roman use?

The Romans carried out surgeries using opium and scopolamine to relieve pain and acid vinegar to clean wounds. They carried a tool kit with arrow extractors, catheters, scalpels, and forceps, sterilized in boiling water before use.

What herbs were used as medicine by the Romans?

They mostly used anise, basil, garlic, cumin, coriander, oregano, myrtle, wormwood, catnip, etc., as medicine.

How were wounds treated in ancient Rome?

Flesh wounds were treated by irrigation, antiseptics, herbal medication, surgeries, and bandages and dressings. The Roman army used field hospitals to increase the speed of treatment.

What did they call the Roman doctors?

They were called Asclepiades of Hippocrates. Fathers who were doctors themselves passed on these names to their sons for the continuation of their profession.

Influence of Greek medicine in ancient Roman medicine

A portrait depicting a physician treating a patient in ancient Greece
A portrait depicting a physician treating a patient in ancient Greece
Source: Wikimedia Common

Greek medicine highly influenced Roman medicine. Roman physicians depended on naturalistic observations rather than spiritual rituals, but not spiritual beliefs like the Greek physicians.

They believed famines and plagues were divine punishments, and satisfying the gods would put an end to it. Later, the Romans formed a concept of contamination that started practices such as improved sanitation and quarantine.

Galen, one of the first well-known doctors in Rome, became an expert on human anatomy, in Greece, by dissecting animals, including monkeys. His expertise and significance in ancient Rome led him to become the personal physician of Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius.

Greek symbols and gods influenced Roman medicine. The caduceus, the treatment character, was initially associated with Hermes, the Greek god of commerce.

He carried the caduceus, a staff wrapped with two snakes associated with the Roman god Mercury. The caduceus was associated with health and medicine related to Azoth, the alchemical “universal solvent” in the 7th century.

Greek doctors were well established in Rome by the 2nd century, and the first evidence of this was the construction of the temple of Apollo Medicus in Rome in 431 BCE, which was recognized for having healing powers.

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Archagathus of Sparta is the first known Greek medical practitioner in Rome known for introducing Greek medical practice in Rome. He specialized in healing battle wounds and solving skin problems.

Asclepiades of Bithynia was known for soft treatments including massage, bathing, and gentle exercise mixed with a prescription of water and wine.

General Roman medicine 

Ancient Roman surgical instruments
Ancient Roman surgical instruments
Source: Wikimedia Common

Materia medica, the most influential work on drugs by Dioscorides of Anazarbus, mentions herbal and plant remedies, including poppy juice containing morphine and the autumn crocus containing colchicine.

He also put forward the idea of specific stones having beneficial properties such as green jasper being suitable for stomach problems and stones helping in quick childbirth if worn by expectant mothers.

They made pills from herbs and plants with some metallic ingredients. Celsus described the elements of a drug to treat a bad cough as saffron, myrrh, pepper, costmary, cinnamon, galbanum, castoreum, and poppy tears showing faith in everyday goods.

Cato believed cabbage helped indigestion and how bathing a patient with the urine of someone who had eaten a lot of cabbage was helpful for constipation and how fumes of boiled cabbage would increase a woman’s fertility if directed into the womb.

Surgery was usually considered the last resort because of the apparent risks and the discomfort and pain it causes. They carried out sophisticated operations such as removing cataracts, draining of fluids, trephination, and reversal of circumcision with the help of specialized surgical instruments.

Wounds were stitched using flax, linen thread, or metal pins, and dressings were made of linen bandages or sponges soaked in wine, oil, vinegar, or water and kept damp with a cover of fresh leaves.

The doctors dealt mainly with skin, digestion, fertility problems, bone fractures, gout, epilepsy, fluid retention, and depression.

The cases, including injuries to the brain, heart, liver, spine, intestines, kidneys, and arteries, were usually avoided to protect their medical reputation as they acknowledged how they couldn’t do anything with those cases.

Progression of medicine

Aristotle, the first biologist, contributed a lot to medicine in ancient Rome, and he studied the entire world of living things. He laid the foundations of comparative anatomy and embryology.

After Aristotle, a famous medical school was established in 300 BCE during the reign of Alexandria. Herophilus, whose thesis on anatomy was extraordinarily unique, and Erasistratus, considered the founder of physiology, were two of the best medical teachers in that school.

Erasistratus distinguished the difference between sensory and motor nerves. Even after the Roman Empire, Alexandria, the medical teaching center, still flourished medical knowledge throughout the Greek world.

Asclepiades of Bithynia, contrary to the beliefs of Hippocrates, refused the healing power of nature and came up with the atomic theory.

The acknowledgment of disease to the contracted and relaxed condition of the solid particles is what he believed made up the body.

Asclepiades thought to restore harmony between the particles cured the disease. He used massage, poultices, tonics, fresh air, and a corrective diet to achieve balance, focused on mental health, and differentiated between hallucination and delusion.

He released mentally unstable people from dark asylums and treated them with therapy, soothing music, soporifics- especially wine and exercises to improve attention and memory.

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Galen acknowledged and followed the Hippocratic method and recognized that the arteries contain blood and not air. He displayed how the heart sets the blood in motion but didn’t know that the blood circulates.

He had to examine the animals, particularly apes, for his knowledge, as dissecting the human body was illegal at that time.

Soranus of Ephesus wrote a book on childbirth, infant care, and women’s disease. He despised abortion and encouraged various contraceptive methods.

He also proposed a live-saving technique during childbirth that described a problematic delivery’s assistance by turning the fetus in a podalic version in the uterus.

The Romans set a great example in the world in terms of public health. Along with unmatched water supply in the city, gymnasiums and public baths were built, and sewage disposal was adequate.

They built hospitals and provided the army with medical officers while the poor were appointed with general physicians.

Famous Specialists of ancient Roman medicine

A portrait of Ancient Roman Encyclopaedist Aulus Cornelius Celsus
A portrait of Ancient Roman Encyclopaedist Aulus Cornelius Celsus
Source: Wikimedia Common

Aulus Cornelius Celsus wrote an encyclopedia including a part on medicine that mentioned how taking a steam bath with a herb of the mint family aided sweating and rejuvenated the body.

It said eating snakes would help rid abscesses and that drinking the blood of a slain gladiator cured epilepsy. According to him, they treated gout with hot plasters of mallow root boiled into wine.

He believed that death was unavoidable in the case of a pointed nose, sunken temples and eyes, cold ears, and the skin is taught and hard. He categorized food as those that cooled the body, including lettuce, cucumber, cherries, and vinegar, and those that provided heat that had pepper, salt, onions, and wine.

Scribonius Largus wrote compositions on drugs meant to treat arthritis, trefoil plant for snakebites, and turtle or dove’s blood to cure epilepsy.

Soranus advised midwives and wet nurses on Gynecology about how they should be well educated and informed on theory as well-practiced without being influenced by superstition.

To avoid pregnancy, he advised them to hold their breath during intercourse or sneezing shortly after.

Dalen, an all-rounder scholar, advised new mothers on applying bandages soaked in wine for sterilization. Galen, who followed the Hippocratic Corpus, suggested that the imbalance among the bodily fluids caused illness, including phlegm, yellow bile, black bile, and blood.

His theory of heat, cold, wet and dry being used in all treatments remained influential for 1500 years.

Hospitals in the ancient Rome

An image depicting the Plan of Valetudinarium
An image depicting the Plan of Valetudinarium
Source: Wikimedia Common

The first hospitals in ancient Rome were reserved for slaves and soldiers, and physicians followed armies and ships to assist in injuries. Most deaths due to poor sanitation, famine, epidemics, malnutrition, warfare, and health system development lagged due to superstitions and religious beliefs.

They built the earliest Roman hospitals during the reign of one of the greatest Roman emperors Trajan in the 1st and 2nd centuries. Valentudinarium were field hospitals for wounded soldiers.

Initially, it started in clusters of tents that helped doctors manage different wounds and various herbs required and was established when the army expanded beyond the Italian peninsula and couldn’t be cared for in private homes any longer.

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Over time, permanent facilities replaced these temporary forts. The hospital was built along the major roads and became a part of Roman fort architecture.

A Valentudinarium usually has a rectangular building with four wings, connected by an entrance hall used as a triage center. The hospitals could accommodate around five thousand men, and there were a large hall, reception wars, dispensary, kitchen, staff quarters, and washing and restroom services.

Dreams as diagnostic methods

An image depicting a person treating an injured in Ancient Rome
An image depicting a person treating an injured in Ancient Rome

The interpretations of a patient’s dream were used to determine what treatment they received with the theme of knowing the patient.

They believed the physician should know essential aspects of the patient’s lives to understand how to treat them, including their climate, food intake, sleep quality and quantity, drink, and any injuries.

They made conclusions to determine what needed to be done to set them back to equilibrium.

They believed that the soul served the purpose that the brain has been discovered to do, so they took dreams in reference during diagnosis.

They thought the soul was responsible for sensation, pain, motion, and other physiological concepts and continued these works even when asleep. Hence, dreams showed what caused the person distress.

They believed that a person was healthy and in equilibrium if the dreams consisted of everyday daily events. However, the more chaotic the dreams, the more ill the person was thought to be.

Major health issues in the ancient Rome

An image depicting a plague taking power over Ancient Romans
An image depicting a plague taking power over Ancient Romans
Source: Wikimedia Common

The average lifespan of the Roman people was 22 years. Children were not considered human up to the talking age since most children died before 12 months, and only 1.3 percent had tombstones in their burial.

The most common diseases in ancient Rome were Malaria and tuberculosis. People were dying at a tremendous rate as mosquito-breeding marshes surrounded many Roman cities.

People resolved to raven caws and decapitating puppies as a desperate method for cures and magic as malaria swept off the extensive Roman Empire. Tuberculosis, however, had been present since the birth of history and was called the silent killer.

Romans claimed lead poisoning to be the reason for high sterility rates, miscarriages, and stillbirths. The source of lead ingestion was from lead water pipes and wine additives.

Cancer was another health issue faced by the Romans, which according to the Hippocratic Corpus, was caused by excess black bile and was termed Carcinos (crab) as some cancers appeared crab-like.

Plague, brucellosis, wheat allergy, and sexually transmitted diseases like syphilis were some other diseases prevalent in the city.


The Romans were highly influenced by the Greeks on medicine and added their methods by focusing on public health and disease prevention.

However, there was no medical training or qualifications among the Romans and forms of practice depending on the individual learning of the practitioner.

They made progress in their anatomical knowledge and surgery and were highly superstitious, thus, believing that a person was diseased due to offending the gods.

They also believed that dreams directly represented the person’s bodily equilibrium and how chaotic dreams signified the severity of the disease.

They were heavily operative with herbal treatments, and surgery was considered the last option due to the discomfort it caused and the risk it carried.

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