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Can I try that question again, please?

January 13, 2014

One of the perils of combining a haphazard approach to research with a terrible memory is that I often recall useful things that I read a long time ago, but it’s impossible to quote them because I no longer know where they were. Worse, I sometimes wonder whether they really existed or whether I made them up for a story. So when someone asked me the other day whether doctors in the ancient world really did perform post-mortems, I was appalled to find myself in a minor panic, mumbling that I was pretty certain they did, and anyway, um,  surely they must have done…

Shelves crowded with books about Romans and Ancient Britain

The answer is probably in here somewhere. Or perhaps not.

My companion was very polite, but given the number of post-mortem examinations in the Ruso stories, he can’t have been too impressed. So it was mightily reassuring to rediscover this in Vivian Nutton’s “Ancient Medicine”:

“The best picture of what the average healer did may be gained from the papyri of Graeco-Roman Egypt, which extend mainly from the second century BC until the sixth century. They show us healers at work, summoned to carry out inspections of those injured in an affray or dying in suspicious circumstances, prescribing, running a family hospital, even writing their own books.”

So that’s where it was. Page 11.

That passage brings me to a great question  asked by Jane Finnis at the Heffers Classics Festival: “What lost document from antiquity would you most like to find?”

My answer at the time was that I’d like to find something – anything – by the Druids, in the hope of balancing the information we have from the Roman authors. Sadly, as Manda Scott observed, since the Druids didn’t have a written culture the chances of that happening were slim. She cunningly suggested rediscovering – amongst other things – the entire contents of the lost library of Alexandria.  Much too late, I’d like to revise my own answer:

The book I would most like to find from antiquity is one that definitely existed, but is known to have vanished by the year 850. It was written by a doctor called Rufus and was a “large compendium of self-help medicine designed for the layman (‘for those who have no access to a physician’).” (Nutton, p. 7)

Wouldn’t that be fascinating? I must have read about Rufus’s DIY medical book years ago, but it had drifted out of memory. Perhaps the idea wasn’t entirely lost, though. It seems G. Petreius Ruso’s attempt to write a Concise Guide to Military First Aid wasn’t quite as original as I thought.

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10 comments

  1. At the current rate of progress, it’s going to very concise! Maybe Tilla will write it as a memoir.


    • I think it’s ground to a halt completely! Maybe the thought of Rufus will inspire him to try again.


  2. I understand completely. When I’m researching I keep notes, but not everything goes into the book and sometimes I can’t remember where things are in my notes. So I anticipated potential questions and made a document that I take along when I go to book clubs, etc. It reminds me what a name means, where I found a certain fact, etc. The trouble is I don’t always have that document with me when someone asks a question.


    • That’s a really good idea, Petrea. The idea of anticipating potential questions is something I hadn’t thought of. As for note-taking – it seems to be a skill that I’ve learned the hard way. But my New Year’s resolution was to finally get to grips with OneNote, and I think I’m nearly there. It remains to see whether that will actually make a difference or whether the confusion is internal!


  3. The Romans did indeed do autopsies. Not as a regular thing, though. The first (or most famous, at any rate) was done on Julius Caesar by a physician named Antistius. The interesting thing that the autopsy showed was that the second stab wound (of 23) was most likely the one that killed him, but he would have died of shock and blood loss in any case.

    As a writer of paranormal novels that span many historical periods, I’m always doing research, then forgetting where I read it. I knew, for instance, that Domitian had a room in the Flavian Palace with moonstone-faced walls, but I have no idea where I picked up THAT little nugget. And the walls were probably only marble-faced. I used it anyway, since it was just the sort of thing the grandiose bastard would have done.

    Post-It notes, scruffy scraps of paper, and many bookmarks are a writer’s best friends. Provided you remember what it was you were originally looking for.


    • Hi Cheri,

      Thanks for the nugget about Julius Caesar – that’s really useful. It must have been a nerve-wracking business examining a murdered Emperor if the murderers were now in power…

      I think the gossip about Domitian probably stems from Suetonius. “As the time of the danger which he apprehended drew near, he became daily more and more disturbed in mind; insomuch that he lined the walls of the porticos in which he used to walk, with the stone called Phengites [831], by the reflection of which he could see every object behind him.” I did look up ‘phengites’ but wasn’t much the wiser! I sometimes wonder if Suetonius is too scandalous to be believed, but it’s all juicy stuff.


  4. I love these insights into authors’ minds! I’m a geologist, not a writer, but I often find myself floundering when asked directly about some piece of info that I should know cold. As for the mineral, I’m guessing your search turned up that it’s a type of mica related to muscovite. Mineralogy isn’t my speciality, but I’d imagine that true muscovite would make a better mirror! It tends to form flat, reflective sheets that once were used in place of glass (muscovy glass).


  5. So it really would have been mirror-like. Thanks so much, Brenda.This interdisciplinary approach is really useful!

    (It occurs to me that Pliny the Elder would have loved the Internet – he seems to have been fascinated by everything he came across, and the chance to learn from experts he’d never met would have delighted him.)


    • I’m sure he would! Meanwhile I bet Russo would grump about patients googling their symptoms and misdiagnosing themselves!


      • Absolutely. In fact there’s a character rather like that in the next book…



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