Welcome to my corner of the 2013 Wonder of Rome Blog Hop! There are (I think) seventeen of us linking up this weekend to offer blog posts on some aspect of Rome for your enjoyment. As you’ll have gathered, I’m Ruth Downie, and I write a series of crime novels featuring Roman army medic Ruso, and his British partner Tilla. Predictably, my choice for the Wonder of Rome is its doctors (even if they did learn most of what they knew from the Greeks).
As part of the Hop I’ll be giving a copy of the Ruso book of their choice to one randomly-chosen reader, so if you’d like to enter the draw, please leave a comment below and I’ll be in touch with the winner. (No, this is not a cunning ploy to make you read to the end. I know you have a ‘scroll’ button.)
The Ruso books are set during the reign of the Emperor Hadrian, and I’m mightily glad they are. Not only because it’s an interesting period, but – as I discovered when it was too late to change it – I’ve escaped Galen by a gnat’s whisker.
There’s no doubt that Galen (who was born in about A.D. 129) was a marvellous doctor, as he pointed out himself on many occasions. His influence was such that even in the nineteenth century, German medical students had to pass an exam on his works before they could qualify. But he was prolific. Those of us struggling with deadlines and word counts can only marvel at Galen’s ability to produce vast amounts of prose, and give a quiet sigh of relief at the thought that we aren’t compelled to read it all.
Surgery has a long history. This hole in the head was created over a thousand years before Rome was founded.
I have, however, been perusing “On Anatomical Procedures” recently. This is how I know that you have to drown your ape. Despatching it in any other way will damage it, thus ruining some of the structures Galen wants you to see as you dissect it.
(It occurs to me now, gentle reader, that you may like to use that scroll button after all. This will get a little gory in places. Crime writers, especially those who write about medics, tend to forget that not everyone is used to this stuff. Sorry.)
The unnecessary drowning of apes is not a cheery topic, and the dissection of living creatures – also recommended by Galen – is even worse. Let’s not even think about… no, let’s not. Yet there’s one practice we accept today that would have been deeply disturbing to the classical Romans. Despite their reputation for cruelty, they would have been shocked at the idea that doctors might routinely learn their trade by taking apart real human bodies. Goodness knows what they would make of CSI or Silent Witness. The medical men of ancient Alexandria had helpfully disposed of criminals this way in the past, but by the time the practice of medicine had spread through Greece and across to Rome, it was much frowned upon. So although Galen managed to examine human skeletons, much of his knowledge of anatomy came from animals.
At least Galen was eager to look, learn, and share his knowledge. Not everyone had such high standards. Rather like the title ‘therapist’ today, anyone in the ancient world could call themselves a ‘medicus’, so it was a case of buyer beware. Martial must have expected his audience to get the joke when he wrote,
Until recently, Diaulus was a doctor. Now he’s an undertaker. He’s still, as an undertaker, doing what he used to do as a doctor. (Epigrams, 1.47)
Just to make the point – Galen was obliged to prove to some of his colleagues that arteries are not empty channels. Neither, he pointed out, are they full of milk.
He looks friendly enough, but can you trust him?
The medic in the photo was travelling with the XIIII Legion, which was a good sign, since surgeons with the Army or – like Galen – the gladiator schools, at least had plenty of practice. And the best were very good indeed. Anything accessible and mechanical – breaks, sprains, dislocations, cuts, removal of arrowheads from places they shouldn’t be – all these they could cope with. Some of their techniques were still in use in the First World War, and whilst they didn’t have modern anaesthetics, they were well aware of the effects of opium and mandrake.
I thought I should mention that comforting fact before going on to say that they also had a viable method of dealing with cataracts.
Ready? Peep out between your fingers at the sort of precision instrument they would have used –
A modern reproduction of a cataract needle, based on one of a set found in the Saone River in France.
I’m told the less terrifying end could be dipped into a liquid medicine and used to deliver it to the patient, one drop at a time. (This one was made by Steve Wagstaff.)
And here are a couple of examples of real patients from the Roman world, the first one a Londoner:
According to the Museum of London, the broken half of this pair of collarbones only mended so successfully because someone had strapped it up properly.
The unlucky owner of this bone was buried in Arles -
Should have gone to Galen?
Dealing with what a doctor could not see or feel was a trickier business. The reason for the spread of disease was much-debated and it’s not hard to conclude that epidemics were kept in check less by medics than by engineers, building aqueducts for fresh water, and sewers the like of which were not seen again in Britain until the great clean-up of Victorian times.
Still, despite everyone’s best efforts, recovery depended on the goodwill of the gods. There are testimonies to overnight cures at the shrine of Aesculapius, and Luke’s gospel tells the story of a woman who had spent all she had on doctors and was finally cured after twelve years of illness by touching Jesus’s cloak.
A gift to the gods, in the hope of – or giving thanks for? – a cured foot.
In fact some people were firmly of the opinion that doctors were best left out of the equation altogether. Pliny the Elder, although he recommended plenty of remedies, was appalled by the notion that anyone should attempt to make money out of the sick. “Only a doctor can kill a man with impunity,” he observed, adding, “there is no greater reason for the decay of morals than medicine.”
Not everyone was so cynical. Doctors were given tax concessions, although perhaps in an early example of cracking down on tax dodgers, Antoninus Pius later set a limit to how many doctors each town could have.
Of course in the absence of a doctor, the educated person could always consult a medical text. Modern readers eager to shun artificial chemicals in favour of natural ingredients might thrill to some of the remedies of Dioscorides of Anarzarbus:
- Toothache? Use the sting of a stingray to shatter the tooth
- Malaria? Place seven bedbugs inside beans and swallow before the onset of fever
- Earache? Boil up the insides of a cockroach and drop them into the offending ear
- Bald spots? Burn the hooves of she-goats and smear them on with vinegar (this is one of many remedies, none of them much more appealing)
- Thinning hair? Stick on a little extra with a dollop of snail slime
- Inflamed injury? Plaster on the fresh dung of grazing cattle.
To be fair, not all of Dioscorides’ suggestions are as alarming as those listed above. Most involve medicinal plants and in places he’s careful to point out that he’s only reporting what other people have told him. But should you consider trying any of them, do remember – this was an era in which anyone could call themselves a doctor.
Please explore more Wonders of Rome via the links below!
Thanks for stopping by on your way around the Hop. If you’d like to know more about Roman medicine, look out for Audrey Cruse’s “Roman Medicine” or Ralph Jackson’s “Doctors and Diseases in the Roman Empire”.
Meanwhile there’s much more Wonder of Rome to visit at the links below. All of them should go live sometime today (15 August) – and don’t forget to leave a comment here by the 19th if you want to enter the free book draw!
M C (Manda) Scott
S J A Turney
John Henry Clay