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Roman Medical Matters


Chemist shopThe was no such thing as a national health service or medical insurance in the Roman world, so all ailments had to be treated privately. The people of the time were prone to afflictions and injuries because of their lifestyle. Lead pipes used to convey drinking water caused poisoning, the climate would cause problems in winter. Manual workers were susceptible to cuts and broken bones, both of which readily became infected.

Archaeological remains have taught us a lot about the health of the Romans. many excavated bodies show signs of arthritis and rheumatism. Of the bodies unearthed at Cirencester about half of those recovered were found to be arthritic.

Doctors of the period kept records on patients and logs detailing outbreaks of disease. From these records, it's clear asthma and digestion problems were common place. The Romans never knew about bacteria and germs and so often ate contaminated food — food that could have been riddled with harmful germs. The only way they had of detecting infected meat was by it's appearance and taste. So they could unknowingly consume meals that would harm them. Vitamins were also a mystery to the Romans. So colds, scurvy, skin rashes and other diet related illnesses were common. Of course, saying this, we "modern" people take so many antibiotics and worry so much about "cleanliness" that we don't have the same "built-in," natural defences that they did. Yes, hygiene has a place, certainly places without it have a lot of disease, but... perhaps over-hygiene is too much and hurts us. Same with antibiotics... too much use of antibiotics can hurt too. In the recent COVID "pandemic", people got sick and those with poor immune systems even died. Many people over-reacted with wearing masks — as if simple cloth will do anything except hurt one's lungs... Certainly bombing one's natural immune systems with antibiotics and constant use of anti-bacterial wipes isn't going to allow a natural immunity to anything. Just some thoughts...

It is possible to accurately estimate the age of someone from the skeletal remains as the bones go through period of changes at specific points in our lives. Bodies excavated over the years point to and average lifespan that was extremely short by the standards today. Most Roman men lived for an average of 41 years, while the women lived for a mere 37 years.

One body found at St. Albans (Verulam ) was of a woman in her mid 30's who was deaf, arthritic, had bad dental decay and most likely scurvy too. Death was probably a relief for her.

About Roman Doctors

Doctors themselves were basically craftsmen, like any other profession. Early on the profession was mainly one of trial and error with apprenticeships to pass on the art, but later, medical schools were established to make the field more widely uniform. While medicine in the civilian sector was highly dependent on 'doctors' of widely ranging skills and education, the legions had the benefit of highly experienced medical personnel. Civilian doctors were mostly Greeks, many of whom were socially low slaves or freedmen, with a few more prominent individuals who served the upper classes. While the practice of medicine was widely diverse for the common people, the legions had access to surgeons and hospital facilities that were far better than anything available after the fall of the empire.

Despite the reliance on a mystical approach to healing, Roman society maintained reasonably good health throughout its history. The exhaustive use of aqueducts and fresh running water, including toilets and sewer systems, prevented the proliferation of many standing water based diseases, and also washed away wastes away from heavily populated areas. Excellent hygiene and food supply also played a prominent role. The Roman baths were an integral part of society, in all social classes, and regular cleansing helped fight germs and bacteria. The Romans also tried, whenever practical, to boil medical tools and prevent using them on more than one patient without cleansing.

Treatment of medical complaints

The advanced medicines we have today were nothing like those available 2000 years ago. Plants, tree bark and herbs were the doctor's basic ingredients the medicines of Roman times.

Here are a few recommended cures for everyday conditions.

  • Asthma — drink garlic in milk
  • Stomach problems — gargle with a solution of water and mustard.
  • Chilblains — apply a poultice of hot turnips
  • Scurvy — apply an ointment made from dock leaves and herbs.
  • Runny eyes — rub with a lotion made from vinegar.

From this list, it looks as though the some of the cures were worse than the complaint


Surgeon's toolsThere were many types of surgery known to the Romans and many types of instrument. The lifestyle of many people led to problems requiring surgery. In the pastime of hunting wild animals, a fall from a horse would result in broken limbs or severe wounds. Farmers and those who owned a business that was a hazardous occupation, such as a blacksmith were commonly in need of treatment for wounds sustained in the course of their work. Minor cuts would be treated with compresses made from vinegar.

The tools of the surgeon bear a certain resemblance to our current day instruments. Forceps, syringes, scalpels, bone saws. These were made by specialist manufacturers that could meet the fine tolerances and sharpness required for the surgeon's implements.

One doctor buried in Wroxeter had his instruments placed alongside him in his coffin, so aiding archaeologists in identifying individual items.


One of the most common problems was a head injury were the skull was fractured and a piece of bone had broken away and was pressing on the brain. Depending on which part of the head was injured, the symptoms would have ranged from persistent headaches to fits and mood swings.

The process of trepanning was meant to cure this complaint. This involved opening the wound and removing the offending section of bone. As there was no anaesthetic the operation would have been painful to say the least. Bodies uncovered showing signs of this operation and also had evidence of new bone had grown over the gap left by the operation. There was no doubt trepanning was an effective operation, which is why it was so popular. More on this here in our surgery page.


Leech diagramLeech therapyFor centuries, people believed that fevers were caused by too much blood in the body. The obvious cure was to let some out, and the best available technology was the leech, an animal that lives in water and is related to the earthworm. The leech's only food is blood. It bites with tiny teeth and hangs on with suckers while chemicals in its saliva make the blood flow freely. The saliva also contains an anesthetic, so the bite may not be noticed.

Doctors stopped using leeches about 60 years ago, but now they are coming back in favor as a source of chemicals that restore blood flow after surgery and prevent blood from clotting. These leeches can also stop a limb from being lost by the keeping the blood flowing.

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