Daily Life: Medicine

Fresco from the House of Siricus. A doctor uses a scalpel to remove an arrow from Aeneas. Aeneas leans on his son while his mother, Venus, watches.

Thoroughly modern medicine

The wealthier citizens of Pompeii had access to surprisingly sophisticated medical care. In fact, the Romans had begun learning about medicine centuries earlier, around the end of the third century BC, when the first Greek doctor came to Rome.

At first, the ‘practice’ of medicine was just that: methods were based on trial and error, and anyone could call himself a doctor. Many medical practitioners were slaves, and as a result the profession did not enjoy a high reputation. However, these experimental doctors’ methods improved over the years, as successful treatments were noted and passed on. Roman doctors began to study the works of Hippocrates (the Greek physician known as the ‘father of medicine’) and by the time of Augustus the Romans were writing their own medical texts.

Roman doctors used a great variety of medicinal plants, including morphine extracted from opium poppies to take away pain. They made prostheses to replace lost limbs, set broken bones and performed many kinds of surgery. One popular procedure was trephination – drilling holes in the patient’s skull to relieve pressure. Even cosmetic surgery was performed for the wealthy.

Roman surgical instruments were strikingly similar to modern ones, and used for many of the same purposes: steel or bronze scalpels to make incisions, blunt hooks as probes for dissection, sharp hooks to lift pieces of tissue, forceps to extract small pieces of bone, and bone saws for the heavy work of performing amputations. These pioneering surgeons also used catheters to remove blockages in the urinary tract and bleeding cups to remove blood in an attempt to rid the body of disease. An impressive set of 40 surgical instruments was found in the aptly named House of the Surgeon at Pompeii.

Although hygiene was improperly understood in Roman times, the extensive aqueduct systems delivered fresh water to millions and helped prevent water-borne diseases, as did the sophisticated toilet and sewerage systems which carried wastes away from densely populated areas. (Ironically, the lead pipes which carried the water posed their own health threat, a fact which was known to the Romans.) They may have had no cure for lead poisoning, but they were clearly aware that good food and exercise were important in maintaining a healthy body. In fact, the Roman medical system was so advanced that it remained unsurpassed until the ninteenth century, and the snake (the symbol of Aesculapius, the Greek god of medicine) is associated with the medical profession to this day.

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