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History

Roman doctors

Source analysis and question

[Note how this passage disproves the point Pliny is trying to make.]

I will not mention many famous doctors like Cassius, Calpetanus, Arruntius and Rubrius. Their annual salaries were a quarter of a million sesterces. When Nero was emperor, people rushed to Thessalus, who overturned all previous theories and when he walked about in public he was followed by as big a crowd as an actor or chariot-driver. Next came Crinas of Massilia, who decided what his patients could eat according to the astrologers' almanacs.

There is no doubt that these doctors, in their hunt to gain fame by means of some new idea, did not hesitate to buy it with our lives. Consequently those wretched quarrelsome consultations at the bedside of patients. Consequently also the gloomy inscription on monuments: "It was the crowd of doctors that killed me".

Medicine changes every day and we are swept along on the puffs of the clever brains of the Greeks. People can live without doctors (though not, of course, without medicine). It was not medicine which our ancestors hated, but doctors. They refused to pay fees to profiteers in order to save their lives. Of all the Greek arts, it is only medicine which we serious Romans have not yet practiced.

Pliny, 'Natural History' (c.AD 50)

Question
  1. What can Pliny tell historians about medicine in Roman times?
  2. Were doctors in Roman times hated or fêted?

toggle answer

Answer

1. What can Pliny tell historians about medicine in Roman times?

  • There were many famous doctors ('many famous doctors like Cassius, Calpetanus, Arruntius and Rubrius...')
  • The doctors were well-paid ('Their annual salaries were a quarter of a million sesterces.')
  • Greek doctors were treated as celebrities ('... and when he walked about in public he was followed by as big a crowd as an actor or chariot-driver.')
  • Greek doctors in Rome developed new ideas ('Thessalus, who overturned all previous theories'
  • Pliny disliked the Greek doctors ('People can live without doctors'.)
  • Pliny felt that standards of professionalism were poor ('...those wretched quarrelsome consultations at the bedside of patients.')
  • Roman doctors could not heal their patients ('It was the crowd of doctors that killed me.')
  • Pliny distrusted medical theories ('we are swept along on the puffs of the clever brains of the Greeks.')
  • Pliny resented paying fees ('our ancestors refused to pay fees to profiteers...')
  • Pliny felt that medicine was not serious/practical ('...it is only medicine which we serious Romans have not yet practiced.')

2. Were doctors in Roman times hated or fêted?

  • Both! Pliny obviously hated the doctors, but they were clearly mobbed by followers and patients and were paid huge salaries.

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