History

Roman doctors

Doctors in Rome were often Greeks, brought to Rome as slaves. This meant their status was low for a long time, although their skills were valued by many people.

Overview

Illustration of Pliny

Pliny was a writer and naturalist of ancient Rome

After the conquest of Greece in 47BC, most doctors in Rome were Greeks, brought to Rome as slaves. Yet, whilst they flocked to see these doctors, the Romans were also suspicious of them.

Pliny, the ancient Roman writer and naturalist, represented them as vain self-publicists, who tried out their too-clever theories at the cost of their patients' lives.

The most famous Roman doctor was Galen, who came from Pergamum and had been trained at Alexandria. Galen learned his trade at a school of gladiators.

The Romans neglected to develop further the Greeks' ideas about the nature of disease, and in some ways medicine regressed under their rule. However, Roman doctors did develop ideas of bad air and tiny creatures as causes of disease, and these ideas were to have a great impact on the history of medicine.

The Romans also developed hospitals, and employed trained military nurses called medici. They were skilled surgeons, and they built on the Greeks' knowledge of anatomy and physiology (though not without errors).

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 fĂȘted?

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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 fĂȘted?

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

Revision tip and answer preparation

Revision tip

"Roman medicine was dominated by ideas derived from the needs of the Army."

Think about the above sentence as you look back over the Roman section, and make a list of the points that support what it says.

Another good revision idea would be to make a list of everything you can find out about the Roman doctor Galen.

Answer preparation

As part of your revision, think about the arguments and facts you would use to explain:

  1. How Roman medicine reflected the ideas and practices of Roman civilisation.
  2. What caused people to be healthy or unhealthy in Roman times.
  3. What ideas the Romans had about the causes and treatment of illness and injuries.
  4. Who provided medical care in Roman times.
  5. How much (or whether) medicine changed in Roman times, and what he main turning points were.
  6. Why some diagnoses and treatments changed while others remained the same.
  7. How (or whether) the process of change was influenced by:
    • individuals
    • the government
    • science and technology
    • war
    • attitudes and beliefs in society
    • trade.
  8. To what extent developments in medical understanding and practice in Roman times affected people's lives.

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