Roman knowledge about the body and disease
The Romans did not allow dissection of human bodies, so they were limited in what they could find out about human anatomy. They also rejected many Greek ideas about medicine. These factors slowed down their progress, but they continued to explore new ideas about the causes and prevention of disease.
Roman doctors learned a lot about the human body as they tended gladiators wounded in the amphitheatres. However, dissection of humans was forbidden in the Roman empire, so Roman anatomists such as Galen had to rely mainly on dissections of animals to further their knowledge. Galen recommended dissecting monkeys that walked on two legs, like men.
He did manage to work a little with the human body, and described how he had human corpses to dissect when he found a hanged criminal, and when a flood washed some bodies out of a cemetery. Despite this, he made various errors in his analysis of how bodies work.
Galen's books show a good knowledge of bone structure. He also studied the lungs, the muscles, the heart and blood and the nervous system. He conducted experiments on pigs, and when he cut the spinal cord in different places he realised how the nervous system takes messages from the brain to the muscles.
Galen accepted the Greek theory of the four humours [Four humours: Four bodily fluids - yellow bile, black bile, blood and phlegm - used in ancient times to analyse and describe people's state of health. ] as the cause of disease. However, the Romans did not continue the Greeks' investigations into disease and rejected Greek ideas, so Roman knowledge of disease did not progress.
Roman ideas about disease were muddled. For example:
All these ideas survived until the 19th century.
Galen based most of his information about anatomy on what he saw when he dissected the bodies of animals. This led him to make mistakes. Some of his errors were: