The Romans, like other ancient peoples of the Mediterranean, had a long tradition of folk medicine. Throughout much of their history, the Romans healed themselves, needing little help from professional physicians. Beginning in the late Roman Republic*, the Romans adapted many features of Greek scientific medicine. The most influential doctor and medical writer of the Roman Empire, Galen of Pergamum, spent much of his career in Rome.

Much of early Roman medicine was based on the belief that the gods or other supernatural forces caused illnesses and injuries, which could be treated with prayers, chants, the wearing of charms, or by making animal sacrifices* and performing other rituals. Such magical or religious acts, it was believed, won the favor of the gods, who then healed the wound or cured the disease. Folk medicine also used remedies, such as herbs, that had been tested over many generations and often had real medicinal value.

Folk medicine also reflected the rural values that shaped Roman thought, even after Rome had become a large city. Looking fondly back to the sturdy farmers who made up early Roman society, traditional Romans took pride in being able to care for themselves without the help of physicians.

In 293 B.C., when Rome was in the midst of an epidemic*, the Romans began to worship Asclepius, the Greek god of healing. They built a shrine in his honor, calling him by his Latin name, Aesculapius. After this time, the Romans learned more about Greek medicine and medical practice, although they did not always like what they discovered. According to legend, a Greek doctor named Archagathus of Sparta set up a surgical practice in Rome in 219 B.C. Because he was such a bad surgeon, Archagathus soon earned the nickname carnifex, or butcher. Asclepiades, a physician who arrived in Rome a century later, made a better impression. He prescribed mild remedies and very little surgery. Asclepiades’ approach to treatment appealed to the Romans in the first century B.C., when a Greek philosophy known as Epicureanism was popular in Rome. (The Epicureans asserted that people should strive for tranquility in their lives and should not fear the gods, who, they believed, took no interest in human affairs.)

By the early Roman Empire, the topics of a traditional Roman education-war, law, agriculture, and politics—were expanded to include other fields influenced by Greek learning—oratory*, rhetoric*, philosophy*, architecture and art, and medicine. Cornelius Celsus, writing in A.D. 14-37, compiled an encyclopedia of these topics, and the section on medicine has survived. Although Celsus was a Roman aristocrat*, he nursed slaves as well as members of his own family back to health in a valetudinarium, or sick bay, a special room set aside for medical treatment. He called in a physician only when an illness or injury exceeded his skills. Celsus’s work indicates that he had direct experience performing surgical procedures, while his discussion of drugs and medications is largely borrowed from Greek sources. The Roman writer Pliny the Elder used Celsus as a source of information when he composed his Natural History, a 37-volume work on science and other topics.

Many of the physicians working in Rome were Greeks or Greek-speaking Asians. Their ideas were rooted in Greek medicine, especially in the writings of the Hippocratic school. These works were based on the teaching of a Greek physician named Hippocrates, who claimed that illnesses had natural causes, not supernatural ones. There were many different versions of Hippocratic medicine, however. Differences in philosophical or scientific theories gave rise to rival branches of medicine. At the same time, folk medicine was still used, and throughout the Roman empire, people continued to visit temples, wear charms, perform rituals, and pray to the gods for cures.

* Roman Republic Rome during the period from 509 B.C. to 31 B.C., when popular assemblies annually elected their governmental officials

* sacrifice sacred offering made to a god or goddess, usually of an animal such as a sheep or goat

* epidemic disease that affects a large number of people or animals

* oratory art of public speaking

* rhetoric art of using words effectively in speaking or writing

* philosophy study of ideas, including science

* aristocrat person of the highest social class


Galen taught that the body had four humors, or vital fluids—a theory he borrowed from the earlier Greek school of Hippocratic medicine. According to this theory, illness resulted from an excess or shortage of one of the humors. This idea persisted for centuries.

As late as the A.D. 1890s, physicians and their patients still spoke of imbalances in the humors. In addition, the humors came to be associated with certain personalities or moods. For example, an angry person was thought to have too much blood. Too much black bile, on the other hand, made a person melancholy, or "in a black humor."

The physician Galen, educated in Greece, Egypt, and western Asia, arrived in Rome around A.D. 162. He had friends and patients in aristocratic circles, and he soon became the personal physician of the emperor and his family. However, Galen’s importance in the history of medicine lies not in his own practice but in the dozens of books he wrote on a wide range of medical topics. In his book On Anatomical Procedures, for example, Galen discussed the dissecting* technique that he had perfected on apes and compared the bodies of these apes with human bodies. One of his works discusses the place of the physician in Roman society; another is a storehouse of information about Hippocrates and other early Greek physicians; and a third is a handbook on wellness, or how to stay healthy. Galen adopted the Hippocratic concept that the body contains four humors, or fluids—blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. He added to this Plato’s concept of three souls, with one soul responsible for thought and motion, another one for energy, and the third for digestion. According to Galen, good health was a state of balance among the humors, the souls, and other elements that gave the human body life.

Although Galen had no students, by the A.D. 300s scholars had organized his writings into a system that physicians and philosophers continued to study and follow for hundreds of years. The teachings of the Hippocratic physicians and the writings of Galen dominated Western medical thought for the next 1,500 years. (See also Medicine, Greek; Philosophy, Greek and Hellenistic; Philosophy, Roman.)

* dissect to cut apart an animal or plant for the purpose of examining its structure

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!