Ancient Roman Medicine

The Romans adopted most of the Greek's medicinal practices. In fact, the first Roman doctors were Greek prisoners-of-war. When the Romans conquered Alexandria, they found that a great deal of medical research had been conducted and documented. Therefore, they allowed the Greeks to carry on with their research.

The Romans believed strongly in public health. They had hospitals, baths, and an advanced sewage system. They also had many tools and remedies for various surgeries and illnesses. This Tackk displays some of the important people, tools, and medicines used in Rome.

Pedanius Dioscorides and De Materia Medica

Pedanius Dioscorides was born around 30 A.D. in present day Turkey. As an adult, he traveled with the Roman army as a surgeon. Along the way, he collected samples of various medicinal herbs from everywhere the army went. In 50 A.D. he began to compile his knowledge of herbs into a five-volume set of books called De Materia Medica, (On Medicinal Substances). In it he described more than a thousand medicinal substances, most plants and herbs, but others of animal and mineral origin. Dioscorides worked carefully and thoroughly in order to avoid mistaken information, too little verification of drug properties, and poor organization. He was the first to organize drugs based on their effects, such as warming, binding, relaxing, nourishing, and so on. Dioscorides also gave a great deal of information about each drug, including names, illustrations, descriptions, properties, uses of the drug, possible negative side effects, and much more.

De Materia Medica was published in 70 A.D. in Greek. However, it soon became available in Latin and many other languages. It remains the most prominent work on medical substances in history.

Asclepius (or Aesculapius)

Asclepius is the Greek god of medicine and healing. However, after the Roman Empire conquered Greece, the Romans adopted many of the Greek's medicinal concepts, so Asclepius is also the Roman god of medicine and healing. He has three daughters: Hygieia, Iaso, and Aceso, goddesses of cleanliness, recovery from illness, and the recovery process, respectively.

Asclepius also carries with him a staff, known as the Staff of Asclepius (or the Rod of Asclepius), which is a rod entwined with a snake. This symbol is used in the logos of many professional medical associations around the world today. The Staff of Asclepius is often confused with Caduceus, the Staff of Hermes; some commercial medical organizations use Caduceus in their logos. This is incorrect, as Hermes is the god of travelers, thieves, and athletes, none of which are terribly medically related.

Some Plants and Their Uses

Some other plants include:

Sage - had a greater religious value; used more by those who thought the gods could heal them.

Fenugreek - for lung diseases, especially pneumonia

Willow - used as an antiseptic

Wild Lettuce - causes sleep, eases pain, given as a drink to people who have been stung by a scorpion or harvest spider.

Aloe - that which grows in Arabia, Asia, and costal areas is used to close open cuts, sores, and wounds.

Opium Poppies - the extract functions similar to morphine.

Henbane Seeds - prevents nausea and vomiting

The plants can be applied or ingested in many ways, including a drink, powder, topical application, or mix with other ingredients.

Various Surgical Tools

Many surgical tools were double ended in order to promote efficiency, as the patient was likely to die of blood loss within a short amount of time. The Romans were also aware that poor sanitation caused disease, and therefore boiled their tools before performing a surgery.

Blunt Hooks - used as probes and for raising blood vessels during surgery

Sharp Hooks - used for extracting small pieces of tissue, as well as for holding back the edges of wounds.

Spathomele - consisted of a spatula at one end and a rounded end at the other. The rounded end was used for stirring medicines, and the spatula was used for applying them.

Bone Levers - used for putting fractured bones back into place, and could have possibly also been used for extracting teeth.

Cyathiscomele - used sometimes in surgery, but also to mix medicines

Scalpels - long scalpels were used for long, deep incisions, while smaller scalpels were used for more precise cuts.

Creating the Surgical Tools

Materials: Balsa wood, ruler, scissors, sculpting clay, sanding block, paint brush/sponge, pencil, Xacto knife, bronze paint, paper plate, parchment/wax paper, industrial glue, and toothpicks.

Not pictured: oven (for baking the clay)

First I cut the wood to an appropriate length for each handle. Then I smoothed the edges with the sanding block. Next, I formed each end out of clay, and then baked them.

*Note: All of the tools were made in the same manner as the one shown in the video above.

Second, I glued the baked ends to the wood, and let them dry.

Finally, I painted the tools with a bronze paint.

The Finished Product!


- Crystal, Ellie. "Medicine and Surgery." Crystalinks. Ellie Crystal, 2014. Web. 28 Feb. 2015.
- "Surgical Instruments from Ancient Rome." University of Virginia. N.p., 2007. Web. 1 Mar. 2015.
- Milani-Santarpia, Giovanni. "Ancient Roman Medicine." MariaMilani. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Feb. 2015.
- Nordqvist, Christian. "What Is Ancient Roman Medicine." Medical News Today. N.p., 9 Aug. 2012. Web. 1 Mar. 2015.
- "Dioscorides." Greek Medicine. David K. Osborn, 2015. Web. 25 Feb. 2015.
- "De Materia Medica." Cancerlynx. Trans. Tess A. Osbaldeston. N.p., 24 Mar. 2008. Web. 25 Feb. 2015.
- "Roman Medicine." UNRV History. N.p., 2015. Web. 24 Feb. 2015.

- "Greek and Roman Surgical Instruments." The Asclepion. N.p., 1997. Web. 1 Mar. 2015.

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