Article: Ancient Roman Medicine

Guest Blogger: Richard Marrison

Richard Marrison
Richard Marrison, Blogger for The History Haven and Founder of

Richard is from Budapest, Hungary. He holds a degree in Cultural Anthropology from Eötvös Loránd University. He believes that education is an essential part of a human being- be it acquiring knowledge from the formal setting of education such as schools or universities or be it through articles, books, or any forms of informative materials.

However, his interest inclines more towards education and acquiring knowledge about history. Any topic that has a depth relating to history, it could be monumental, critical, or antiquarian motivates him to know more. His interest began the first time he read about the history of Genghis Khan and his passion for history remains until today.

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Article: Ancient Roman History

Medicine was a collection of beliefs, knowledge, and experience in classical antiquity. Most of what we know about early medical practice comes from archaeological evidence, particularly from Roman sites.

In their medicine, the Romans used both scientific and legendary approaches. The Romans obtained a solid basis by adopting the Greek medical approach. Hippocrates was imitated. They also distinguished between medical study and philosophy, taking a holistic approach to human health. 

Hippocrates also studied human behaviour and the environment, correctly diagnosing sickness and discovering a treatment. The Hippocratic technique was adopted by the Romans and mixed with legendary and religious beliefs. The Greek medical tradition inspired Roman medicine, which helped to make Rome a monumental metropolis. Roman doctors, like Greek doctors, focus on natural observation rather than spiritual rites.


Galen of Pergamon was an influential ancient Greek physician whose beliefs influenced Western medicine for millennia. By the time he was 20, he had spent four years as a therapeutic of the god Asclepius in the local temple. Galen researched the human body, but dissecting human bodies was illegal under Roman law, so he utilised pigs, apes, and other animals instead.


Pedanius Dioscorides was an ancient Greek physician, pharmacologist, and botanist who practiced in ancient Rome during the reign of Nero. Dioscorides is most known for creating De Materia Medica. This five-volume work served as a forerunner to all modern pharmacopeias and is considered one of the most influential herbal works in history.


Soranus was a Greek physician who flourished during the reigns of Trajan and Hadrian and was born at Ephesus. He practiced at Alexandria and then Rome, according to the Suda. He was the leading exponent of the “Methodist” school of medicine. Gynecology, his treatise, is still in existence.

Ancient Medicine 

Ancient Greek and Roman medicine and healing techniques generally relied on herbs, meals, and diet as medicinal aids; however, animal products, minerals and clays, and wines were also used. Physical artifacts at sites like palaces, burial chambers, pottery, vases, and wall frescos, among others, show plants in Greek culture.

In ancient Rome, medicine incorporated a variety of procedures, as well as a variety of equipment and rituals as follows:

Medical Tools 

  • Scalpels made of bronze, the iron, and steel, as well as medical scissors, were amongst the Roman inventions used as medical and surgical tools 
  • Moving soft tissues and making the navigation of the inner workings of the human body more doable required intricate and changing hooks or probes.
  • Bone drills, which look like current corkscrews, were used to remove diseased bone tissue from various bones or drill holes in the body to access restricted areas.
  • Small bits of bone or other items that would be difficult to remove with fingers were extracted using metal forceps.
  • Catheters, or long metal tubes, were used to unblock clogged channels such as the urinary tract and are remarkably similar to those used today. Other comparable devices were employed to access places like the nasal cavity to insert various medicinal remedies.
  • Amputation, which the Romans understood would avoid gangrene, was done using the bone saw.
  • In gynecology and childbirth, the vaginal speculum was utilized.
  • Bone levers were used to reposition fractures and extract teeth.                                                                                                 

Medicinal Plants

Herbs employed in treatment by the Ancient Romans included:

  • Fennel had relaxing effects
  • Elecampane is a herb that aids digestion
  • Sage had a lot of religious significance, despite its lack of therapeutic efficacy
  • Garlic is good for your health, especially your heart
  • The herb fenugreek is used to cure pneumonia
  • Silphium is a mineral used to treat a range of illnesses and conditions, including birth control
  • Willow is an antiseptic herb

Mandrake, hemlock, henbane, and other plants from the Solanaceae (nightshade) family were also utilized as narcotics. Seizures, depression, and malaria were all treated with mandrake.

Apices like chamomile, wormwood, cumin, anise, and rosemary were used as well. Thanks to Galen of Pergamon, who established the notion of humoral pathology, Hippocrates’ approaches affected the next 2,300 years of medicine.

Animal Products           

Animal products were also used, such as honey, beeswax, the infamous blister beetle solution, fats, marrows, pints of milk, crushed cockroaches, boiled snake mixtures, and even rennet’s obtained from the stomachs of seals, goats, oxen, and other animals.

Honey is a good wound dressing component. Its high pH (3.9 on average) allowed Greek and Roman physicians to bandage wounds and injuries with fats, oils, and honey, effectively “drying” them out and killing many bacteria. Beeswax was another object of trade, and any hive owner knew the flowers from which his bees got their nectar and built their combs.

Medical Procedures


Mercury was historically employed as a common elixir and topical medication, despite its poisonous characteristics. The ancient Persians and Greeks regarded it as a helpful ointment, while second-century Chinese alchemists revered liquid mercury, or “quicksilver,” and red mercury sulfide for their purported capacity to extend life and vitality. Some healers even promised their patients perpetual life and the capacity to walk on water provided they drank terrible potions containing lethal Mercury, Sulphur, and arsenic.


For thousands of years, medical professionals believed that illness was caused by a small amount of “bad blood.” Although bloodletting is thought to have originated with the ancient Sumerians and Egyptians, it was not widely practiced until classical Greece and Rome.

According to Hippocrates and Galen, the human organism comprises four fundamental components, or “humor”—yellow bile, black bile, phlegm, and blood—that needed to be balanced to sustain good health. With this in mind, individuals suffering from a fever or other sickness were frequently diagnosed as having excess blood. Their doctor would cut up a vein and drain some of their vital fluids into a receptacle to restore bodily harmony. Leeches were even employed to drain blood directly from the skin in some situations.

Cannibal Treatments

For hundreds of years, “corpse medicine” was a shockingly widespread practice. The Romans thought that the blood of fallen gladiators could heal epilepsy, and apothecaries in the 12th century were famed for stocking “mummy powder,” a ghoulish extract derived from ground-up Egyptian mummies. It was thought that these cannibalistic medications had magical capabilities. By ingesting a portion of a departed person’s spirit, the patient gained improved energy and well-being.

Ancient Medicines Still Used Today 

Those ancient medical therapies are still in use today, including some that haven’t altered much since their inception, and we’re not talking about dubious remedies like leech application. These are commonplace medicines that you undoubtedly come across regularly without realizing their long history. Let’s just have a peek at some of the old remedies that are still in use today.


Morphine, the active element in opium, is still harvested from the poppy plant (Papaver somniferous) using a procedure that has remained primarily unaltered for over 8,000 years. 6000 BC carved tablets from Mesopotamia highlight the medical effects of opium, referring to it as the “herb of gladness.” The medicinal properties of the poppy plant are mentioned in ancient Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Indian, and Chinese medical books.


One of the oldest therapeutic cures in human history is found in the bark of the willow tree. Aspirin is the contemporary name for it.

The ancient Sumerians and Egyptians utilized Willow bark as a traditional pain reliever more than 3,500 years ago. Hippocrates in Greece and Pliny the Elder in Ancient Rome both advocated for its virtues centuries later. Scientists didn’t convert willow bark into the therapeutic chemical salicin until the mid-1800s. Bayer chemists didn’t transform salicins into acetylsalicylic acid, which they named aspirin, until the twentieth century.


The Romans learned about medicine from the Greeks, and they contributed to the field by emphasizing public health and illness prevention.

In some aspects, ancient Roman medicine was advanced, while in others, it was barbarous. Even though the ancient Romans did not have the same knowledge about infectious diseases as we do today, they were aware that diseases existed and spread to others. As a result, they expanded their methodologies and developed their own core beliefs based on science and reality.