Ancient Roman medicine

16.05.2015 |

Episode #4 of the course “Brief History of Medicine”

Ancient Roman medicine incorporated much of the knowledge gained in ancient Greek territories, as Rome expanded its empire and conquered people with various healing skills. Rome’s conquest of Alexandria was a turning point for ancient Roman medicine, because they came into possession of the largest trove of medical knowledge in the ancient world at the Great Library and universities of ancient Alexandria. Ancient Roman medicine included highly-practiced doctors who specialized in various skills, including surgery that used anesthetics such as opium, and specially designed tools.

The three most famous ancient Roman physicians are Dioscorides, Soranus, and Galen. Dioscorides was a first-century botanist and early chemist who published a text of over 600 herbal cures for illnesses and wounds. Called De Materia Medica, it was the reigning textbook of medical cures until the 16th century CE. Soranus was the first medical practitioner to explore female anatomy and publish a comprehensive text about gynecology. The most famous Roman physician, Galen, became a major influence from the 2nd century CE through the Middle Ages. He was a strong voice in the philosophical “mind-body problem” in addition to the practice of medicinal arts.

Based on theories of Hippocrates and ancient Greek medical beliefs, Galen promoted the idea that conditions could be mediated by opposites. He was the first to believe in the specific functionality of organs and say that physicians could not separate the mental and the physical, because each part of the body contributes to the function of a person as a whole. He was the first to promote “talk therapy” and attempted psychological diagnoses and cures. Although it is known that Galen wrote extensively on both medicine and philosophy, most of his writings were lost in a fire in the 2nd century CE.


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