Roman Medicus by John Putley

Roman Medicus: Garlic, Gods and Galen in Roman Gloucestershire

John Putley

Meeting of 14 September 2017

The medicus was the senior medical officer in the Roman army. Imagine being signed up to the Roman legion for the normal 25 years, with 100 medics responsible for 6,000 men. On retirement you are given a plot of land on the frontier of the empire. If you were in the 20th Legion, based in Gloucester, you could have ended up here.

Most Roman houses would have had a full medical kit and scrolls of recipes and diagrams, with the head of the household carrying out medication and the minor operations. The Romans were good at absorbing medical knowledge from others, and whilst most was passed on from the Greeks, they would also pick up local practices.

Galen was a famous Roman doctor; he believed in the four humours – a belief that continued up into the 17th century. Treatments included:

- Feather on a stick used to tickle the back of the throat and make you sick

- Then, to clear out the other end, a stick of liquorice as a laxative

- Bleeding, using a scalpel, but also leeches. Cupping over the cut would increase the blood flow

- Trepanning (drilling a hole in the skull)

- Cataract surgery: they learnt to syringe out the cataract

- Uvulectomy with a specialised tool that fitted round the uvula then cauterised the wound

- Honey, which is a natural antibiotic

- Garum (the famous sauce from fermented fish) as a medicine

- Diagnosis by examining – and tasting! – urine

- Egg white plasters

- Ground up medicines would be mixed with resin, then sucked as a lozenge - Haematite was used for low iron.

- Snails were a treatment for earache (because they look like the inside of an ear) and snail slime for colds (because of what slime looks like)

- They did have anaesthetics; willow bark or opium poppies for example, but these seem to have been rarely used; probably because the strength is so hard to measure and you could kill your patient.

- Whilst they seemed to have a fairly good idea of hygiene – and used garlic to clean instruments – they thought pus was a good thing as it showed badness coming out of the body.

Asclepius was the god of healing, his daughters included Hygieia and Panacea (their names continue in medical references today). Whilst the household gods would protect you from bad airs; it was the bigger gods who got the votive offerings for bigger problems. Outside temples such as Lydney would be sellers of foot shapes, teeth shapes etc and lead sheets to write messages (or curses) on. They believed holes were made in teeth by the toothworm that lived in, cleaned and looked after teeth. CS