How Well Was The Medicine In The Ancient History?

Mar 2013
1,441
Escandinavia y Mesopotamia
#11
Ancient medicine was a mixture of actual medicine treatments, quackery and mumbo-jumbo stuff as they even incorporated praying as part of their treatment.

The ancient medical approach was based on an erroneous assumption that the body consisted of four humors: blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile. If one person was sick then it was believed that the reason was because of an imbalance of the four aforementioned humors, and they practiced bloodletting which entailed letting the bloods to drop in order to gain a “balance”, which was dangerous and without effect.

It might appear to us absurd that the Pagans believed in such thing back then, but the reason was that their scientific approach was based on natural philosophy where the Pagans thought that knowledge was an obscure element hidden in a magical place, and that they can gain access to it by making philosophy. Today with modern science, we don't do that anymore.

During the third century CE in 200’s the western Roman Empire was overrun by heathen barbarians who saw no interests in classical learning inclusive medicine, but across the landscape were the Christians monasteries which preserved the medical knowledge, and which added to the knowledge particularly in herb medicine. – In Eastern Roman/Byzantine Empire the things were different as they repelled the heathen barbarians, and here Byzantines physicians studied and added new things to Galen’s medical works.

It was first around 1600 when Vesalius, sponsored by Charles V, realized that the ancient Pagans’ assumption was wrong as he studied anatomy by dissecting them. Another physician named Paracelsus also realized that ancient medical teaching was nonsense as he realized, by using chemicals that he saw sickness was as result of chemical rather than humoral imbalance. - And with the approach of Vesalius and Paracelsus they laid the foundation of modern medical science and onwards a real medical approach based on reason and experimentation prevailed.

Also worth to mention is that the ancient Pagan Greeks and Romans did not do human dissection as it was considered taboo and impious, and thus they had to rely on the anatomy of monkeys or pegs to determine how human anatomy worked :lol:. Pagan Romans for example forbade human dissection by law, and that was a huge loss of opportunity to make improvements. Later with the arrival of Christians the approach changed as they did do human dissection due to religious preservation of saints.
 
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caldrail

Ad Honorem
Feb 2012
5,214
#12
Roman's forbade dissection by law? Would you happen to know which one? I ask because the Romans would not have had the concept of dissection nor scientific analysis of the human form, nor was Galen arrested and questioned for knowing about anatomy. The medicine that they used to good effect such as the treatment of wounds was based on empirical methodology.
 
Mar 2013
1,441
Escandinavia y Mesopotamia
#13
Forbade “dissection” or “HUMAN dissection”?

Because dissection of pigs or monkeys was allowed while of humans was not. – Galen never practiced human dissection, and his knowledge of human anatomy was based on dissection of pigs or monkeys, or when treating wounds. Only in Ptolemaic Kingdom did it find place shortly, and that was mainly because of Egyptian culture of mummification rather than of Greek/Roman Pagan attitude.

From “Galileo goes to jail and other myths about science and religion”, Katharine Park(historian of science and medicine), Page 45:

“The facts, then, are as follows: Human dissection does not seem to have been practiced with any regularity before the end of the thirteenth century in either pagan, Jewish, Christian, or Muslim cultures. The only exception was a brief period in the fourth to third century B.C.E., when Herophilus and Erasistratus, two Greek medical scholars working in the Egyptian city of Alexandria, made a series of studies of the human body based on dissection. While the Greek and Roman avoidance of human dissection seems to have had roots in the belief that corpses were ritually unclean, early Christian culture broke definitively with the idea of corpse pollution, embracing tombs as holy places and the bodies of the dead as objects of veneration and potential sources of magical and healing power.”
(…)
“In the late thirteenth century we find the first evidence of the opening of human bodies on the part of medical men,… Inspired by renewed interest in the works of the Greek medical writer Galen (ca. 129–ca. 200) and his Arabic followers, none of whom are known to have dissected human beings, medical teachers and students at Bologna began to open human bodies, and Mondino de’ Liuzzi (ca. 1275–1326) produced the first known anatomy textbook based on human dissection”


Ole Sonne, a Danish emeritus on medical history, also states more or less the same that Galen confined himself to animal anatomy.
 
Sep 2013
608
Ontario, Canada
#14
Oribasius - another personal physician to a Roman Emperor, Julian - may be considered perhaps to be the last continuator of Galen in both his skill and in his literary output.

http://historum.com/ancient-history/121019-there-decline-fall-classical-physician-4th-century.html
Nice link! Ovid, a physician, really? Though by Augustan times, educated Romans would've absorbed the knowledge from their greek slave physicians. And judging from the fragments that have survived the knowledge must've been extensive. I wish we had more of Oribasius' medical compendium, he managed to compile the sum total of 4th century Roman medicine into a set of books which are largely now lost.
Almost certainly had little to do with it at all, mostly because health care had to paid for and most could not afford physicians whether talented or merely quacks (of which there would have been many). Mary Beard has noted how quickly migrants to the city paid the price for urban living with such hazards as poor health, and Rome was noted for recurrent outbreaks of disease, despite the much vaunted Roman penchant for cleanliness.
The upper class did receive improved health care through the assimilation of Greek medicine, even if the regular poor bastard living in the streets often did not. Besides saving lives this led to the formation of a new profession where previously there had been none, mostly rich nobles learning to provide medical care from their physician slaves, who certainly would've been properly versed back in their conquered homeland.

If they could afford it, it was well worth the price a Roman family paid to have an in-house doctor. It made for a huge improvement from previous, when only the paterfamilias provided health care in a Roman family. The average Roman citizen would not have had a personal physician slave, but the freeborn Greek physicians who wandered the streets to dispense care attracted more attention than famous actors or gladiators, and they were as big as rock stars.

This must've resulted in a significant population increase with more Roman citizens than before surviving sickness and injuries to have more babies. A big deal because in the Republic and early Empire the city of Rome drew a significant portion of its military from the citizens. Medicine was especially utilized to provide health care to the legions, even setting up temple hospitals for recovering soldiers, increasing martial quality as experienced men healed and were brought back into action.
Also worth to mention is that the ancient Pagan Greeks and Romans did not do human dissection as it was considered taboo and impious, and thus they had to rely on the anatomy of monkeys or pegs to determine how human anatomy worked :lol:. Pagan Romans for example forbade human dissection by law, and that was a huge loss of opportunity to make improvements. Later with the arrival of Christians the approach changed as they did do human dissection due to religious preservation of saints.
The Romans had strong taboos against the handling of a dead body, yes, for it was considered a sacred duty even if the person wasn't family. It was a punishment to not receive this care, which was what crucifixion was, for it denied the victim the dignity of a proper burial.

The Egyptians had to do it because of the mummification process, and dissection was done under the Ptolemies, which was recorded in the Great Library for anyone studying anatomy at Alexandria. But it had fallen out of favor by Roman times and nobody did dissection because it was considered an indignity to a body and thus an insult to the gods. No one wanted to be the one who offended Jupiter and put in jeopardy the safety of the city of Rome.

Never mind breaking any law, if people got wind of it, you'd get lynched and thrown in the Tiber, since they would figure it best to kill and get rid of you to stay on the good side of the gods. Mindful of this Galen did recommend to his students that they use an animal in the place of a human, something he saw as similar like a monkey, and have them draw their conclusions from that.
 

caldrail

Ad Honorem
Feb 2012
5,214
#15
The upper class did receive improved health care through the assimilation of Greek medicine, even if the regular poor bastard living in the streets often did not. Besides saving lives this led to the formation of a new profession where previously there had been none, mostly rich nobles learning to provide medical care from their physician slaves, who certainly would've been properly versed back in their conquered homeland.

If they could afford it, it was well worth the price a Roman family paid to have an in-house doctor. It made for a huge improvement from previous, when only the paterfamilias provided health care in a Roman family. The average Roman citizen would not have had a personal physician slave, but the freeborn Greek physicians who wandered the streets to dispense care attracted more attention than famous actors or gladiators, and they were as big as rock stars.

This must've resulted in a significant population increase with more Roman citizens than before surviving sickness and injuries to have more babies. A big deal because in the Republic and early Empire the city of Rome drew a significant portion of its military from the citizens. Medicine was especially utilized to provide health care to the legions, even setting up temple hospitals for recovering soldiers, increasing martial quality as experienced men healed and were brought back into action.
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Apart from the fact they had paid someone for the service the question of whether it was any good was pot luck. Expertise was more or less in the hands of the Greeks and even they weren't universal in ability - it's wrong to apply modern expectations and standards to an era when anyone could claim they were physicians if they were glib enough. Since ill health was thought to be as much about the Gods disfavour as much as exposure or infection, prayers were seen as effective as any medicine applied. For that matter, many of the usual medicines were harmful substances.

As for soldiers, please bear in mind the Romans did not use field medics or hospitals in the way we would. There was no method of evacuation and any treatment received by the lucky few in battle was basic, limited only to stemming bleeding or prayer. Many men who could have survived did not - left to die on the field from shock and blood loss, as extricating them from a block of frightened men was all but impossible - and that's if the Romans won. When they lost, anyone who could not escape was pretty well doomed. Medical treatment as you describe it was in the hands of the camp doctors - invariably Greek - and not entirely the scientific and clean process you probably imagine. I do concede that the Romans had learned by long experience - or at at least the Greeks among them - how to treat wounds, but this was empirical methodology and the true understanding of what they were doing was beyond them. The idea that physicians were superstars in their day is not supported by the sources, who had other priorities with military, political, or athletic figures. Physicians with good track records were in much demand but never feted like other categories of society (and probably did not get the same invites to celeb parties either)

There is no reason to believe that medicine made for increased population in Rome. The average life span remained around forty years, children married between twelve and eighteen years of age and expecting to be grandfathers by thirty five (One girl is known to have been married off at the tender age of nine). For all the good that medicine did for the Romans, it was balanced by everyone it harmed, and urban life was not healthy at all. As it happens, only two out of five youngsters made it to twenty years of age.
 

caldrail

Ad Honorem
Feb 2012
5,214
#17
You're quite mistaken. It was generally the poorer families who married younger (and this has always been true). One should not blithely apply typical behaviour patterns of nobility from much later eras. Roman elite wee not strictly noble in the same sense as we see in recent times, just in an elevated social class - and for that matter, bear in mind that the Roman elite did not automatically qualify for their status - they had to have the requisite property/wealth. Some patrician families chose to lose their privileges and reduce themselves to plebeian status as much as ambition drove the reverse.

Of course, if you're the son of a wealthy patrician and you want to continue the family success story, then it's a lot easier for you to qualify than some equestrian lad with big plans. Having said that, the pater of the family amounted to a social dictator in law and often in reality, leaving many young adults frustrated at their fathers unwillingness to let them progress or indeed behave as they choose - and with free will and self determination so important to the Roman self esteem, one can see why parricide was so touchy a subject in Roman times.

For the Romans, you would often expect them to be smiling at the prospect of becoming a father at the age of fifteen. Grandfathers by the age of thirty five. People generally led short lives and you grew up a lot quicker back then.
 
Sep 2013
608
Ontario, Canada
#18
Apart from the fact they had paid someone for the service the question of whether it was any good was pot luck. Expertise was more or less in the hands of the Greeks and even they weren't universal in ability - it's wrong to apply modern expectations and standards to an era when anyone could claim they were physicians if they were glib enough. Since ill health was thought to be as much about the Gods disfavour as much as exposure or infection, prayers were seen as effective as any medicine applied. For that matter, many of the usual medicines were harmful substances.
You're correct in that there was really no standardized medical school, no such thing existed in those days. The way someone would learn is they'd follow around someone else who was said to be a Greek physician. The best Greek doctors ended up with literally hundreds of people following them on their rounds, some looking to learn, others looking for help, and a few just looking on because a crowd was forming.

From Martial, writing in his Epigrams (5.9):
I felt a little ill and called Symmachus. Well, you came, Symmachus, but you brought 100 medical students with you. One hundred ice cold hands poked and jabbed me. I didn’t have a fever, Symmachus, when I called you, but now I do.
The other sources of the day, usually senators, kind of looked down on Greek physicians, and really, upon medicine in general, with disdain. Wealthy doctors, though rich, some as much as Senators, were not considered part of the Roman elite. The consensus was indeed that such things were in the hands of the gods, and that physicians were robbers who took money in providing worthless service and false hope.

But some of them were effective healers, maybe not perfectly understanding what they were doing, and sometimes in fact harming their patients with improper procedures and toxic substances. Though successful enough that some became very, very wealthy, and commanded vast sums for their services, much to the disdain of the upper class.

There was never a hospital in ancient Rome but from Augustus the legions were setting up hospitals in the field, and military medicine by the time of Trajan became every bit as good as you could find in a Civil War camp. Men were designated as medici, soldiers who could bandage and do simple surgeries, carrying around boxes of linen strips for this purpose. Who by Galen were becoming trained physicians also training others in the same army tradition including pharmacology involving hundreds of plants the Legion would encounter on its journeys around the Roman Empire.

There is no reason to believe that medicine made for increased population in Rome. The average life span remained around forty years, children married between twelve and eighteen years of age and expecting to be grandfathers by thirty five (One girl is known to have been married off at the tender age of nine). For all the good that medicine did for the Romans, it was balanced by everyone it harmed, and urban life was not healthy at all. As it happens, only two out of five youngsters made it to twenty years of age.
Actually I've read that the lifespan in classical Rome was even worse at 30, although if you managed to live into your teens you had a decent chance at reaching 40 or 50. I'll have to concede that introducing Greek medicine didn't make a difference for the people living in Rome (unless they were rich) but it probably did for the Legions.

Whose men received what was the best medical care (and regular food and relative safety and constant exercise) of the time. They were usually about 40 years old when they retired from the service, though many reenlisted and completed that term too, being over 60 years old. Army life was actually safer than living in Rome. Though most citizens came to avoid the service like it was the plague unless they enjoyed digging ditches daily.
 

caldrail

Ad Honorem
Feb 2012
5,214
#19
There was never a hospital in ancient Rome but from Augustus the legions were setting up hospitals in the field, and military medicine by the time of Trajan became every bit as good as you could find in a Civil War camp. Men were designated as medici, soldiers who could bandage and do simple surgeries, carrying around boxes of linen strips for this purpose. Who by Galen were becoming trained physicians also training others in the same army tradition including pharmacology involving hundreds of plants the Legion would encounter on its journeys around the Roman Empire.
You might have found that many of the medici were soldiers looking for a sinecure to avoid manual labour and not especially talented as healers. The point is, we should not expect ancient physicians to see health care in modern terms. To them, healing was an empirical art, involving prayer, herbal remedies, or the use of substances they believed would have healing properties (that we now know would be poisonous or such). There was no scientific aspect to it, no standards to meet, just a master/apprentice situation similar to any body of lore in ancient times.

By civil war I assume you mean ACW. All well and good saying that, but knowledge bases were different and please note the latter era was far more aware of the risks of infection and hence much more prone to amputations. In Roman times, the infected man would be seen as subject to a fever, or just as likely, adverse fate, made as comfortable as possible until he passes away.

Actually I've read that the lifespan in classical Rome was even worse at 30, although if you managed to live into your teens you had a decent chance at reaching 40 or 50. I'll have to concede that introducing Greek medicine didn't make a difference for the people living in Rome (unless they were rich) but it probably did for the Legions.
It improved your survival chances, not your average lifespan.

Whose men received what was the best medical care (and regular food and relative safety and constant exercise) of the time. They were usually about 40 years old when they retired from the service, though many reenlisted and completed that term too, being over 60 years old. Army life was actually safer than living in Rome. Though most citizens came to avoid the service like it was the plague unless they enjoyed digging ditches daily.
No, they received some of the best, and for that matter if you care to glance at surviving records (which sadly I don't have instant access to) you will find a considerable number of legionaries unfit for duty at any time. Now I grant you a proportion of those will be malingerers (Nothing changes, huh?) but the standards of health care are illusory. As I said, they had become adept at treating wounds - but treating Roman medicine in the same professional manner as modern is not going to work.

Survival into older age is proportional as well. Bear in mind that for instance centurions were under no obligation to retire and at least one was serving when eighty years old, but of course, this is one record out of how many? There are always exceptional individuals which we should not allow to colour the averages.

The question is, would I let a Graeco-Roman medic treat me for ill health? Please fetch my time machine, I want to go home.
 

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