Medicine in Ancient Rome developed over some time. The Roman Empire lasted a period of in excess of one thousand years. The Empire was held together by a complex and extremely advanced political network and communications system. This extended knowledge and introduced a way of life that dramatically improved the standard of living of many of their citizens. This had a huge impact on the development of medicine, surgery and public health. Roman Medicine saw the work of Galen compliment that of the Greeks and surgery advance as a result of the Roman war machine.
A basic Roman belief in the importance of cleanliness, combined with a desire to ensure a comfortable life for the citizens within the army or living in the provinces led to a unique system of sewers and aqueducts that rival even the finest examples of Victorian public health structures. Do not be fooled into thinking that everybody in Ancient Rome enjoyed high quality supplies of water and waste disposal though. The slums in Rome were large and plagues were frequent.
Roman Life revolved around Trade and War. A structured government allowed political decisions to be made relatively swiftly and the vastness of the empire led to certain relaxations of the previously strict rules relating to medical practice: although some of these, it could be argued were inherited from the Greeks.
Learn about the influence of the Roman army on the development of medicine, surgery and public health. Much of Roman medicine was based on things that they discovered in conquered lands, or on the battlefield itself. The Roman emphasis on a strong military led to medicine being prioritised, especially surgery and public health.
The Romans were master builders. Among their finest works were the numerous ways of improving public health in towns and cities. Across the empire the Romans built aqueducts, baths and sewers. They aimed to keep people away from dirty water and invested in public health works that would benefit all.
A self proclaimed legend in his own lifetime. What did Galen do and why was it so significant? Galen’s work improved medical understanding of the cause of disease, saw new treatments introduced and recorded his ideas in several books that went on to dominate medical thinking for years to come.
Ancient Rome: the basics
The Romans were highly pragmatic. As the empire expanded and they developed trading links, they borrowed and used ideas that they came across. The City States of Ancient Greece were absorbed into the Roman Empire at an early stage. The ideas of the philosophers such as Hippocrates and Aristotle were taken on board. Likewise, religious beliefs spread and the Cult of Asclepius continued to be popular.
Evidence of the Romans commitment to public health is relatively easy to find. In England it is possible to find archaeological remains at numerous sites. Hadrian’s Wall, for example, has lots of forts which retain evidence of baths, drainage ditches and water storage facilities. Other other examples include larger public health works in cities. In Rome itself, these are clearly evident at several sites.
We have a number of activities about Roman Medicine available via the Teachers’ Resource page.
Medicine Through time – Resources for Medicine Through Time – Prehistoric Medicine – Ancient Egyptian Medicine – Ancient Greek Medicine – Medicine in the Roman Empire – Medieval Medicine – Renaissance Medicine – Public Health in the Industrial Revolution – Fight against infectious disease – Modern Medicine