University of Virginia Historical Collections at the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library

The Doctor In Roman Society

Apprenticeship and Quackery

As a profession, medicine was more highly regarded in Greece than in Rome. Physicians were basically craftsmen, probably enjoying some esteem among their customers, but not being part of the socio-political elite.

Roman doctors did not fare so well. Many doctors were freed Greek slaves, hence the social standing of doctors was quite low. Because recovery rates were so low, many people were skeptical or even scornful of doctors. Their skepticism is easily understood. Roman literature tells us much about the reactions of individuals to medicine and doctors. Listening to the Roman authors, we hear tales of quackery and chicanery at all levels of society:

Some doctors charge the most excessive prices for the most worthless medicines and drugs, and others in the craft attempt to deal with and treat diseases they obviously do not understand. ~Gargilius Martialis, Preface, 7

There were no licensing boards and no formal requirements for entrance to the profession. Anyone could call himself a doctor. If his methods were successful, he attracted more patients; if not, he found himself another profession.

Until recently, Diaulus was a doctor; now he is an undertaker. He is still doing as an undertaker, what he used to do as a doctor. ~Martial, Epigrams 1.47

You are now a gladiator, although until recently you were an ophthalmologist. You did the same thing as a doctor that you do now as a gladiator. ~Martial, Epigrams 8.74

Medical training consisted mostly of apprentice work. Men trained as doctors by following around another doctor.

I felt a little ill and called Dr. 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. ~Martial, Epigrams 5.9

Plutarch grumbles that practitioners used all sorts of questionable methods to gain patients, ranging from escorting the prospective patient home from bars to sharing dirty jokes with him.

Evidence for the public mistrust of physicians is plentiful, including these epigrams from the Greek Anthology:

Socles, promising to set Diodorus’s crooked back straight, piled three solid stones, each four feet square, on the hunchback’s spine. He was crushed and died, but he became straighter than a ruler. ~Greek Anthology XI, 120

Alexis the physician purged by a clyster five patients at one time, and five other by drugs; he visited five, and again he rubbed five with ointment. And for all there was one night, one medicine, one coffin-maker, one tomb, one Hades, one lamentation. ~Greek Anthology XI, 122

Phidon did not purge me with a clyster or even feel me, but feeling feverish I remembered his name and died. ~Greek Anthology XI, 118