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

Etruscan and Roman Medicine

Home Remedies, State Religion and Private Practitioners

Pliny, in his Natural History, says that the first doctor (medicus) to come to Rome was Arcagathus. He arrived from the Greek Peloponnese in 219 BCE and was well received. Arcagathus was accorded the rights of citizenship and a medical shop was set up at state expense for his use. Prior to this time, Rome had no physicians and only home remedies were used.

Because Arcagathus was an expert wound surgeon (uulnerarius), he immediately became popular; however, his popularity did not last. His vigorous use of the knife and cautery soon earned him the title “Executioner”(Carnifex). Over 100 years lapsed before we hear that another Greek physician (Asclepiades of Bithynia, ca. 100 BCE) had taken up residence in Rome.

Reverse of a bronze medallion of Antoninus Pius

Reverse of a bronze medallion of Antoninus Pius (138-161 CE), Rome. Tiber welcomes Asclepius in the form of a snake.

In 295 BCE a plague ravaged Rome and the Romans decided to appeal to the Greek god of medicine. No doubt the Romans had heard of the success of the medical shrines in the Hellenistic world and hoped some of this power might be transferred to Rome. A temple to Asclepius was built on an island in the Tiber, not inside Rome, reflecting a suspicion of  foreign gods. The pestilence soon went away and the popularity of the new cult was assured. The introduction of Asclepius is the first event of “medical history”in Rome.

Before the arrival of Arcagathus, early Roman medicine was agriculturally based. Early authors of agricultural treatises, such as Cato the Elder and Columella, both from the early second century BCE, had as much to say about medicine, or home remedies, as they had to say about growing seasons, animal husbandry, and slave discipline. In Cato’s time, the pater familias, or head of the family, was the dispenser of remedies. His knowledge of the farm and its needs was thought to best qualified him to deal with matters of health.

Early Roman medicine characteristically relied on one or two remedies. According to Pliny, the “early Romans gave wool awesome powers,”confirming the religious-agricultural context of early remedies. Unwashed wool, dipped into a mixture of pounded rue and fat, was good for bruises and swellings, according to the early traditions. Rams’ wool, washed in cold water and soaked in oil, was used to soothe uterine inflammations. Wool dipped into a mixture of oil, sulphur, vinegar, pitch, and soda cured lumbago.

Yet, for all its uses, wool was not the cure-all that cabbage was, at least for Cato. Cato advocated not only the consumption of cabbage itself to fend off illness, but drinking the urine of a person who has eaten cabbage.

Some of Cato’s cures were applicable to humans as well as to the livestock on the farm:

If you have reason to fear sickness, give the patient/oxen before they get sick the following remedy: 3 grains of salt, 3 laurel leaves, 3 leek leaves, 3 spikes of leek, 3 of garlic, 3 grains of incense, 3 plants of Sabine herb, 3 leaves of rue, 3 stalks of bryony, 3 white beans, 3 live coals, and 3 pints of wine. You must gather, macerate, and administer all these things while standing, and he who administers the remedy must be fasting. Administer to each ox or to the patient for three days, and divide it in such a way that when you have administered three doses to each, you have used it all. See to it that the patient and the one who administers are both standing, and use a wooden vessel.

The repetition of the number three in this cure connotes a element of magic. The greater part of this remedy consists of foodstuffs from the pantry. Possibly the standing position is a remnant of psychological factors pointing to an earlier time of medicine man or shaman. The insistence upon a wooden bowl shows this recipe to be an ancient one.

The Romans inherited some of their ideas of anatomy and medicine from their Etruscan ancestors and adapted them to the practice of the official state religion. This is true for the practice of hepatoscopy, or reading the divine signals in animal livers. Model bronze livers, unearthed in Etruria, were used by priests to interpret omens within the liver. Hepatoscopy had its origins in Near Eastern practice and was only performed by state-appointed priests.

Thus Roman medicine can be divided into three distinct areas: (1) the agricultural home remedies of the pater familias; (2) the state religion as handed down from the Etruscans; and (3) the private practitioner using Greek medical principles.

Opposition to the introduction of Greek medicine in Rome by Arcagathus was the result of several factors: political strife in the Roman nobility, hostility against Greek culture, fear of Arcagathus’s surgical and pharmaceutical treatments, and loathing for the mercenary character of the medical profession, which was regarded as a sign of luxury. In the period following the Second Punic War, in the early second century BCE, sumptuary laws were passed to combat conspicuous consumption. The introduction of Greek doctors into the households of the Roman nobility was seen as a degenerative sign; the Romans were succumbing to Greek culture and practices.