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

Military Medicos

Treatment of Soldiers Wounded in Battle

The common practice among professional generals of the Hellenistic world was to campaign in the company of a personal physician. Literary sources leave us with the distinct impression that the wounded treated by these physicians were of the higher ranks, and there is little indication that the common soldiers had access to medical care. Instead, some troops functioned as medical staff as the need arose.

Trajans Column, Soldiers aiding their wounded comrades

Fragment of  the Trajan column, Rome, dedicated 113 CE. Soldiers aiding their wounded comrades

Trajan’s Column commemorates the emperor Trajan’s Dacian Wars, fought at the beginning of the second century CE. This scene illustrates the treatment of the wounded under battlefield conditions. The medici (doctors) treating the wounded are dressing superficial wounds and their uniforms are identical with that of the soldiers they are aiding. This leads us to believe that the medici were simply soldiers who had demonstrated their capabilities for wound dressing and primitive surgery, not trained physicians.

Before Hellenistic influence, the Roman legion did not offer any medical services. It is to the Romans’ credit that they recognized the need for such services, but their solution was not a corps of trained physicians. The Romans clearly distinguished between the treatment of the “sick” and the “wounded.” The wounded were cared for, as much as possible, by fellow soldiers on the fields, and the transportable sick were placed in valetudinaria (hospitals) along with the severely wounded.

The Roman poet Virgil (70-19 BCE) composed an epic poem, titled the Aeneid, about the events leading up to the foundation of Rome. It follows the adventures of the Trojan hero Aeneas who was forced to do battle with the native inhabitants of Italy upon immigrating there from Troy.

Wall painting from Casa di Sirico, Aeneas receiving medical attention from Iapyx

Detail from wall painting from Casa di Sirico, Pompeii, 1st Century BCE, Naples National Archaeological Museum. Aeneas receiving medical attention from Iapyx

In one of the climactic scenes at the poem’s conclusion (Aeneid XII.383-440), Aeneas is wounded in the thigh by an arrow shaft hurled from the enemy camp. After the wounded Aeneas is carried off the battlefield, the surgeon Iapyx attempts to remove the arrow with forceps. When he is unsuccessful, Venus, Aeneas’s divine mother, intervenes. From across the Mediterranean at Mt. Ida near Troy, she brings dittany, an unknown herb, to heal the wound. Cicero, in the philosophical treatise De Divinatione, says that dittany was supposed to make arrows fall out of goats’ bodies.

Although he was unable to help Aeneas, Iapyx was given his skill of practicing the “silent arts,” i.e., medicine, by Apollo himself. Of Apollo’s three realms— music, prophecy, and healing—it is only healing in which the voice is not used, hence medicine was known as the silent art. This phrase also invokes the idea of obscurity, as the profession of medicine was not thought to lead to great fame.

Drawing of Attic Black Figured Vase, Sthenelos bandaging Diomedes' index finger

Drawing of Attic Black Figured Vase, 6th Century BCE, National Museum Athens. Sthenelos bandaging Diomedes’ index finger

The episode between Sthenelos and Diomedes portrayed here is not mentioned in any extant saga of the Trojan War. In the Hippocratic treatise, In the Surgery, the injuries of war figure prominently, and the author states bluntly that “he who desires to practice surgery must go to war.”