5 Interesting Things about Medicine in Ancient Rome: History of Medicine for Kids

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Updated on: Educator Review By: Michelle Connolly

Introduction – When was the Ancient Roman Period?

Before we learn about medicine in Ancient Rome lets learn about the time period. Ancient Rome is a period of around 1300 years and started out encompassing Italy but grew to take on a massive empire. The Roman empire taking on much of Europe. A big part of what developed Ancient Roman medical practices was their empire and its wealth. The Four Humours Theory was being developed at this time and Galen was making discoveries about human anatomy which would be accepted as correct and shape surgery for over 1000 years.

If you want even more fun facts about the Romans then check out this video about them!

What did medicine look like in ancient Rome?

Medicine in Ancient Rome was not a time of massive discoveries. Instead the Medicine in Ancient Rome focused on preventing people from getting sick. This was done by balancing the humours and keeping the cities in their empire clean. The Ancient Romans knew that disease could be prevented by having clean streets, regular bathing, and drinking clean water. This belief in preventing illness played a major role in Medicine in Ancient Rome.

5 Interesting aspects of Medicine in Ancient Rome

1. Public Health

The Roman Empire was known to bring infrastructure projects to the places under its command. They provided roads, public buildings, and aqueducts. Some places around Europe still have the same road structures the Ancient Romans put in place.

The Ancient Romans kept their cities very clean as they knew that dirty and decay could lead to disease. So if you lived in an Ancient Roman city you were less likely to get diseases caused by filth.

Most importantly to Medicine in Ancient Rome was the aqueducts. An Aqueduct  is a structure for carrying water across land in pipelines. They can even carry water across valleys and rivers.

Medicine in Ancient Rome article picture of an aqueduct

The Romans were known for their ability to build amazing structures with grand arches. This architectural ability allowed them to place these aqueducts in cities. This network of water transportation allowed people access to fresh and clean water. Therefore, people were less likely to get sick from drinking dirty water.

2. Baths

Medicine in Ancient Rome article picture of a Roman Bath
Tourists visiting a Roman Bath which still exists today!

The Ancient Romans also built elaborate public baths. They believed that everyone should be able to bathe to keep their health, even those with very little money. The entry to the public baths would cost less than a quarter of a penny. This meant that anyone could afford to visit the baths regularly to bathe.

Ancient Roman cities also had public toilets that washed away mess with fresh water. In Rome there were over 100 public toilets available for people to use. This was highly unusual for the time as having toilets in other places were seen as something only for the rich.

3. Hospitals

Ancient Rome was also when the first hospitals were opened. These hospitals were primarily for the treatment of Roman Soldiers.

Roman soldiers were very important at this time as they were defending the Roman Empire which would collapse without them. A lot of time and money was put into making such their soldiers were healthy. Including regular bathing, fresh water, and exercise.

4. Comparative Anatomy

In Ancient Rome people did not know about human anatomy as we do now. They also did not agree with human dissection so they could not learn about the body that way. Physicians such as Galen would learn about the body and surgery through working with gladiators. If gladiators were cut in battle physicians could have a look inside while treating them to learn about the body.

Galen’s ideas on the human body were highly trusted as he used the method of ‘Comparative Anatomy’. This was the idea that studying the bodies of animals could help us understand how the human body worked. Through studying animals Galen was able to discover than the brain controlled the body and not the heart. However, this method also meant Galen made mistakes as animal bodies work very differently to our own.

One mistake Galen made was that he believed the jawbone of humans was made up of two bones that connected together. This was based on the fact that monkey’s jawbones are made up of two bones. For over 1000 years after Galen physicians believed this about the jawbone. Even much later when they would study human bones they would assume something was wrong with the jawbone of that person as they didn’t have two bones there.

Modern doctors study Galen today to teach them that even if something has been believed for such a long time it can still be tested and proven wrong. We are always learning more about the body even if we know a lot more than the Ancient Romans.

Galen learned that the heart doesn’t control the body, the brain does. So, what does the heart do? Check out our video about the heart to find out.

5. Herbal Remedies

Similarly to most other periods in medical history herbal remedies were given for a variety of ailments. Romans used things like herbs, spices, and other food stuffs to create mixtures or poultices which were meant to treat a range of illnesses.

Pliny the Elder (who was one of the people to die after Mount Vesuvius erupted) wrote about Natural History and how many natural ingredients could cure illness. Some cures he wrote about included:

  • Boiled liver to soothe eyes that are swollen or sore.
  • Egg yolks to cure dysentery.
  • Wine and Vinegar to heal up wounds. This one may actually work as vinegar has antiseptic properties.

Conclusion – Did Medicine Advance in Ancient Rome?

Medicine in Ancient Rome was not a great time for discovery or finding out how the body worked in order to fight disease. The Four Humours Theory was incorrect and was strengthened during this time but it did encourage moderation which is a good thing for your health. Galen’s work on the human body did discover the brains role in controlling the body but other mistakes made in his works would stunt medical progress for over 1000 years.

However, the public health of the people of the empire rich or poor was a great thing for medicine in Ancient Rome. They had fresh water delivered by aqueducts, toilets that were plumed to remove waste. They bathed and exercised regularly to keep their bodies fit. The Ancient Romans did great things for the public health of their empire.

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