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Roman Medicine At The End Of The Republic And The Beginning Of The


Asclepiades of Prusa--Themison of Laodicea--Methodism--Wounds of

Julius Caesar--Systems of Philosophy--State of the country--Roman

quacks--Slaves and Freedmen--Lucius Horatillavus.

Asclepiades of Prusa, in Bithynia, was a famous physician in Rome

early in the first century before Christ. He studied both rhetoric and

medicine at Alexandria and at Athens. H
began as a teacher of rhetoric

in Rome, but, although he was the friend of Cicero, he was not very

successful, and abandoned this study for the practice of medicine. He

had a great deal of ability and shrewdness, but no knowledge of anatomy

or physiology, and he condemned all who thought that these subjects of

study were the foundation of the healing art. He specially inveighed

against Hippocrates, and with some reason, for the disciples of

Hippocrates had elevated the teaching of their master almost into a

religion, and were bound far too closely to his authority, to the

exclusion of original thought and progress.

Asclepiades had many pupils, and his teaching led to the foundation of

the Medical School of the Methodists. His most important maxim was that

a cure should be effected "tuto, celeriter, ac jucunde," and he

believed that what the physician could do was of primary importance, and

vis medicatrix naturae only secondary. He was thus directly opposed to

the teaching of Hippocrates. He had little or no faith in drugs, and

relied mainly upon diet, exercises and massage, and, to some extent,

upon surgery. His practice of prescribing wine in liberal doses added to

his popularity. It was the custom to take wine very much diluted with

water, but Asclepiades ordered wine in full strength or only slightly

diluted. He practised bronchotomy and tracheotomy, and recommended in

suitable cases of dropsy scarification of the ankles, and advised that,

in tapping, an opening as small as possible should be made. He also

observed spontaneous dislocation of the hip. He was a very famous man in

the Roman Republic, and was well acquainted with philosophy, especially

the philosophy of the Epicureans. Although he was almost entirely

ignorant of anatomy, he was far from being a quack. He had great powers

of observation and natural shrewdness, and his success largely

contributed to the establishment of Greek doctors and their methods in

Rome. There is grim humour in his description of the Hippocratic

treatise on therapeutics, which he called "a meditation on death." Pliny

relates that Asclepiades wagered that he would never die of disease, and

he won the wager, for he lived to old age and died of an accident!

Themison, of Laodicea, lived in the first century before Christ, and

was a pupil of Asclepiades of Prusa, the founder of the School of

Methodism. His views on atoms and pores led him to adopt a very simple

explanation of health and disease, for he considered that these pores

must be either constricted or dilated, and the aim of the physician

should be to dilate the constriction, and vice versa. This epitomized

system of medicine did away with the use of many classes of drugs, and,

from its simplicity, was quickly learned. A jeering opponent of the

system of the Methodici said that it could be taught in six months, and

Galen, in later years, ridiculed it, and called its practitioners "the

asses of Thessaly."

The great fault of Dogmatism was its absolute reliance on the wisdom of

Hippocrates, and Methodism was marred by its insufficiency and


In spite of his extravagant theories, Themison possessed skill in

practice. He was the first physician to describe rheumatism, and he also

is thought to have been the pioneer in the medicinal use of leeches. A

book on elephantiasis ascribed to him is not definitely known to be

authentic. It is worthy of note that he was anxious to write on

hydrophobia, but a case he had seen in early youth so impressed his mind

with horror that the mere thought of the disease caused him to suffer

some of the symptoms.

The views of the Methodists were less extreme than those of the

Dogmatists and Empirics. Celsus wrote of the Methodists: "They assert

that the knowledge of no cause whatever bears the least relation to the

method of cure; and that it is sufficient to observe some general

symptoms of distempers; and that there are three kinds of diseases, one

bound, another loose, and the third is a mixture of these."[11]

There were several physicians of the name of Themison at different

times, and it is probably the founder of the Methodici who was satirized

by Juvenal thus:--

"How many patients Themison dispatched

In one short autumn."[12]

The joke which is based on attributing a cure to Nature alone, and death

solely to the physician's want of skill, is one of the most


Themison lived at the close of the Roman Republic, and it will now be

necessary to consider the state of the healing art in Rome under the

rule of the emperors.

Julius Caesar--one of the first triumvirate--invaded and conquered Gaul

and Britain, and after these great military achievements, found that he

could not sheath his sword until he had met in battle his rival Pompey.

Caesar defeated Pompey at Pharsalia, in Thessaly (48 B.C.), and pursued

him to Egypt. Pompey was murdered in Egypt, and his last followers

finally defeated in Spain, and in 45 B.C. Julius Caesar returned to Rome,

and was declared perpetual imperator. On March 15, 44 B.C., he was

assassinated. It is possible that the career of this great man may have

promoted the surgery of the battlefield, but his reign as Emperor was

too short, and the political situation of his time too acute, to permit

of much progress in the arts of peace generally, and in the medical art

particularly. Julius Caesar bestowed the right of Roman citizenship on

all medical practitioners in the city.

Referring to the death of Julius Caesar, Suetonius writes that among so

many wounds there was none that was mortal, in the opinion of the

surgeon Antistus, except the second, which he received in the breast.

Octavianus was appointed one of the second triumvirate, his colleagues

being Mark Antony and Lepidus. Lepidus was first forced out of the

triumvirate, and Octavianus and Mark Antony then came into conflict.

During these rivalries, a great civic work was accomplished by Marcus

Agrippa, who built the aqueduct known as Aqua Julia. A landmark in

history is the battle of Actium, in which Octavianus defeated Mark

Antony and his ally Cleopatra, and within a few years Octavianus was

proclaimed Emperor as Augustus Caesar (27 B.C.). Under his rule Rome

greatly prospered, and we shall now consider the state of medicine and

of sanitation during his illustrious reign.

In the Roman Empire there was a spirit of toleration abroad, "and the

various modes of worship which prevailed in the Roman world were all

considered by the people as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally

false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful. And thus toleration

produced not only mutual indulgence, but even religious concord"


The systems of philosophy in vogue were those of the Stoics, the

Platonists, the Academics, and the Epicureans, and of these only the

Platonists had any belief in God, who was to them an idea rather than a

Supreme Being. The great aim of both the wise and the foolish was to

glorify their nationality, and their beliefs, their rites, and their

superstitions, were all for the glory of mighty Rome.

Educated Romans were able to speak and write both Latin and Greek, and

the latter language was the vehicle used by men of science and of


The population of the city of Rome at the beginning of the Augustan age

was not less than half a million of people, and probably exceeded this

number. There was no middle class, a comparatively small number of

gentry, a very numerous plebs or populace, and many slaves. The

Emperor Augustus boasted that after the war with Sextus Pompeius he

handed over 30,000 slaves, who had been serving with the enemy, to their

masters to be punished. The slaves were looked upon by their masters as

chattels. The plebs had the spirit of paupers and, to keep them

contented and pacific, were fed and shown brutalizing spectacles in the

arenas. Augustus wrote that he gave the people wild-beast hunts in the

circus and amphitheatres twenty-six times, in which about 3,500 animals

were killed. It was his custom to watch the Circensian games from his

palace in view of a multitude of spectators.

Throughout the country generally agriculture prospered, and the supply

of various grasses for feeding cattle in the winter increased the

multitude of the flocks and herds; great attention was given also to

mines and fisheries and all forms of industry. Virgil praised his

beautiful and fertile country:--

"But no, not Medeland with its wealth of woods,

Fair Ganges, Hermus thick with golden silt,

Can match the praise of Italy....

Here blooms perpetual spring, and summer here

In months that are not summer's; twice teem the flocks:

Twice does the tree yield service of her fruit.

Mark too, her cities, so many and so proud,

Of mighty toil the achievement, town on town

Up rugged precipices heaved and reared,

And rivers gliding under ancient walls."[13]

The city of Rome was not a desirable place for medical practice, for the

lower classes were degraded and thriftless, and the relatively small

upper classes were tyrannical, debauched, superstitious, selfish and

cruel. The younger Pliny, who was one of the best type of Romans, tried

to investigate the purity of the lives of the Christians, and did not

hesitate to put to torture two women, deaconesses, who belonged to the

new religion, but he "could discover only an obstinate kind of

superstition carried to great excess." His conduct and his opinion speak

eloquently of the nature of a Roman gentleman of the Empire. As for the

state of the poor under Augustus, 200,000 persons in Rome received

outdoor relief. Although the rich had every luxury that desire could

suggest and wealth afford, the great need of the common people was food.

The city had to rely mainly on imported corn, and the price of this at

times became prohibitive owing to scarcity--sometimes the result of

piracy and the dangers of the sea, but often caused by artificial means

owing to the merchants "cornering" the supply--and it was necessary for

the State, through the Emperor, to intervene to make regulations and to

distribute the grain free or below its market value. It has been

computed that about 50,000 strangers lived in Rome, many of whom were


The imperial city was the happy hunting-ground of quacks, who gave

themselves high-sounding names and wore gorgeous raiment. They went

about followed by a retinue of pupils and grateful patients. In some

cases the patients were compelled to promise, in the event of being

cured, that they would serve their doctor ever afterwards. The retinue

of students, no doubt, was rather disturbing to a nervous patient, and

Martial wrote:--

"Faint was I only, Symmachus, till thou

Backed by an hundred students, throng'dst my bed;

An hundred icy fingers chilled my brow:

I had no fever; now I'm nearly dead."[14]

Besides quack doctors there were drug sellers (pharmacopola), who sold

their medicines in booths or hawked them in the city and the country. In

the time of the Empire the medicines of the regular practitioners were

sold with a label which specified the name of the drug and of the

inventor, the ingredients, the disease it was to be used for, and the

method of taking it. Drug sellers dispensed cosmetics as well as

medicines, and some of the itinerant dealers sold poison. The regular

physicians bought medicines already compounded by the druggists, and the

latter, as in our own day, prescribed as well as the physicians.

Depilatories were much in vogue, and were usually made of arsenic and

unslaked lime, but also from the roots and juices of plants. They were

first used only by women, but in later times also by effeminate men.

Tweezers have been discovered which were adapted for pulling out hairs,

and most of the depilatories were recommended to be applied after the

use of the tweezers. The duty of pulling out hairs was performed by


Most of the medical practitioners in the time of Augustus were either

slaves or freedmen. Posts of responsibility and of honour were sometimes

assigned to freedmen, as is shown by the appointment by Nero of Helius,

a freedman, to the administration of Rome in the absence of his imperial

master. Cicero wrote letters to his freedman Tiro in terms of friendship

and affection. The master of a great household selected a slave for his

ability and aptitude, and had him trained to be the medical adviser of

the household; and the skill shown by the doctor sometimes gained for

him his freedom.

There were 400 slaves in one great household of Rome, and they were all

executed for not having prevented the murder of their master.[15] It is

recorded that physicians were sometimes compelled to do the disgusting

work of mutilating slaves.[16] The price of a slave physician was fixed

at sixty solidi.[17] The great majority of physicians in Rome were

freedmen who had booths in which they prescribed and compounded, and

they were aided by freedmen and slaves who were both assistants and

pupils. The medical profession, as has been shown, never attained the

same dignity as in Greece. It should be understood that there was a

class of practising physicians in Rome quite distinct from the slave

doctors. The following account of Lucius Horatillavus, a Roman quack of

the time of Augustus, is taken from the British Medical Journal of

June 10, 1911, and originated in an article in the Societe Nouvelle,

written by M. Fernand Mazade:--

"He was a handsome man, and came from Naples to Rome, his sole outfit

being a toga made of a piece of cloth adorned with obscene pictures and

a small Asiatic mitre. Like many of his kind at that day, he sold

poisons and invented five or six new remedies which were more or less

haphazard mixtures of wine and poisonous substances. He had the good

luck to cure his first patient, Titus Cnoeus Leno, who, being a poet,

straightway constituted himself the vates sacer of his physician, and

induced some of his fashionable mistresses to place themselves under his

hands. So profitable was Horatillavus's practice that he is said to have

saved 150,000 sesterces in a few months. But for a moment his good

fortune seemed to abandon him. A Roman lady, Sulpicia Pallas, died

suddenly under his ministrations. This may have been due to his

ignorance or carelessness; but he was accused of having poisoned his

patient. This event might have been expected to bring his career to an

end; but it was not long before he recovered the confidence of the

people whom he deluded with his mystical language and promises of cure.

He had three methods of treatment, all consisting of baths--hot, tepid,

or cold--preceded or followed by the taking of wonder-working medicines.

Horatillavus treated every kind of disease, internal and external; he

even practised midwifery, which was then in the hands of women. Ten

years after he settled in Rome he had accumulated a fortune of some

6,000,000 sesterces. He had a villa at Tusculum, whither he went three

times a month; there he led a luxurious life in the most beautiful

surroundings, and there his evil fate overtook him. His orchard was his

especial pride. One day he found that birds had played havoc with his

figs, the like of which were not to be found in Italy. Determined to

prevent similar depredations in future, he poisoned the fig trees.

Continuing his walk, he plucked fruits of various kinds here and there.

While eating the fruit he had culled and drinking choice wine, he put

into his mouth a poisoned fig, which he had inadvertently gathered, and

quickly died in convulsions. Before passing away, however, he is said to

have composed his own epitaph. This M. Mazade believes he has found. It

reads: "The manes of Sulpicia Pallas have avenged her. Here lies Lucius

Horatillavus, physician, who poisoned himself." If the epitaph is

genuine, it is a confession of guilt. The death of the quack by his own

poison is a curious Nemesis. The manner of his death proves that it was

accidental, as few quacks are bold enough to take their own medicines."