What Factors Were Most Significant to Roman Health and Medical Practice

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Rome started being built in 753 BC. Rome first conquered the rest of Italy, and most of the Mediterranean world. By 275 BC it had conquered the Greek cities in Italy. Rome had a very powerful army which needed to be kept healthy, so the Romans started to look into the idea of medical practices.

The Romans were not the first civilisation to practice medicine. There is evidence of medical knowledge from the Ancient Egyptians as early as 3000 BC. The most important early Egyptian medical books were the ‘Books of Thoth’. They were kept in the temple of Thoth by priests. Thoth was the god of writing and wisdom. None of the books survived, although a medical book called the ‘Papyrus Ebers’, which dates back to about 1500 BC, was probably based on them.

The Greeks had many ideas about medicine as well, like the ‘Four Humours’, which was the idea that the body was made up of four fluids; blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile. Hippocrates (460 – 377 BC), a Greek, is acknowledged as the founding father of modern medicine and wrote the Hippocratic corpus, which were a collection of books written by Hippocrates or his followers. A man called Aristotle developed Hippocrates’ ideas and the city of Alexandria became a centre of medical development. The library in Alexandria attempted to amass all the knowledge in the world and made copies of its books for other libraries. It was also the first place to allow human dissection for a period of time, which meant that the human anatomy could be studied in detail.

The Romans thought that their culture was better than the ‘decaying’ Greek culture. They initially rejected the ideas of Greek medicine, which was still practised by the Greeks. When Rome conquered Greek cities, Greek doctors became slaves to the Romans. In 293 BC, a plague led the Romans to build an Asclepion, a Greek hospital named after the Greek doctor Asclepios. The Asclepion soon became a public hospital and the Greek doctors slowly rose in status until Julius Caesar allowed the practitioners to become Roman citizens in 46 BC. When the Romans realised that they needed a healthy army if they were to build an empire, the state paid for public doctors and more hospitals, starting with hospitals for ‘valetudinaria’ (wounded soldiers). More hospitals were built for more of the population until they had amounted to a ‘National Health Service’.

The Romans use of their organisation skills, practical engineering and architecture made preventative medicine through public health the most obvious way to future progress. The Romans started to notice that being exposed to bad smells, unclean drinking water, sewage, swamps and dirt made it more likely that you’d become unwell, and that building temples in swamps and using other supernatural means of preventing illness had little or no effect. After these discoveries, the Romans began to build public baths, toilets, sewers and aqueducts to carry good, clean water into cities. Also good communication on the roads, another Roman invention, meant that ideas spread quickly and therefore developed throughout their territories.

Another one of the most important people in medical history was a Greek man called Galen. He was born in AD129 in Pergamum, a Greek city in western Turkey. There was an important Asclepion in Pergamum where Galen first began his training before going to Alexandria and Smyrna. He returned to Pergamum as a doctor for gladiators where he increased his anatomical knowledge by treating the gladiators’ wounds. In AD161, Galen travelled to Rome where he worked hard to gain a reputation and become doctor to the Emperor’s son. He also wrote over a hundred medical texts.

Galen supported Hippocrates’ theories on ethics and observation and he believed in the four humours. He described the role of the spine in controlling the body but he couldn’t dissect humans or even study a skeleton outside of Alexandria so he resorted to ‘chance’ opportunities like a rotting corpse on a gibbet or a flash flood in a cemetery. Galen let his ambition get the better of him and only recorded his successful cases and frequently only saw what he wanted to see. Galen’s writing was very persuasive and he did not stress the polytheic side of Roman religion and culture so he didn’t offend the later monotheist Muslims and Christians.

I think that the most important contributing factors to the development of Roman medicine were communication, notable individuals, warfare and science and technology. Communication was important because, with Roman roads, ideas could be spread quickly around the country, reaching doctors everywhere who could then develop on the ideas. Another main factor was ideas of individuals because without men like Aristotle, Galen, Hippocrates and Ihmotep, medicine would never have been developed and new ideas wouldn’t have been brought forward. Warfare motivated the Romans to build hospitals for the soldiers wounded in war, which led to the start of the National Health Service. Science and technology probably plays the biggest part of all because the study of medicine is essentially biology and chemistry.

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