Roman Medicine Mores


The Romans incorporated both a scientific and mythological approach to medicine and health care. They adopted much of the Greeks' scientific data concerning medicine. Primarily, the teachings of Hippocrates (460 - 384 BC) gave the Romans a holistic look at medicine and the treatment of illnesses and diseases.

      Hippocrates, called the father of modern medicine, separated the study of medicine from philosophy. He had an overall approach to human health. He observed the habits and environment of the individual in order to determine an illness and a treatment. Modern medicine derives the Hippocratic oath from the thought of Hippocrates.

      The Romans, however, took this empirical method and combined it with the mythical or religious views traditional to the region. Instead of the Greek method of simply observing the symptoms and recording them in order to treat the patient, Romans also included many prayers and offerings to the gods. Almost all the Roman gods had healing powers. At the heart of this magical side of Roman medicine lay Aesculapius, the god of healing. In Roman mythology we find this adoption of the Greek god Asklepios happening in 293 BC. The god, who traveled in the form of a snake, came to Rome on a ship traveling up the Tiber. He slipped off the boat and onto the Tiber Island. They built a temple for Aesculapius there and the Romans traveled there for healing. To this day a hospital stills stands on the island. »»

      The Romans' refusal of purely, theoretical treatments led to an eclectic medical system. Despite the lack of focus, relative good health prevailed for several reasons. The availability of fresh water prevented many diseases associated with standing water, and hygiene led to good health. The Roman baths became a part of life and kept germs and bacteria under control. Finally, the drainage system took old wastewater away from the population and prevented many illnesses and infections.

J Walsh 2001 (revised 2006)


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