ROMAN MEDICINE AT THE END OF THE REPUBLIC AND THE BEGINNING OF THE EMPIRE.
Asclepiades of Prusa--Themison of Laodicea--Methodism--Wounds of Julius Cæsar--Systems of Philosophy--State of the country--Roman quacks--Slaves and Freedmen--Lucius Horatillavus.
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 naturæ 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 sophistry.
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."
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."
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 time-honoured.
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 Cæsar--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. Cæsar 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 Cæsar 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 Cæsar bestowed the right of Roman citizenship on all medical practitioners in the city.
Referring to the death of Julius Cæsar, 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 Cæsar (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" (Gibbon).
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 letters.
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....
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 adventurers.
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."
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 slaves.
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. It is recorded that physicians were sometimes compelled to do the disgusting work of mutilating slaves. The price of a slave physician was fixed at sixty solidi. 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 Société 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."
 "De Medic.," lib. 1.
 "Sat.," x, 221.
 Rhodes's version.
 Handerson's translation.
 "Tacit. Annal.," xiv, 43.
 "Paulus Ægin.," vol. ii, p. 379.
 "Just. Cod.," vii.
Navigate Within Greek and Roman Medicine:
Prev | Next | Contents