The Medical Profession. There were no organizations in Roman antiquity that governed the study and practice of medicine. One learned to be a doctor as an apprentice to an established authority. Until very late in the Republic, slaves and other members of the lower classes practiced medicine more as a trade than a science. In 46 B.C.E. Julius Caesar extended Roman citizenship to those practicing medicine at Rome, and Asclepiades of Bithynia founded the first regular school of medicine at Rome around 40 B.C.E. Thus, the status of medicine and the people who practiced it became elevated, and by the time of the Empire, doctors enjoyed a more prestigious place in Roman society. Romans in general were suspicious and skeptical about doctors, who were typically slaves, freedmen, and foreigners.
Low Success Rates. The practice of medicine did not always involve the precise application of knowledge developed through careful observation, experimentation, and exploration. Ancient medicine was intimately bound up with superstition, folk remedy, and magic as well as scientific methodology. Many people who called themselves doctors did not enjoy high success rates in terms of curing their patients. Poorer people may not have ever seen a proper doctor, but received their care from people who dispensed drugs (pharmocopolae), or they may have entrusted their health and lives to the gods rather than to trained medical practitioners. Romans believed that particular deities governed particular parts of the body, and by praying to those gods they could mend their ailments.
Social Distinction. Both doctors and druggists were notoriously incompetent and fraudulent, charging exorbitant rates for their services and supplies. In an attempt to attract business, doctors often lectured to city crowds. Educated Romans preferred doctors whose methods were philosophically based rather than medically proven. Consequently, the education and training of a patient’s medical professional was often directly related to the social class and education of the patient himself. Nevertheless, Roman society esteemed the best doctors who could treat their patients successfully, and such physicians enjoyed social distinction among the aristocratic homes of Rome. Some physicians were famous on account of their vast wealth, rather than their skill. State funding for physicians
seems to have begun in the early Empire and continued from that time.
Homecare. The head of the Roman household, the paterfamilias, was expected in his great wisdom to know something about medical problems and their solutions. The remedies consisted of combinations of food and drugs and ritual magic, the application of which did not rely upon the practitioner’s expertise; so long as the ingredients were correct and the ritual performed correctly, the cure was supposed to follow. When the paterfamilias’ expertise was not sufficient, Romans could take recourse to either the pharmocopolae or a medical man (medicus) or woman (medica) for their ailments. Whether the head of household or a doctor or a druggist treated the ill, all needed to know something about botany since drugs were derived mostly from plants.
Women in Medicine. Pregnant women usually gave birth with the aid of a midwife. Although some ancients were interested in gynecology, some ancients were interested in gynecology, it was not a specialty of the same importance as it is today. Women often employed a nurse (nutrix) to breast-feed their children. Although this practice seems strange by modern standards, many women of Rome’s upper class did not breast-feed their own children. A wet nurse was often responsible for breast-feeding children from more than one family, and this activity of
nursing unrelated children was thought to develop strong bonds between them.
Karl Christ, The Romans: An Introduction to Their History and Civilization, translated by Christopher Holme (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984).
Ralph Jackson, Doctors and Diseases in the Roman Empire (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1988).
John Scarborough, Roman Medicine (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1969).