First, drown your ape.

Welcome to my corner of the 2013 Wonder of Rome Blog Hop! There are (I think) seventeen of us linking up this weekend to offer blog posts on some aspect of Rome for your enjoyment. As you’ll have gathered, I’m Ruth Downie, and I write a series of crime novels featuring Roman army medic Ruso, and his British partner Tilla. Predictably, my choice for the Wonder of Rome is its doctors (even if they did learn most of what they knew from the Greeks).

As part of the Hop I’ll be giving a copy of the Ruso book of their choice to one randomly-chosen reader, so if you’d like to enter the draw, please leave a comment below and I’ll be in touch with the winner. (No, this is not a cunning ploy to make you read to the end. I know you have a ‘scroll’ button.)

Blog Hop logo August 15 to 19 2013

The Ruso books are set during the reign of the Emperor Hadrian, and I’m mightily glad they are. Not only because it’s an interesting period, but – as I discovered when it was too late to change it – I’ve escaped Galen by a gnat’s whisker.

There’s no doubt that Galen (who was born in about A.D. 129) was a marvellous doctor, as he pointed out himself on many occasions.  His influence was such that even in the nineteenth century, German medical students had to pass an exam on his works before they could qualify. But he was prolific. Those of us struggling with deadlines and word counts can only marvel at Galen’s ability to produce vast amounts of prose, and give a quiet sigh of relief at the thought that we aren’t compelled to read it all.

Trephined skull
Surgery has a long history. This hole in the head was created over a thousand years before Rome was founded.

I have, however, been perusing “On Anatomical Procedures” recently. This is how I know that you have to drown your ape. Despatching it in any other way will damage it, thus ruining some of the structures Galen wants you to see as you dissect it.

(It occurs to me now, gentle reader, that you may like to use that scroll button after all. This will get a little gory in places. Crime writers, especially those who write about medics, tend to forget that not everyone is used to this stuff. Sorry.)

The unnecessary drowning of apes is not a cheery topic, and the dissection of living creatures – also recommended by Galen – is even worse. Let’s not even think about… no, let’s not. Yet there’s one practice we accept today that would have been deeply disturbing to the classical Romans. Despite their reputation for cruelty, they would have been shocked at the idea that doctors might routinely learn their trade by taking apart real human bodies. Goodness knows what they would make of CSI or Silent Witness. The medical men of ancient Alexandria had helpfully disposed of criminals this way in the past, but by the time the practice of medicine had spread through Greece and across to Rome, it was much frowned upon. So although Galen managed to examine human skeletons, much of his knowledge of anatomy came from animals.

At least Galen was eager to look, learn, and share his knowledge. Not everyone had such high standards. Rather like the title ‘therapist’ today, anyone in the ancient world could call themselves a ‘medicus’, so it was a case of buyer beware. Martial must have expected his audience to get the joke when he wrote,

Until recently, Diaulus was a doctor. Now he’s an undertaker. He’s still, as an undertaker, doing what he used to do as a doctor. (Epigrams, 1.47)

Just to make the point – Galen was obliged to prove to some of his colleagues that arteries are not empty channels. Neither, he pointed out, are they full of milk.

Photo of Roman re-enactor in bloodstained tunic explaining medical instruments
He looks friendly enough, but can you trust him?

The medic in the photo was travelling with the XIIII Legion, which was a good sign, since surgeons with the Army or – like Galen – the gladiator schools, at least had plenty of practice. And the best were very good indeed. Anything accessible and mechanical – breaks, sprains, dislocations, cuts, removal of arrowheads from places they shouldn’t be – all these they could cope with.  Some of their techniques were still in use in the First World War, and whilst they didn’t have modern anaesthetics, they were well aware of the effects of opium and mandrake.

I thought I should mention that comforting fact before going on to say that they also had a viable method of dealing with cataracts.

Ready? Peep out between your fingers at the sort of precision instrument they would have used –

Reproduction cataract needle
A modern reproduction of a cataract needle, based on one of a set found in the Saone River in France.

I’m told the less terrifying end could be dipped into a liquid medicine and used to deliver it to the patient, one drop at a time. (This one was made by Steve Wagstaff.)

And here are a couple of examples of real patients from the Roman world, the first one a Londoner:

A pair of collarbones, one broken and mended
According to the Museum of London, the broken half of this pair of collarbones only mended so successfully because someone had strapped it up properly.

The unlucky owner of this bone was buried in Arles –

Photo of badly mended broken bone
Should have gone to Galen?

Dealing with what a doctor could not see or feel was a trickier business. The reason for the spread of disease was much-debated and it’s not hard to conclude that epidemics were kept in check less by medics than by engineers, building aqueducts for fresh water, and sewers the like of which were not seen again in Britain until the great clean-up of Victorian times.

Still, despite everyone’s best efforts, recovery depended on the goodwill of the gods. There are testimonies to overnight cures at the shrine of Aesculapius, and Luke’s gospel tells the story of a woman who had spent all she had on doctors and was finally cured after twelve years of illness by touching Jesus’s cloak.

Photo of clay model of foot
A gift to the gods, in the hope of – or giving thanks for? – a cured foot.

In fact some people were firmly of the opinion that doctors were best left out of the equation altogether. Pliny the Elder, although he recommended plenty of remedies, was appalled by the notion that anyone should attempt to make money out of the sick. “Only a doctor can kill a man with impunity,” he observed, adding,  “there is no greater reason for the decay of morals than medicine.”

Not everyone was so cynical. Doctors were given tax concessions, although perhaps in an early example of cracking down on tax dodgers, Antoninus Pius later set a limit to how many doctors each town could have.

Of course in the absence of a doctor, the educated person could always consult a medical text. Modern readers eager to shun artificial chemicals in favour of natural ingredients might thrill to some of the remedies of Dioscorides of Anarzarbus:

  • Toothache? Use the sting of a stingray to shatter the tooth
  • Malaria? Place seven bedbugs inside beans and swallow before the onset of fever
  • Earache? Boil up the insides of a cockroach and drop them into the offending ear
  • Bald spots? Burn the hooves of she-goats and smear them on with vinegar (this is one of many remedies, none of them much more appealing)
  • Thinning hair? Stick on a little extra with a dollop of snail slime
  • Inflamed injury? Plaster on the fresh dung of grazing cattle.

To be fair, not all of Dioscorides’ suggestions are as alarming as those listed above. Most involve medicinal plants and in places he’s careful to point out that he’s only reporting what other people have told him. But should you consider trying any of them,  do remember – this was an era in which anyone could call themselves a doctor.

Blog Hop logo August 15 to 19 2013
Please explore more Wonders of Rome via the links below!

Thanks for stopping by on your way around the Hop. If you’d like to know more about Roman medicine, look out for Audrey Cruse’s “Roman Medicine” or Ralph Jackson’s “Doctors and Diseases in the Roman Empire”.

Meanwhile there’s much more Wonder of Rome to visit at the links below. All of them should go live sometime today (15 August) – and don’t forget to leave a comment here  by the 19th if you want to enter the free book draw!

David Pilling

Elisabeth Storrs

Gordon Doherty

Scott Hunter

Mark Patton

M C (Manda) Scott

Fred Nath

Brian Young

Helen Hollick

Heather Domin

David Blixt

Alison Morton

Petrea Burchard

Tim Hodkinson

S J A Turney

John Henry Clay

48 thoughts on “First, drown your ape.

  1. If I lived then I would seek out Ruso. He’s willing to question whether nor not a common practice actually makes sense . He’s a good bone setter as well.

  2. As I already have all of the Ruso books, I’m not commenting in the hope of a prize, but merely because medicine is an interesting subject.

    It’s worth remembering that 21st-century medicine will undoubtedly be regarded as primitive in the future, and it’s still rather hit-and-miss. I’ve had the experience of a minor medical problem that was made worse by successive prescriptions; my sister lived for years with a ‘benign’ brain tumour that eventually killed her; towards the end, the doctors simply gave up on her.

    I’ve recently been reading S.M. Stirling’s Nantucket trilogy (starting with “Island in the sea of time”), in which the island of Nantucket with all its inhabitants is mysteriously moved from 1998 AD to 1250 BC. The long trilogy involves many elements including technology, culture, warfare, etc., but there is fairly persistent emphasis also on medical matters, though perhaps somewhat less in the first volume than in the subsequent two; and several significant characters are doctors. May not be your kind of thing (I think there’s no detective work in it), but I mention it anyway because of the encounters between modern and ancient medical knowledge and techniques that it contains. I think Stirling is not a medical specialist, but he researches things rather thoroughly. Of course, 1250 BC is a long time before the period that you specialize in.

    1. That’s a good point, Jonathan – I recall (not fondly) the days when practically every child had their tonsils whipped out as a matter of course.

      The Stirling trilogy sounds interesting – I often wonder how we’d cope if we were transported back.

  3. i recall being amazed when Ruso performed cataract surgery, and i recall being quite moved when he was mending gladiators’ wounds, knowing what their fates might be. (and i am still hoping that Tilla gets to be a medicus)! i, too, have all the books, and do not need one, but how wonderful that you are offering this gift. and the blog hop itself is a wonderful gift!

    1. Yes, isn’t this ‘hop’ thing a great idea? (Not mine, I should add.) It’s been a real pleasure putting the article together and looking through all the old photos, and now I can sit back and enjoy everyone else’s work.

      The ‘how to’ of cataract surgery is in Celsus, although there’s some debate about whether he really was a doctor himself or was just describing the work of others (which seems a little unlikely to me – how obsessed would he have to be to write so much in such detail?)

    1. Thank you Helen! I’m not sure if this was your idea in the first place, or David’s, but I’m really enjoying this wander around everyone’s takes on Rome.

  4. Well, I was really excited when I first discovered Medicus–I am fond both of historical fiction, and of crime or mystery/detection works, this series is awesome.

  5. Have all the books,looking forward to another one. Soon? I will say that knowing that Romans could do cataract surgery made me rather more cheerful when the doctor told me that I would need it down the line.

    1. Glad to be of service, Lora. At least you know your surgeon will be building on a couple of thousand years of practice! Hopes it goes well when you finally get there.

  6. I love the series and always look forward to the next book. I don’t think Ruso would have used roach slime – I just don’t!

    1. Thank you Ceil! I have to admit roach slime might be a step too far – although there is the incident in the first book with the mouse droppings (but the victim deserved it, I think).

    1. Yes, poor things. And he used pigs, too. No doubt he felt it was all in a good cause, but it doesn’t make for easy reading.

  7. After reading about some of the Roman treatments, I don’t know if I would have welcomed the sight of a doctor back then, or run as fast as I could.But Galen’s methods must have been excellent if they were still in use up until WWI. Very interesting article and thank you for the giveaway.

    1. Hi Denise. I’m sure some of their patients felt the same way – and hoped the gods would heal before they had to resort to the doctor.

  8. I grew up in Dorchester, Dorset. Roman Britain still lived alongside us. I also have all your books. In fact a lot of my books are about the Romans (funny that). I have your audio books. Buy them through Amazon.Your Medicus and friends have helped me through many a tedious hour of housework.

    1. Not only the Romans but the relics of local resistance in the hill forts, I guess… What a great place to live.
      I have to say my housework rate has gone up considerably (from a very low base) since discovering audiobooks. I’m currently clearing out the garage with the help of Neil Gaiman.

  9. Thanks for the post Ruth! You reminded me of Sidonius Apollinaris, who once took his young daughter off to their country estate when she fell ill:

    “Therefore (under Christ’s guidance) we are taking ourselves and our whole household away from the heat and the oppressiveness of the city, and at the same time escaping from the counsels of the physicians, who attend and contend by the bedside; for with their scanty knowledge and immense zeal they most dutifully kill many sick folks.”

    It seems he didn’t think much of 4th-century doctors…

  10. Fantastic post. I really enjoyed reading about doctors and medicine during the Roman time period. Thank you for the chance to win your book.

  11. Great post for the Wonder of Rome blog hop, Ruth – amazing how medicine could be quite advanced back then despite their whackier ideas. Snail slime for baldness does raise a smile.

  12. Thank you for modern medicine!!!
    Two years ago, there was a special at the Museum of Natural History. They were displaying the corpses of the Jamestown pioneers, those who didn’t survive the first year. One lady had a leg so crooked I still have nightmares about it. The leg had healed but I guess no one there knew how to set a bone properly.

    1. Ah yes, I can thoroughly recommend Dioscorides for entertainment! There is doubtless sensible advice in there too (his work was used for hundreds of years) but I’m not sure how to tell the difference.

  13. Well, they (bedbugs) swallow us, in small particles, so why shouldn’t tit for tat be fair play? (Don’t throw that!) I too find great pleasure in the career of Ruso and have all the books on Kindle, but it would be nice to have one for my husband.

  14. Cheers, Ruth. Love your post. Started my fascination with Roman medicine when I read of the iron tooth found in a skull in Gaul that explained Roman false teeth in dentistry. And have since read The Healing Hand by Majno, which I loved. And of course, it’s hard not to love everyone’s fave Medicus! 🙂

    1. Thanks, Si! Iron? I haven’t read about that one. You’d think there would be a rust problem, wouldn’t you? I’ve just spotted a passage in the Ralph Jackson book that says, “There have been rare finds of skeletons with gold-capped teeth, a reminder of the ancient Roman law that forbade the burial of gold with a body except where it had been used to repair teeth.” There’s a plot there somewhere, don’t you think?

  15. Very excited to find a new author Ruth now I can join my husband in waxing lyrical about the Romans thank you

  16. It is only in the twentieth century that going to a doctor was more likely to improve your health than harm you (Russo being the exception!). Little of what medicine does today is scientifically proven, although medicine is working on “evidence based” treatments, and improvements are coming.

    1. Interesting! I guess the power of the placebo was as strong back then as it is now… if the medicine didn’t actually do you any harm, that is. Thanks for dropping by, Russ.

  17. I have read all of your Medicus series, and really enjoy them! Did the Roman Medicus use poultices, etc.? Recently I read that in Medieval Italy, some of the medical schools had gardens with healing plants, so the students would learn which ones were beneficial. I look forward to more of your posts and novels.

    1. Hi Lenny,
      Yes there are lots of recipes for poultices in the literature. The Romans didn’t have medical schools like those that developed later, but it’s suggested that the courtyards within military hospitals might have been used for growing medicinal plants. (Mind you, there’s some debate about whether those buildings really were hospitals, so it’s all a bit speculative.)

  18. A great blog, a great series. This period of history has always fascinated me and medicine was a field always intrigues me.

  19. Thanks, Ruth, this was fascinating! I’ve enjoyed your Ruso series since Day One. (Even gave Medicus one of its first Amazon reviews — and very happy to do it!) Just wish you could write faster. I can’t wait for the next one!

    1. Thank you Sherry, that’s very kind of you. I wish I could write faster, too! But the next one is making progress – I’m about to send the first round of tweaking back to the editor. (Hope Roma Amor does well for you, by the way – that’s a lovely website. Hope you don’t mind if I quote the link for anyone reading this –

  20. I had forgotten about the Ruso series – read the first two – until this blog post came along. I’ll have to go track down the next one(s) and read on! Nicely written, interesting books. I love history of medicine and it’s interesting to have a good story winding through the history.

    1. Welcome back, Chris. The third book takes Ruso and Tilla to the south of Gaul, where Tilla is introduced to Ruso’s family and we have the ‘barbarian’s’ view of ‘civilisation’.

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