Medical services of the late Roman Republic and early Roman Empire were mainly imports from the civilization of Ancient Greece, and then through Greeks enslaved during the Roman conquest of Greece. Greek knowledge imparted to Roman citizens visiting or being educated in Greece. A perusal of the names of Roman physicians will show that the majority are wholly or partly Greek and that many of the physicians were of servile origin.
The servility stigma came from the accident of a more medically advanced society being conquered by a lesser. One of the cultural ironies of these circumstances is that free men sometimes found themselves in service to the enslaved professional or dignitary, or the power of the state was entrusted to foreigners who had been conquered in battle and were technically slaves. In Greek society, physicians tended to be regarded as noble.
The medical art in early Rome was the responsibility of the pater familias, or patriarch. The importation of the Aesculapium established medicine in the public domain. There is no record of fees being collected for a stay at one of them, at Rome or elsewhere. individuals vowed to perform certain actions or contribute a certain amount if certain events happened, some of which were healings. Such a system amounts to gradated contributions by income, as the contributor could only vow what he could provide. The building of a temple and its facilities on the other hand was the responsibility of the magistrates. The funds came from the state treasury or from taxes.
Private medicine A second signal act marked the start of sponsorship of private medicine by the state as well. In the year 219 BCE, a vulnerarius, or surgeon, Archagathus, visited Rome from the Peloponnesus and was asked to stay. The state conferred citizenship on him and purchased him a taberna, or shop, near the compitium Acilii (a crossroads), which became the first officina medica.
The doctor necessarily had many assistants. Some prepared and vended medicines and tended the herb garden. These numbers, of course, are at best proportional to the true populations, which were many times greater.
Roman doctors of any stature combed the population for persons in any social setting who had an interest in and ability for practicing medicine. On the one hand the doctor used their services unremittingly. On the other they were treated like members of the family; i.e., they came to stay with the doctor and when they left they were themselves doctors. The best doctors were the former apprentices of the Aesculapia, who, in effect, served residencies there.
The practice of medicine
The next step was to secure the cura of a medicus. If the patient was too sick to move one sent for a clinicus, who went to the clinum or couch of the patient.
That the poor paid a minimal fee for the visit of a medicus is indicated by a wisecrack in Plautus. It was less than a nummus. Many anecdotes exist of doctors negotiating fees with wealthy patients and refusing to prescribe a remedy if agreement was not reached. The fees charged were on a sliding scale according to assets. The physicians of the rich were themselves rich. For example, Antonius Musa treated Augustus’ nervous symptoms with cold baths and drugs. He was not only set free but he became Augustus’ physician. He received a salary of 300,000 sesterces. There is no evidence that he was other than a private physician; that is, he was not working for the Roman government.
Legal responsibility Doctors were generally exempt from prosecution for their mistakes. Some writers complain of legal murder. However, holding the powerful up to exorbitant fees ran the risk of retaliation. Pliny reports that the emperor Claudius fined a physician, Alcon, 180 million sesterces and exiled him to Gaul. By chance a law existed at Rome, the Lex Aquilia passed about 286 BCE, which allowed the owners of slaves and animals to seek remedies for damage to their property, either malicious or negligent. Litigants used this law to proceed against the negligence of medici, such as the performance of an operation on a slave by an untrained surgeon resulting in death or other damage.
Social position While encouraging and supporting the public and private practice of medicine, the Roman government tended to suppress organizations of medici in society. The constitution provided for the formation of occupational collegia, or guilds. The consuls and the emperors treated these ambivalently. Sometimes they were permitted; more often they were made illegal and were suppressed. The medici formed collegia, which had their own centers, the Scholae Medicorum, but they never amounted to a significant social force. They were regarded as subversive along with all the other collegia.Doctors were nevertheless influential. They liked to write. Compared to the number of books written, not many have survived; for example, Tiberius Claudius Menecrates composed 150 medical works, of which only a few fragments remain. Some that did remain almost in entirety are the works of Galen, Celsus, Hippocrates and the herbal expert, Pedanius Dioscorides who wrote the 5-volume De Materia Medica.
Military medical corps
The state of the military medical corps before Augustus is unclear. Corpsmen certainly existed at least for the administration of first aid and were enlisted soldiers rather than civilians. The commander of the legion was held responsible for removing the wounded from the field and insuring that they got sufficient care and time to recover. He could quarter troops in private domiciles if he thought necessary.
The army of the early empire was sharply and qualitatively different. If military careers were now possible, so were careers for military specialists, such as medici. Under Augustus for the first time occupational names of officers and functions began to appear in inscriptions. The term medici ordinarii in the inscriptions must refer to the lowest ranking military physicians. No doctor was in any sense “ordinary”. They were to be feared and respected. During his reign, Augustus finally conferred the dignitas equestris, or social rank of knight, on all physicians, public or private. They were then full citizens and could wear the rings of knights. In the army there was at least one other rank of physician, the medicus duplicarius, “medic at double pay”, and, as the legion had milites sesquiplicarii, “soldiers at 1.5 pay”, perhaps the medics had that pay grade as well.
Medical corps in battle worked on the battlefield bandaging soldiers. From the aid station the wounded went by horse-drawn ambulance to other locations, ultimately to the camp hospitals in the area. There they were seen by the medici vulnerarii, or surgeons, the main type of military doctor. They were given a bed in the hospital if they needed it and one was available. The larger hospitals could administer 400-500 beds.A base hospital was quadrangular with barracks-like wards surrounding a central courtyard. On the outside of the quadrangle were private rooms for the patients. Although unacquainted with bacteria, Roman medical doctors knew about contagion and did their best to prevent it. Rooms were isolated, running water carried the waste away, and the drinking and washing water was tapped up the slope from the latrines.Within the hospital were operating rooms, kitchens, baths, a dispensary, latrines, a mortuary and herb gardens, as doctors relied heavily on herbs for drugs.. They operated or otherwise treated with scalpels, hooks, levers, drills, probes, forceps, catheters and arrow-extractors on patients anesthetized with morphine. Instruments were boiled before use. Wounds were washed in vinegar and stitched. Broken bones were placed in traction. There is, however, evidence of wider concerns. A vaginal speculum suggests gynecology was practiced, and an anal speculum implies knowledge that the size and condition of internal organs accessible through the orifices was an indication of health. They could extract eye cataracts with a special needle. Operating room amphitheaters indicate that medical education was ongoing. Many have proposed that the knowledge and practices of the medici were not exceeded until the 20th century CE.
Regulation of medicine
By the late empire the state had taken more of a hand in regulating medicine. The law codes of the 4th century CE, such as the Codex Theodosianus, paint a picture of a medical system enforced by the laws and the state apparatus. At the top was the equivalent of a surgeon general of the empire. He was by law a noble, a dux (duke) or a vicarius (vicar) of the emperor. He held the title of comes archiatorum, “count of the chief healers.” The Greek word iatros, “healer”, was higher-status than the Latin medicus.Under the comes were a number of officials called the archiatri, or more popularly the protomedici, supra medicos, domini medicorum or superpositi medicorum. They were paid by the state. It was their function to supervise all the medici in their districts; i.e., they were the chief medical examiners. Their families were exempt from taxes. They could not be prosecuted nor could troops be quartered in their homes.The archiatri were divided into two groups:
Archiatri sancti palatii, who were palace physicians
Archiatri populares. They were required to provide for the poor; presumably, the more prosperous still provided for themselves.
The archiatri settled all medical disputes. Rome had 14 of them; the number in other communities varied from 5 to 10 depending on the population.