Nuper erat medicus, nunc est vsipillo Diaulus:
Quod vispillo facit, fecerat et medicus
Recently, Diaulus was a doctor. Now he is an undertaker.
What he does as an undertaker, he used to do as a doctor.
Medicine was not a high status profession in ancient Rome. Many of the practitioners were former Greek slaves, trading on a reputation for Greek skill that they unfortunately did not possess.
As Martial points out, they didn’t last too long in the profession.
Roman medicine had the good sense to rely on the Greek medicine before it. Unfortunately, though, anyone could call himself a doctor, and did.
Quacks and cure-alls abounded. A double-talker with a smooth bedside manner and a fast horse to get out of town could set himself up—at least until the survivors of the deceased caught up with him.
Army doctors, on the other hand, were generally respected. They were the real innovators and true experts in wounds and disease, and for good reason. Constantly confronted with penetrating and stab wounds, on the move with the Legions, they were exposed to a huge variety of medical situations, and their positions depended on their success rate.
There were specialists, too, from dentists (the Etruscans were outstanding here) to eye doctors and surgeons. Surgical tools were sophisticated, and included forceps, specula, and cauteries.
The extent literature provides both theories and folklore about medicine. The Hippocratic humors theory was one such, but not necessarily adopted or accepted by every medicus. Most of the good ones were too busy saving soldiers’ lives to develop theories.
An army doctor, Iapyx, even appears in the Aeneid, albeit anachronistically. He tries to remove the arrow from Aeneas’ thigh, but—though clearly skilled—can’t pluck it out. This leads Venus, Aeneas’ mother, to bring back an herb called dittany from the Trojan homeland, which saves her son.
This epic combination of skillful dexterity, herbal knowledge and divine intervention (bona fortuna) is successful medicine.
Arcturus never underestimates the power of Fortuna.
Before there was a medicus there was a iatros. That’s Greek for doctor.
The Hippocratic Oath may be more Pythagorean than Hippocratic, but it’s still the best known medical remnant from antiquity—though exactly what era is also unclear.
The Greeks were the first philosophers, the first scientists. Hippocrates (late fifth-early fourth centuries BC), legend tells us, was the ideal physician, and the first person to really establish medicine as its own entity, separating it from philosophical and other scientific inquiry. He also discredited the notion of “divine wrath” as a cause of disease, thus dividing science from religion.
The writings of the Hippocratic corpus stretch over a wide period and were authored by various people, none of them known. The dominant theory behind the texts is that of the four humors—it was apparently believed that an imbalance of the four fluids of the body—yellow bile, black bile, phlegm and blood—led to disease and sickness.
Aristotle, who was interested in everything, was interested in medicine, too, and established the science of categorization, among other things. His successor at the school he created was Theophrastus (late fourth-early third century BCE), who was not only interested in medicine, but was the foremost botanist of antiquity.
The man who combined plants with medicine most effectively was Dioscorides. He compiled the first pharmacopeia, called De Materia Medica in Latin, and established the science of herbalism. This was the man Arcturus was lucky enough to study with.
Traditional or folk medicine is embedded in the Greek and Roman texts. Sometimes it’s linked with magic ritual, sometimes not, but it coexists alongside more supposedly rational approahes.
It persists even now, in places like Sicily and Greece and rural America, and if anyone ever told you to put butter on a burn, you’ve known what it is.
Some of it is effective: a good deal of plant use is very traditional, handed down orally to succeeding generations.
In Rome, much lore surrounded the use of wool and cabbage. Cato the Elder waxes ecstatic about the health benefits (not to mention the monetary savings) of eating cabbage. What his family thought is left unrecorded.
Some of the herbal medicine in the Roman noir series is based on folk traditions in Britain and the Mediterranean, as well as encyclopedic texts like that of Pliny the Elder and Celsus.
Arcturus’ mother, Cairenn, was a healer. She recognized the gift in her son. Much of his talent, particularly with herbs and other plants, is directly attributable to her, not to any formal training.
Arcturus is a highly unusual medicus, and not just for his patients’ survival rate. Though urged to go into the gentleman’s profession of politics by his adopted father—and educated for it—he chose, instead, his native mother’s gift.
It was a disreputable career; one associated with charlatans and slaves, not the adopted son of a provincial procurator.
Trained by Dioscorides, the famous Greek herbalist and doctor, influenced by Celsus, another Greek, and blessed by nature with a gift, Arcturus became a legion medicus, and eventually the private physician to Agricola, governor of the province. Like any good doctor, he uses a combination of experience, intuition, and formal training.
He takes his talent—his responsibility—seriously. He’s a doctor because that’s who he is—not just what he does.
Along the way, he discovered he had other talents, too. Medicine may not resurrect the dead, but it can help stem the deadly disease of murder.