Roman civilisation

A knowledge of Roman civilisation will help you to understand Roman medicine.

Roman civilisation developed in a different way from that of Greece. Instead of a large number of small city-states, the Romans developed a huge monolithic empire. This was ruled from Rome by an all-powerful emperor, who imposed his will through a single system of laws.

Rome became immensely wealthy, but the Romans were down-to-earth people, and their wealth flowed into practical projects, rather than into philosophy and culture.

Thus the centralised state directed its efforts into impressive engineering schemes such as those of the baths, aqueducts and sewers of Rome. The Roman writer Frontinus compared these favourably to the idle pyramids [of Egypt] and the useless buildings of the Greeks.

Arial view of the ruins of the baths of Caracalla, in Rome.
Arial view of the ruins of the baths of Caracalla, in Rome.

The Romans were also a warrior race, and they made an immense investment in their armies - the basis of their power. It was their observation of the health of their soldiers that led the Romans to realise the importance of public health. Previously, there was a feeling that medicine was for weaklings, and the Romans did not put great effort into developing it. Instead, they brought over doctors from conquered Greece. Although officially medicine might have been considered unnecessary, these doctors became very popular.

The Romans believed in their gods, and in ancient times the influence they ascribed to these gods was very great.

The importance of war for Roman medicine

  1. The need for a healthy army led Romans to think about public health.
  2. The capture of slaves brought Greek doctors to Rome.
  3. The Roman army developed some of the earliest hospitals.
  4. Anatomical and surgical skill developed as army doctors treated war wounds.