Legionary Life : Medicine

My induction into the role of medicus for cohort VII Scutum Decoris seemed to me to be a bit slapdash. After all, before joining the Legion I had no formal medical training. However, it was possible for a recruit  “who had demonstrated their capabilities for wound dressing and a primitive surgery, but who were not trained physicians” to fill the role of medicus. These green recruits “Probably…learned their medicine from the ‘senior’ medici present in the legion.” (Scarborough) As “Trained physicians were rare,” lack of formal instruction was hardly a deal-breaker. “Success and experience were the main, and in most cases the only, qualifications” for a legionary medicus. (Nutton)

A trained doctor coming into the legions could expect a few perks, but he was still under the rule of his commanders. “By taking the military oath he became a soldier, a miles-and until he reached the rank of centurion he was still technically a miles -his service was counted in stipendia, and he was bound by military law.” However, since he was certainly more useful alive than dead, “his duties [didn’t] necessarily include fighting.” He’d be counted as a ‘non-combattant’ in the legion and after his service could retire “into the select group of civilian doctors who possess immunity from certain taxes and civic duties” (Nutton)

Medici used tools like these to perform surgery on wounded soldiers

Many think of ancient Roman medicine as the kind of clueless bumbling used in the Dark Ages in Europe, when really they were leaps and bounds ahead of the haphazard theories of the four humors and the use of leeches and bloodletting.

Varro’s warning against building homes near swamps, which he stated bred “minute creatures which cannot be seen by the eyes, which float in the air and enter the body through the mouth and nose and there cause serious diseases” demonstrates that Romans had an understanding of germs centuries before blundering medieval doctors attempted to cure the Black Death by “applying a warm poultice of butter, onion and garlic.” (Alchin) Long before the doctors of the middle ages were making Plague Victim Scampi, Roman medici had a working knowledge of “painkillers such as opium and scopolamine,” and knew how to disinfect wounds with “acetum – the acid in vinegar.” (Wikipedia contributors)

Their methods may seem antiquated and a bit superstitious, but Roman medici knew more than we give them credit for. Herbal medicine can sound like hokum, but right alongside the religious plant sage, Romans used fennel for its calming properties. Modern doctors are now exploring the use of fennel as a potential treatment for hypertension. And that new fad of taking garlic supplements for heart health? Not so new; Romans used it for the exact same thing. (Wikipedia contributors)

No one can say how much a good Roman medicus could have done during outbreaks of the Black Death, or the Spanish Flu epidemic, or even against the common cold. We will never be able to measure exactly how, but the loss of Roman medical knowledge irrevocably changed the shape of our history far beyond the field of medicine.



Alchin, L.K.. “Medicine in the Middle Ages.” Middle-Ages.org.uk. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Feb 2012. http://www.middle-ages.org.uk/medicine-in-the-middle-ages.htm.


Nutton, Vivian. “Medicine and the Roman army: a further reconsideration.” Medical History. 13.3 (1969): 260-270. Web. 29 Feb. 2012. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1033953/.


Scarborough, John. “Roman medicine and the legions: a reconsideration.” Medical History. 12.3 (1968): 254–261. Web. 29 Feb. 2012. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1033827/.


Varro, Marcus Terentius. De Re Rustica. 1. Loeb Classical Library, 1934. 211. Web. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Varro/de_Re_Rustica/1*.html


Wikipedia contributors. “Medicine in ancient Rome.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 25 feb 2012. Web. 26 Feb 2012. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Medicine_in_ancient_Rome.

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