The Basis for Military Medicine

The Greek tradition of medicine heavily influenced Roman medicine.  Members of the upper classes employed Greek or Hellenistic trained physicians to provide their households with care as needed.  Lower classes clung to the Roman traditions of paterfamilias or allowing the head of the household control over medical diagnoses and curatives.  Although they employed Greek physicians, it seems that overall, Romans preferred to appeal to the Gods first before seeking their care and treatment.  There was a healthy distrust of physicians, in general, especially among the lower classes.  (Scarborough, 297)

In order to appreciate the military’s medical organization, it is important to understand the regular Roman citizen would be treated by either the paterfamilias or sometimes a slave-physician.  Only the upper classes would have had access to a proper Greek physician. (Scarborough, 298) The types of treatments prescribed in a farming family would include cabbage in some form or other.  Cato the Elder, a staunch opponent of physicians, was the most well known promoter of the cabbage cure, which in his estimation could cure just about any ailment from constipation to deafness by preparing the cabbage in a specific way.  (Household Medicine)

The wealthier class would have had access to drugs sold by local chemists (pharmacists), such as opium, and a variety of herbs grown locally or imported from nearby regions.  Dioscorides’ work De Materia Medica was the most referred to volume on the subject of herbs and their medical uses.  No chemist would have been without that reference book. (Dioscorides, wiki)


Dioscorides, by Cami Isle

L0051528 Titlepage to 'Materia Medica'

L0051528 Titlepage to ‘Materia Medica’

Galen was the premier authority on anatomy and physiology up until the mid-1500’s.  Because Greek law outlawed the dissecting of human bodies, Galen used animals such as pigs and primates to understand the basics of anatomy.  Some of his theories were disproved later, but for the Romans, it was considered accurate enough.  Galen, himself, was the personal physician to Marcus Aurelius. (Galen, wiki)


Galen, by Cami Isle

Galen borrowed many ideas from Hippocrates, chiefly the theory of the four humors in the body – blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm.  Hippocrates posited that illness occurred when these humors were out of balance.  Galen furthered the humors theory by adding personality types to the dominant humors – sanguine, choleric, melancholic, and phlegmatic.  Treatments for unbalanced humors included purging, sweating, and bloodletting.  (Galen, wiki)


Romans were well known for their public works projects.  Sanitation and clean water were the most prevalent features of most Roman cities.  The bath houses were well used by citizens, and facilitated the overall cleanliness of the people.  Fleas and lice were likely not as prevalent because of the bath houses, however depending on how often the bath house was cleaned, it may have contributed to the spreading of some viral and bacterial infections.

In summary, Romans were quite advanced in their society when it comes to health promoting practices.  They had access to clean water, had adequate sanitation overall, and medicine was available in the case of illness.  These general factors led to the promotion of a military medical apparatus that was superior to most others of the time.  The next blog will examine the specific medical organization within the military and how it changed over time.


“Pedanius Dioscorides.” Wikipedia. Accessed December 15, 2018.

“Galen.” Wikipedia. Accessed December 15, 2018.

“Household Medicine In Ancient Rome.” The British Medical Journal 1, no. 2140 (1902): 39-40.

Scarborough, John. “Romans and Physicians.” The Classical Journal 65, no. 7 (1970): 296-306.

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