Scalpel, Forceps, Bone Drill: Modern Medicine in Ancient Rome

Doctors are generally held in high regard today, but Romans of the first century were skeptical, even scornful, of medical practitioners, many of whom ministered to ailments they did not understand. Poets especially ridiculed surgeons for being greedy, for taking sexual advantage of patients and, above all, for incompetence.

In his “Natural History,” Pliny the Elder, the admiral and scholar who died in 79 A.D. while trying to rescue desperate villagers fleeing the debris of Mt. Vesuvius, endeavored to speak out against the medical profession “on behalf of the senate and Roman people and 600 years of Rome.” Their fees were excessive, their remedies dubious, their squabbling insufferable. “Physicians gain experience at our peril and conduct their experiments by means of our deaths,” he wrote. The epitaph on more than one Roman tombstone read: “A gang of doctors killed me.”

Medical remedies have improved since those times — no more smashed snails, salt-cured weasel flesh or ashes of cremated dogs’ heads — but surgical instruments have changed surprisingly little. Scalpels, needles, tweezers, probes, hooks, chisels and drills are as much part of today’s standard medical tool kit as they were during Rome’s imperial era.

Archaeologists in Hungary recently unearthed a rare and perplexing set of such appliances. The items were found in a necropolis near Jászberény, some 35 miles from Budapest, in two wooden chests and included a forceps, for pulling teeth; a curet, for mixing, measuring and applying medicaments, and three copper-alloy scalpels fitted with detachable steel blades and inlaid with silver in a Roman style. Alongside were the remains of a man presumed to have been a Roman citizen.

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