Medicine In Roman Britain


The theory of the four humours

In Ancient Greece, a doctor and great thinker called Hippocrates developed his theory of the four humours.

  • According to the theory of the four humours the body was made up of four humours: blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile. Too much or little of any of these humours (an imbalance) would cause an illness.
  • The most common treatment for illness therefore was to purge whichever humour was in excess. This might takethe form of bleeding, or causing a patient to vomit or clear their bowels.
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Roman ideas about medicine

  • The Romans took their ideas about medicine from the Greeks, for example the work of Hippocrates and the theory of the four humours.
  • The Romans believed in Gods and viewed diseases as punishments from the Gods. They built temples to ask they Gods to cure them.
  • They also believed bad air and smells could cause sickness, so built their settlements away from swamps. People believed in this theory until the time of the Renaisance.
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The work of Galen

  • Galen, a doctor to the Roman emperor, studied the work of Hippocrates.
  • He followed Hippocrates' methods of clinical observation by closely observing his patients and recording their symtoms.
  • He believed in Hippocrates, theory of the four humours. However, Galen adapted it by suggesting new ways of balancing the humours, using opposites. For example, he prescribed hot chilli for an imbalance of phlegm.
  • He also carried out dissections on animals and wrote about them in his books, which were studied right up until the times of the Renaissance.

Role of Individuals:

Galen's work influenced medicine for more than 1500 years. This was both a help and a hinderance. Some of the treatments worked, but following Galen also prevented further experiments.

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The Romans and public health

The Romans saw a link between dirt and the spread of sickness. To prevent epidemics in their overcrowded towns and cities they developed public health schemes.

  • Public toilets were provided, and sewers washed the waste away from the cities to nearby rivers.
  • Water pipes were built from lead to carry clean water into towns for everyone to use. The towns had public fountains for drinking and public baths for washing.
  • Aqueducts were built to transport water from rivers and lakes into towns and cities.
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The collapse of the Roman Empire

When the Romans left Britain, war broke out between the countries that had been part of the Roman Empire. Things that the Romans had built were destroyed. This had an impact of medicine:

  • Public health systems that the Romans had built were destroyed.
  • Libraries full of medical books were dismantled.
  • The invading tribes did not know how to read so they were not interested in education or the works of Galen.
  • War was now the most important priority, and money was spent on armies rather than education and medicine.
  • The only powerful thing that survived the collapse of the Roman Empire was its religion - the Christian Church.
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