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Pliny, in his Natural History, says that the first doctor (medicus) to come
to Rome was Arcagathus, who arrived from the Greek Peloponnese in 219 BCE
and was well received. Arcagathus was accorded the rights of citizenship and
a medical shop was set up at state expense for his use. Prior to this time,
Rome had no physicians and only home remedies were used. Because Arcagathus
was an expert wound surgeon (uulnerarius), he immediately became popular;
however his popularity did not last. His vigorous use of the knife and
cautery soon earned him the title ?Executioner? (Carnifex). From there it
was downhill for the medical cause in Rome. Over 100 years lapsed before we
hear that another Greek physician (Asclepiades of Bithynia, ca. 100 BCE) had
taken up residence in Rome.

                                  Before the arrival of Arcagathus, early
                                  Roman medicine was agriculturally
   Reverse of a bronze            based, having its spirit derived from
   medallion of Antoninus Pius    the farm. Early authors of agricultural
   (138-161 CE), Rome             treatises, such as Cato the Elder and
                                  Columella, both from the early second
                                  century BCE, had as much to say about
                                  medicine, or home remedies, as they had
   Tiber welcomes Asclepius in    to say about growing seasons, animal
   the form of a snake. In 295    husbandry and slave discipline. In
   BCE a plague ravaged Rome      Cato?s time, the pater familias, or
   and the Romans decided to      head of the family, was the dispenser
   recruit the services of the    of remedies to his household because
   Greek god of medicine. No      his knowledge of the farm and its needs
   doubt the Romans had heard     qualified him to deal with matters of
   of the success of the          health. Characteristic of early Roman
   medical shrines in the         medicine was a reliance upon one or two
   Hellenistic world and hoped    remedies. According to Pliny, the
   some of this power might be    ?early Romans gave wool awesome
   transferred to Rome. A         powers?, confirming the
   temple to Ascelpius was        religious-agricultural context of early
   built on the island in the     remedies. Unwashed wool, according to
   Tiber, not inside Rome, and    the early traditions, dipped into a
   this was a reflection of       mixture of pounded rue and fat, was
   the Roman official             good for bruises and swellings. Rams?
   suspicion of foreign gods.     wool, washed in cold water and soaked
   The pestilence soon went       in oil, was used to soothe uterine
   away and the popularity of     inflammations. Wool dipped into a
   the new cult was assured.      mixture of oil, sulphur, vinegar, pitch
   The introduction of            and soda cured lumbago. Yet for all its
   Asclepius is the first         uses, for Cato at least, wool was not
   event of ?medical history?     the cure-all that cabbage was. Cato
   in Rome.                       advocated not only the consumption of
                                  cabbage itself to fend off illness, but
                                  the consumption of the urine of a
                                  person who has eaten cabbage.

Some of Cato?s cures were applicable to humans as well as to the livestock
on the farm:

?If you have reason to fear sickness, give the patient/oxen before they get
sick the following remedy: 3 grains of salt, 3 laurel leaves, 3 leek leaves,
3 spikes of leek, 3 of garlic, 3 grains of incense, 3 plants of Sabine herb,
3 leaves of rue, 3 stalks of bryony, 3 white beans, 3 live coals, and 3
pints of wine. You must gather, macerate, and administer all these things
while standing, and he who administers the remedy must be fasting.
Administer to each ox or to the patient for three days, and divide it in
such a way that when you have administered three doses to each, you have
used it all. See to it that the patient and the one who administers are both
standing, and use a wooden vessel.?

Magical connotation is clear from the continual use of three of each
ingredient. The greater part of this remedy consists of foodstuffs from the
pantry. Possibly the standing position is a remnant of psychological factors
pointing to an earlier time of medicine man or shaman. The insistence upon a
wooden bowl shows this recipe to be an ancient one.

The Romans inherited some of their ideas of anatomy and medicine from their
Etruscan ancestors and adapted them to the practice of the official state
religion, specifically in the practice of hepatoscopy, or reading the divine
signals in animal livers. Models of bronze livers which were used by priests
to interpret omens within the liver have been unearthed in Etruria.
Hepatoscopy had its origins in Near Eastern practice and was not performed
by anyone except state-appointed priests.

Thus Roman medicine can be divided into three distinct areas: (1) the
?practical? medicine of the pater familias, that is, home remedies based
upon an agricultural context; (2) the state religion as handed down from the
Etruscans; and (3) the private practitioner using Greek medical principles.

The opposition of Cato the Elder and other traditionalists to the
introduction of Greek medicine in Rome by Arcagathus was the result of
several factors: political strife in the Roman nobility, hostility against
Greek culture, fear of Arcagathus? surgical and pharmaceutical treatments
and loathing for the mercenary character of the medical profession, which
was regarded as a sign of luxury. In Cato?s day, that is the period
following the Second Punic War in the early second century BCE, sumptuary
laws were passed to combat conspicuous consumption. The introduction of
Greek doctors into the households of the Roman nobility was seen as a
degenerative sign of the Romans succumbing to Greek culture and practices.

Horace said ?Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit?. He understood that
political domination, the occupation of territory by armies, does not
necessarily mean real conquest. Horace?s statement applied to medicine as to
other branches of culture.

The Doctor in Roman Society