Roman Medical and Cosmetic Tools

Ancient Roman Medicine Practice

Though they may not have always got it exactly right, we owe a great deal of the medical knowledge we have today to the discoveries and inventions of the Ancient Romans. Many of the items used today in surgeries and other medical procedures remain almost exactly the same as tools used in Ancient Rome. As is so often the case with Roman culture, many of the medical practices and tools used in Ancient Rome were heavily influenced by the Greeks. Medicine played an important role in classical antiquity as attested by ancient physicians, such as Hippocrates, Galen and Celsus.

roman bronze spatula
roman bronze spatula

Greek Medicine

Perhaps the most famous medical practitioner from the Ancient World, Hippocrates, was a key influence upon Roman understandings of medicine and the tools needed to treat patients. Under the Roman Empire itself, though again a Greek, Galen of Pergamon, built upon the ideas of Hippocrates, developing theories, such as that of the four humours thought to determine human health, which would shape understandings of medicine for more than a century after his own time.

Ancient Roman Medical Tools

The tools used today for many major surgeries also have roots in Ancient Rome. Objects such as forceps – for removing fragments of bone during an operation – small probes, and scalpels, have been discovered across the Roman world, including at Pompeii, where one of the oldest houses unearthed at the site has been named the ‘House of the Surgeon’, as a result of the extensive array of surgical implements found there. Medical tools have also been discovered during the excavations of tombs, houses, public buildings, and military hospitals. Roman physicians kept their medical tools and medicine in specific boxes, known as loculi.

Roman Finely Decorated Pair of Tweezers

Spatula and Spoon Probes

Probes, or specillum, are the most common type of medical tool recovered from Roman times. Probes are usually differentiated between spoon probes, known in ancient Greek as cyathiscomele, and spatula probes, also called spathomele. Spoon probes feature an olivary enlargement at one end which was used as a sound to explore a wound or fistula. While the second end was angled longitudinally to form a spoon, ideal for mixing, measuring and applying liquid medications. Spatula probes, as the name suggests, feature a spatula-shaped end which was used for mixing and spreading medications. Both probes were used not only as medical and surgical tools, but also for the preparation of cosmetics.

Tweezers and Ear Probes

Serving as household, cosmetic and surgical implements, tweezers, or vulsella, are some of the most frequently encountered utensils among ancient instruments. Cosmetic tweezers were mainly used for depilation, which was fashionable amongst women throughout the Empire. Ear probes, also known as auriscalpium or oricularium specillum, were composed of a small, flattened, circular end, used for aural work, in removing objects from the ear and installing liquid into it. Ear probes and tweezers are sometimes found attached to a metal ring and chain, suggesting that such tools were property of a private individual, rather than part of a medical kit.

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