Medical Services

As far back as the fifth century BC effective medical techniques had been developed in Greece by practitioners like Hippocrates, and in due course their ideas were transmitted to Rome. In about 293 BC a temple was built on an island in the Tiber to Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine, who probably originated as a real-life doctor. Ascelpian medical practices embraced diagnosis, drugs, and surgery, and many have a remarkably modern ring. Preventative medicine was especially encouraged, with emphasis on diet, hygiene, exercise, and well-regulated lifestyles.

B/w photograph of first-aid, from Trajan's Column.

Detail from Trajan's Column, showing first aid being given to a wounded auxiliary soldier.
© Author's collection

By the time the Romans invaded Scotland the medical service was an important and well-organised part of the army. To ensure good hygiene forts were supplied with fresh water, drainage, and sewers. Bath-houses and flushing latrines were provided.

Photograph of bath-house at Roman fort, Bearsden.

The bath-house of the Antonine Wall fort at Bearsden
© SCRAN/Historic Scotland

Water was obtained from wells or springs, brought to the fort if necessary by aqueducts and pipes. Clay water-pipes have been found at Newstead, while traces of aqueducts have been discovered at Fendoch and Carpow. The legionary fortress at Inchtuthil would have had to divert water from the Tay several miles upstream to ensure an adequate flow of water to the top of the plateau. This would have involved a major hydraulic engineering project which had not yet begun when the fortress was abandoned.

Aerial photograph of the hospital at Inchtuthil.
A plan of the hospital building at Inchtuthil.
The hospital showing as green foundation-slots in the parched meadow.
© Colin Martin

Among the timber buildings at Inchthuthil is a vast structure measuring 300 x 192 feet (91 x 59 m). Its central open courtyard is surrounded by double ranges of small rooms set on either side of a corridor. This building has been identified as the legion’s hospital, or valetudinarium. The rooms off the corridor have been identified as wards, each large enough to have accommodated four beds (or eight double bunks). There appear to be about sixty of them, which suggests that one had been allocated to each of the legion’s centuries.
A long building in the central range of the auxiliary fort at Fendoch has also been identified as a hospital. As at Inchtuthil, its central corridor is flanked by wards.

Photograph of occulist's stamp, found at Tranent.

Above: occulist's stamp, found at Tranent.

Right: fragment of amphora indicating cough mixture.
Both © SCRAN/National Museums of Scotland

Photograph of piece of amphora labelled cough mixture.

Recipies for herbal remedies and other medications can be found in Classical literature, as well as in the archaeological record. A lead stopper from Haltern in Germany carries the words Ex Radice Britanica (‘derived from a type of British root’), a medicine used to cure scurvy. From Carpow comes an amphora fragment incised with a Greek inscription indicating that it once contained wine fortified with horehound, an aromatic herb used in cough mixtures. A Roman occulist’s stamp has been found at Tranent. It would have been used to seal containers of eye ointment, and reads (reversed) L VALLATINI APALOCROCODES AD DIATHESIS - ‘Lucius Vallatinus’ mild eye-salve.’

Archaeologists have found numerous surgical instruments in Roman military hospitals. Many are remarkably similar to their modern counterparts, indicating that complex operations were routinely carried out. Service on Rome’s frontiers may have been tough and sometimes hazardous, but the troops could evidently count on a first-rate health service.

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