Lecture 11

Science, technology and medicine in the Roman Empire.


Around 1000 BC, when the Dorian nomads introduced the Greeks to the Iron Age, the Etruscans brought the Iron Age to Italy. The Italian peninsula is much better suited to agriculture than Greece, and while Greek and Phoenician ships sailed the Mediterranean to establish trading colonies along its coast, the Etruscans concentrated on developing an intensive agriculture in large landholdings. Etruscan activities at sea were restricted to occasional acts of piracy (the rich Greek and Phoenician trading vessels were to much of a temptation), but no Etruscan colonial settlements are known.

Between around 1000 BC and 500 BC the Etruscans gained control over most of Italy and developed a classical civilization based on agriculture, with more and more use of slave labour as the state developed. Political power was controlled by the slave-owner aristocracy, which also served in the cavalry. The ordinary people, who served in the infantry, were represented in the people's assembly, and some positions were filled by vote.

Despite its relatively advanced form of government the Etruscan society did not offer favourable conditions for scientific endeavour. On the contrary, the Etruscan society was governed by religion. It was in this respect very much a successor to the ancient civilizations, for which science and religion were inseparable. Etruscan life was governed by daily divinations, rites and rituals, and nothing was done without consultation of the gods.

The Etruscans society is also an example of early civilization development in another respect. It advanced technology through mere experimentation. Scientifically uneducated, the Etruscans managed to build impressive city infrastructure. Their irrigation system was on par with the achievements of Mesopotamia and Egypt, and their urban water supply and sewerage disposal system was ahead of anything in Europe.

Rome was one of the Etruscan cities in the region of Latium - established according to Roman tradition in 753 BC - but its inhabitants were from various tribes who had lived there since the second millennium BC. One of these tribes, the Latins, sought the assistance of the Greek cities to drive the Etruscans out of the region. The last Etruscan king, Tarquinius Superbus, was expelled from Latium in 510 or 509 BC.

Roman state and society

The uprising against Etruscan rule could not be done by a few individuals; it required the involvement of the people. The political system of early Rome was therefore a compromise between the aristocratic slave owners and the "plebeians" (Latin plebs), the free but poor people.

Early Rome was a republic, ruled by magistrates and two consuls. All positions were occupied for one year only and were not endowed with any remuneration, so only rich aristocrats could afford to hold them. In 494 - 493 BC the plebeians, who were dissatisfied with their limited politic rights, left the city and camped outside the city area; as a result they were given the right of assembly and the positions of two tribunes (tribuni plebis), who had the right of veto over decisions of the magistrate. While this did not eliminate conflict between the classes it established a system under which Rome could continue to develop as a republic for over 400 years.

The vast landholdings of the aristocracy required large numbers of slaves. Initially they were recruited locally; overwhelming debt forced many plebeians into selling themselves as slaves. This fostered intense class struggle, and in 326 BC the lex Poetilia Papiria ("Law of Poetilius") freed all enslaved debtors and outlawed the sale or killing of debtors who were unable to repay their debt.

The lex Poetilia Papiria was the Roman equivalent of Solon's constitution of 594 BC for Athens, which started Greek democracy and with it the "golden age of science" (see Lecture 8). But Rome's economy was based on large scale agriculture, not on sea trade, and there was no merchant class to challenge the aristocracy. To satisfy its need for slave labour Rome now had to subjugate and enslave other people. The next hundred years saw the expansion of Rome's power throughout Italy and the formation of a federation of subjugated Italian regions.

When all of Italy was under Roman control Rome developed into a colonial expansionist power for the sake of obtaining more slaves. Carthage, a Phoenician settlement in North Africa that had developed into an expansionist power in its own right, was defeated in three wars between 264 and 146 BC, plundered and burnt down. Syria was occupied in 192 - 188 BC, war against Macedonia in 171 - 168 led to its final occupation in 148 BC, Greece was defeated in 146 BC; Corinth, the major Greek trade centre of the time, was raised to the ground. The occupation of southern France followed in 121 BC.

Throughout the period of expansion Rome and its colonies were constantly struggling with uprising and revolts. Some of these movements could establish themselves as independent republics for a few years, before Rome's military machine would overcome their resistance. The most heroic of these efforts was the revolt of the slave Spartacus, who with an army of some 60,000 - 120,000 slaves and rural poor defeated the Roman armies for three successive years in 74 - 71 BC, spreading panic amongst the Roman aristocracy.

The permanent conflicts made further expansion of the empire difficult. Rome had to use more and more foreign troops to suppress revolts in the colonies. In 49 BC open civil war erupted. It was won by Julius Caesar, who got himself elected dictator for life, thus bringing the republic to an end.

The reign of Rome's absolute monarchs brought more conquests. Egypt became a Roman province in 30 BC. Rome's population grew rapidly, to an extent that to avoid permanent traffic jams Julius Caesar had to ban carriage traffic from the city during daylight hours. As in other colonial empires the exploitation of the colonies provided the basis for "bread and games" at home to avoid social unrest. The occupation of Scotland in 208 - 211 AD ended the northward expansion and marked the largest territorial extent of the Roman empire. By the 3rd century AD Rome had at least 800,000 inhabitants and covered an area of almost 10 km2.

The Roman attitude to science

The Roman civilization built on the achievements of the Etruscans but had a very different perception of the natural world. No Roman expressed this better than the philosopher and politician Seneca when he wrote:

"There are differences of interpretation between our countrymen and the Tuscans, who possess consummate skill in the explanation of the meaning of lightning. While we think that because clouds collide therefore lightning is emitted, they hold that clouds collide in order that lightning may be emitted. They refer everything to the will of God; therefore they are strong in their conviction that lightning does not give an indication of the future because it has occurred, but it occurs because it is meant to give this indication." (Seneca, Naturalium Quaestionum (II, 32,2), quoted from Bloch, 1957)

In other words, both the Etruscans and the Romans believed that lightning contains a message. The Etruscans saw it as an act of the gods, who wanted to send the people a message; the Romans saw it as a natural phenomenon. For the Romans, lightning carried information about the future, too, and could lead to religious activity such as sacrifices in the temple, but it was not an act of the gods as such.

The Roman attitude to nature had much similarity with the Greek view of the world, and the Greek separation of science from religion was well accepted by most Romans. But the Romans had other priorities than the Greeks. They had to control and maintain an empire. Science was interesting and entertaining, but building roads, developing city infrastructure and strengthening army bases was more important. Roman interest therefore focussed on further development of the Etruscan technology. Science was welcome if others pursued it, but it was not seen as a high priority.

The Roman attitude can clearly be seen by the action and opinions of the Roman statesman Cicero. At some point of his career Cicero was quaestor (financial administrator) of Sicily. He knew that the famous Archimedes had lived in Syracuse and took action to rediscover and restore his grave, an act of reverence that shows Cicero's appreciation of history. Cicero's appreciation of Archimedes' work shines through when he writes about "them" (the Greeks) and "us" (the Romans):

"Among them geometry was held in highest honour; nothing was more glorious than mathematics. But we have limited the usefulness of this art to measuring and calculating."
(Tusculan Disputations, Book I, Section II(5): In summo apud illos honore geometria fuit, itaque nihil mathematicis inlustrius; at nos metiendi ratiocinandique utilitate huius artis terminavimus modum.)

Measuring and calculating for engineering purposes, that was the strength of the Roman civilization. A system of roads, constructed of stone blocks on a solid base that ensured good drainage, spanned the entire empire and guaranteed fast troop movements. Roman highways are masterworks of civil engineering. The quality of these roads was such that several of them are still in use today. Wehn I was a student in Germany I spent the occasional weekend in heath country to walk on a well preserved stretch of Roman road. The feeling to walk on blocks of stone that were placed there for that very purpose some 1800 years ago is hard to describe. It made every such weekend memorable. Another Roman road, the "Fosse Way" in England, is still used in parts as a modern country road.

The water supply and sewage system of the capital with close to a million people was another impressive achievement. Drinking water was brought via aquaeducts from hills some 70 km from the city and pumped into individual homes via lead pipes. Public baths of the greatest proportions offered pools of cold, warm and hot water.

The influence of Greek mathematics can clearly be seen in the marvels of Roman architecture. The construction of the cupola in the Pantheon remains one of the most significant achievements of world architecture. Such audacious construction would have been impossible without Greek geometry and Archimedes' Law of the Lever to assist in the design of the building machinery.

Greek science under Rome

Romans were not convinced of the value of science but they did not stop anyone from pursuing it, and many Greek scientists continued their studies in the Roman colonies. On occasions they were even encouraged to come to the new centre of the European civilization: We saw in Lecture 7 that when Julius Caesar decided to establish a new calendar he hired Sosigenes from Alexandria for the task.

Greek science did not reach the same level of innovation and ingenuity under Rome that characterized its development in Ionia, Athens and Alexandria. Its Roman period was a period of consolidation and summarizing. The exception was medicine, which made significant progress.

The one outstanding personality of Greek science under Roman rule was Ptolemy, who worked in Alexandria and spent his life producing encyclopaedic works on all areas of science. His geographical encyclopaedia Geographike hyphegesis ("Guide to Geography") , a work in eight books, is of limited value to the physical and human geographer because as a mathematician Ptolemy was not very interested in rivers, mountains, climate and such things and concentrated on the question how to define the location of places. Its main value stems from the chapters on mapping, in which Ptolemy deals with the question how to show a spherical surface (such as the Earth, or the firmament of the stars) in a plane map. In these chapters Ptolemy laid the foundations for the scientific method of projection.

Ptolemy's most important work, the Almagest, consists of 13 books and summarizes the astronomical knowledge of Greek science. In summarizing the past Ptolemy had the choice between the heliocentric system of Aristarchos (in which the Sun is the centre of the universe and the Earth and the planets revolve around it) and the geocentric system of Eudoxus (which has the Earth in its centre and the planets and the Sun revolving around it). Following Aristotle's concept that heavy bodies fall towards the centre and noting that all heavy bodies are observed to fall to Earth he argued that the Earth has to be in the centre. In addition, if the Earth rotates, any object thrown vertically up into the air would move sideways and not return to its original position. These and several other arguments led him to adopt the geocentric system.

The Almagest follows essentially the work of Hipparchos, and it is not always clear what is Hipparchus' work and what is Ptolemy's contribution. Ptolemy did, however, not only summarize and organize the material. He spent considerable effort on improving the predictions of the planetary movements. It was already known that the referent-cum-epicycle system of Eudoxus and the eccentric circle system of Hipparchos were mathematically equivalent. Ptolemy combined the two by moving the Earth slightly away from the centre of each planet's deferent and having the deferent centre perform circular motion around a point on the opposite side of the Earth's location.

The resulting rather complicated system, which was made up entirely of circular motions around various centres of revolution, became known as the Ptolemaic system. It was the standard lecture content at teaching institutions for more than 1400 years. In it the Earth is at the centre of the universe surrounded, in order of growing distance, by Moon, Mercury, Venus, Sun, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.

After Ptolemy only two scientists rose to some fame in Alexandria. Diophantus, who worked a century after Ptolemy, was the only Greek mathematician to attempt a substantial work on algebra. He introduced the symbolic notation for unknowns in equations and discussed solutions to systems of equations. It appears that he took his ideas from earlier works of Babylonian mathematicians, who used a place-value number system. His Greek colleagues could apparently not make much sense of algebra, and more than half of his works is lost; even the Arabs, who translated and used every Greek manuscript they could find, only knew of parts of his work.

Pappus, who worked two hundred years after Ptolemy, wrote another encyclopaedia of mathematics called the Synagoge ("Collection"). It summarized Greek mathematics to his day and was meant to be used as a commentary to the original works.

Greek medicine under Rome

While Greek scientists were content to continue their studies in Alexandria, Greek physicians found good work opportunities in the capital. The Roman aristocracy led the good life of the wealthy colonialist and could afford good medical services. Many Greek physicians and surgeons were attracted to Rome and decided to move there.

The downside of good business was exposure to reactionary nationalistic elements. The Roman statesman Cato ran an anti-Greek campaign and claimed that Greek physicians came to Rome to poison its ruling class. But most aristocrats preferred good medical treatment to nationalistic rhetoric, and Greek physicians had always plenty of patients.

The first of the Greek medical scientists who were attracted to Rome was Dioscorides from southern Anatolia. Dioscorides joined the Roman army as a surgeon and travelled through the width and length of the empire. He used the knowledge about medicinal plants and minerals acquired during his travels to write a compendium of nearly 600 plants and 1000 drugs. His work was still on the shelves of pharmacies in Europe and Arabia in the 16th century.

The leading European gynaecologist and pediatrician of the period was also of Greek descent. Soranus of Ephesus, a brilliant practitioner who had also a gift for writing in a clear and instructive style, set up a practice in Rome. His work "On Midwifery and the Diseases of Women" covers a range of contraceptive measures and describes possible complications during delivery.

The practice of dentistry in Roman times is connected with the name of Archigenes from Syria, who worked at about 100 BC, possibly at the same time as Soranus. Among his various medical writings are "On Medicines," a systematic and detailed description of pharmaceutical remedies, and "On venomous animals and poisonous drugs," a detailed description of snakes. But his main achievement was in the area of dentistry, where he introduced the use of the drill for the treatment of dental infections.

The two personalities in Roman medical history that overshadowed everyone else were Celsus and Galen. The two men could not have been more different. Celsus, who worked during the 1st century AD, was a science writer who produced an encyclopaedia of all knowledge of his time. Nearly all of his work is lost, and the only surviving part, the volume on medicine, was more or less ignored by the medical profession during his lifetime. It was rediscovered in the 14th century and was one of the first medical works to be printed after Gutenberg had invented his printing press in 1450. The work gives detailed insight into all aspects of Roman medical practice including the removal of bladder stones and antiseptic measures during operations.

Galen, on the other hand, who lived 100 years after Celsus, was a practitioner of excellence. Trained in Alexandria, where he practiced vivisection on monkeys, he began his career as the surgeon of a school of gladiators in Greece but soon found his way to Rome to satisfy his ambitions. Dissection of corpses was again against religious rules in Rome, a fact that helped Galen to promote his name through the organization of dissection demonstrations on animals. His public lectures attracted personalities of highest standing. Eventually he was appointed personal physician to the emperor's son. This gave him the time and opportunity to write works on anatomy, physiology and philosophy. In the 9th century 129 of his works were translated from their Greek original into Arabic. 200 years later the Arabic version served as the basis for a translation into Latin.

The works of Dioscorides, Soranus, Celsus and Galen determined medical practice in Europe for more than 1500 years and had a lasting impact on Arabic medicine.



Bloch, R. (1957) Etruscan science. In Taton, R. (ed.) La Science Antique et Médiévale, Presses Universitaires de France; English translation by A. J. Pomerans (1967) "Ancient and Medieval Science", Thames and Hudson, London.551 pp., p. 266 (Volume 1 of "A General History of the Sciences")

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