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Dissecting Ancient Rome

Had you told me when I signed up to study Roman Art & Archaeology as part of my current degree that I’d be spending a Saturday morning looking at surgical instruments from Ancient Rome, I’d probably have changed courses immediately. I’m not very good with medical things. I hate the sight of gore, loathe the dentist, and the first time I had a blood test, I fainted so spectacularly that not only did I take out a whole filing cabinet in the doctor’s surgery on my way down, I gave myself concussion as well. So when the warning came through that Dr John Ratcliffe would be presenting a seminar on surgical practices in 100BC, I baulked. I’d heard that Dr Ratcliffe occasionally causes audiences to flee in horror when his graphic detailing of ancient surgical methods gets too much.

But sometimes you don’t have much choice other than to put on your big girl undies and deal with it, which is how I found myself sitting in a lecture theatre yesterday looking at this:

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That’s pork he’s cutting in to. At least that’s what they said it was, and I’d rather believe that than imagine him sneaking into the morgue of the University of Queensland’s med school and hacking up fresh cadavers – especially seeing as I just spent an hour locked in a darkened room with him.

For a good half hour I sat wondering what on earth I was doing there. Fascinating as Dr Ratcliffe is, I’m an arts student. If I wanted to know about forceps used for removing the haemorrhoids of 2000 year old Romans, I’d have studied ancient medicine. Or contemporary politics.

But then I started thinking about the patients being operated on, and it occurred to me that a lot can be inferred about a society through its surgical methods.

Consider the scalpels in this photo:

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The bottom one is a modern scalpel provided for comparison. The top one is a recreation of a scalpel based on fragments of instruments found in excavations of a battle site in Europe dated somewhere between 100BC and 150AD. That funny spatula looking blade was necessary because soldiers’ skin was difficult to cut through. A life of soldiering meant hard physical labour, extremely heavy backpacks, excessive sun exposure and floggings. Ancient Roman soldiers had skin like leather. Cutting with a scalpel required huge force, hence the heavy blade.

Haemorrhoids were commonly suffered by soldiers, in which case they were removed with one of these:

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Surgeons gripped the offending pile with the teeth, and then crushed it between the tiny teeth. How lovely.

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These forceps were also used to remove uvulas, that fleshy bit hanging at the back of your mouth constantly mistaken for your tonsils. Hygiene wasn’t exactly the best in ancient times, so let’s not think too hard about one instrument performing both procedures, hey?

Anaesthetic was also a bit patchy in Ancient Rome. There was opium from poppies, and the analgesic properties found in plants such as mandrake and nightshade, but how much to administer was always an issue and patients regularly died from poisoning. So the medical profession came up with a clever idea – teach the surgeons to ignore screams. Yep, just tune out the tortured cries of the agonised patient. Really, it’s a genius solution when you think about it.

Anyway, my point is this – Ancient Roman society was no place for the fainthearted. The average life expectancy was 20-30 years, because infant mortality was so high. If you lived to see your tenth birthday then you could realistically expect to see your 45th birthday, but after that it was definitely curtains as disease from poor nutrition and sanitation was endemic at the time (the emperor Augustus lived to be 77, which must have made him Ancient Rome’s version of Gandalf), which explains a great deal about why the Romans were drawn to the Hellenic Grecian lifestyle of excess and grandeur. With such arduous living conditions, who wouldn’t have been drawn to a little luxury?

And that makes me look at the Roman art I’ve been studying a lot differently. Who knew a crusty old scalpel could tell me all that?

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2 Comments on Dissecting Ancient Rome

  1. Thanks for sharing this Carrie, it’s an illuminating read. Is it possible for plebeians like me to have a look at these ?

    • Hi Tim,
      Let me double check with the museum. At very least, they should be added to the catalogue on their website soon.
      I’ll get back to you on that!
      Caz

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