What Medical Instruments Did the Romans Use?
Some 200 surgical instruments of various kinds have been discovered in the ruins of Pompeii but, in general, the contribution of Rome to medicine was not very marked. Among the artifacts recovered were surgical instruments from multiple sites, the best known being Pompeii’s House of the Surgeon, so named because of the nature of the items recovered there. The collection is one of the best surviving examples of the tools at a surgeon’s disposal in the first century CE.
Since there was relatively little innovation in surgery and surgical tools from the time of Hippocrates (5th century BCE) and Galen (2nd century CE), this collection is typical of surgical practice for nearly a millennium and illuminates the practice of medicine in ancient Rome. In fact, the technology of some tools, such as the vaginal speculum, did not change significantly until the 20th century.
“The Romans”, said Pliny, in the 1st Century A.D., “got along without doctors for 600 years”. In fact, if it had not been for the Greeks they might well have never had any. In the early days the Romans relied on herbs and salts as well as some horrible potions like gladiators’ blood and human fat. The first Greek doctor to win fame was Asclepiades in about 91 B.C. and he insisted upon regular diet and exercise, fresh air and cleanliness. Galen (c.A.D. 130—200), the most famous of all, emphasized the need to study anatomy.
Drills, scalpels, tweezers, forceps and even a four-jawed clamp were used as surgery, through trial and error, became more skillful. Fractures and dislocations were treated effectively and artificial legs were not unknown. However, there were no anesthetics and antiseptics and many operations, such as appendectomy, were beyond the surgeon’s skill.
The extant comments of medical writers from antiquity–including Oribasius, Galen, Soranus, Aetius, and the Hippocratic corpus–have provided scholars with some clues about the use of some instruments. Some instruments, such as mixing instruments and tweezers, probably had other household uses, such as the application of cosmetics and paints.
While the application of medicines and cures was a guessing methodology at best, with some undoubtedly dangerous use of elements such as toxic mercury, the Romans used very sophisticated medical tools. Archaeological digs have produced tools dating as far back as 500 BC, just about the time Hippocrates was writing the Hippocratic Oath. Among the items we know the Romans used were:
Scalpels made of bronze, iron and steel, and a wide variety of medical scissors were used.
Intricate and varying hooks or probes, were used in moving light tissues and for making the negotiation of the inner workings of the human body more manageable.
Bone drills, resembling the modern cork screw, were used to remove diseased bone tissue from various bones, or to drill holes to allow access to blocked parts of the body.
Metal forceps were used to extract small pieces of bone or other objects that would be otherwise difficult to remove with fingers.
Catheters, or long metal tubes, very much like those in use today were used to open blocked passages such as the urinary tract. Other similar devices were used to open spaces such as the nasal cavity in order to insert various medicinal treatments.
The bone saw was used in amputation, which the Romans knew prevented gangrene.
The vaginal speculum was used in gynecology and in childbirth.
Bone levers were used to put fractures back in place, or to remove teeth.