The Medicine in the ancient Rome

The Valetudinarium

The valetudinarium was the ancient Romans' hopspital; the term derives from the latin word valetudo, 'good health'.

These structures were built along the limes (the roman boundary line) since emperor Augustus' age and they were also installed into each legionary or auxiliary castrum (barracks).

We know very little about military medicine in the roman republican age.

The ancient authors who wrote on the topic before Augustus, like Titus Livius, tell that the injured in battle were carried to the villages by the conflict zones to be cared for.

It was crucial to act promptly and to treat the wounds with adequate cares, otherwise the loss of life could be much higher. 

With the reform of the army by Augustus, military medics were enlisted, with a specific training and formation, differently from the civilian ones. Furthermore it was of primary importance, in order to keep the legionaries in good general health conditions, that the permanent military camps (castra stativa) were set up by water streams, without supply issues and far away from marshlands and other unsanitary zones.

There are, amongst the many examples, visible traces of valetudinarium in the legionary fortress of Vindobona and at Carnuntum, in Austria, and at Aquis Querquennis, in Spain.

Normally a valetudinarium was rectangular-shaped with a wide court in the center; the medical wards were placed all along the perimeter and they were divided into rooms, both in the inner and the outer side, divided by a corridor, where the patients were recovered (at Inchtuhtil, in Scotland, there were 60 rooms 4 by 5 meters large each).

Some of these rooms were also used by the administrative and medical personnel; at Novaesium and Castra Vetera a wide room was at the entrance of the valetudinarium, which might have been used as 'reception'.

The valetudinariums in the auxiliary forts, differently form the legionaries ones, were significantly smaller and their structure was different as well, like in Fendoch where it was a rectangular building with a central aisle.

The roman army had a strong interest in taking care of its soldiers' health and a sophisticated medical service was developed to that pourpose, based on the best medical knowledge of the time and on highly qualified medics with huge field experience.

Even though their knowlwdge was entirely empirical and non-analytical, ancient roman medics used strictly controlled and battlefield-tested practises which, for that reason, will remain the most effective available to the most part of the armies until XIX century.

The legion's Praefectus castrorum was in charge for the medical staff and their services. Under him acted an Optio valetudinarii, the director of the legionary fortress' hospital. Other professional figures were the capsarii (nurses), frictores (massage therapists), unguentarii (ointment specialists), curatores operis (apothecaries). By the way, at the top of the medical services there was a 'head medic' who was simply called Medicus.

Mounted units had their own medics (medici alarum) as well as the navy (medici triremis). There was even a hierarchy of military medics in the legions: the higher rank was the medicus legionarius followed by the medicus coorti and, lastly, the medicus ordinarius who had the rank of a centurion but no command over men.

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