Doctors, Diseases and Deities: Epidemic Crises and Medicine in Ancient Rome

Watch Sarah Yeomans’s lecture delivered at The Explorers Club in New York

This Bible History Daily feature was originally published in 2014.—Ed.

There’s no question that today’s modern culture is very different from that of ancient Rome, but certain human realities remain consistent across time. The challenges of illness and injury were as prevalent in the Roman Empire as they are in today’s society, and the concern with medicine and health is something modern people have in common with ancient Romans. BAS Director of Educational Programs Sarah Yeomans’s doctoral research is concerned with Roman medical technology, medical cult and the impact of plague on Roman society. Recently, she gave a lecture on these subjects at the prestigious Explorers Club in New York City. In her presentation, Yeomans surveys some of the remarkable discoveries made at a site in Italy that has yielded an extraordinary amount of information about the surgical technology available in ancient Rome. The “House of the Surgeon,” located in Rimini, is a treasure trove of artifacts that tells us a great deal about the practice of medicine almost 2,000 years ago.

Yeomans then goes on to discuss the Antonine Plague of the second century, one of the worst epidemics the Roman world ever confronted. Through a combination of primary sources, archaeological discoveries and modern science, she examines the pathology of the plague as well as its impact on the economic, political and religious life of the Roman Empire. What exactly was the “Antonine Plague”? Was it a factor in the destabilization of the Empire in the third century? And, most importantly, what lessons can we learn about how to react to population-impacting medical crises today?

Watch the lecture:


About the speaker:

sarah-yeomans-2Sarah Yeomans is Director of Educational Programs at the Biblical Archaeology Society in Washington, D.C. She is an archaeologist specializing in the Imperial period of the Roman Empire with a particular emphasis on religions and ancient science. Yeomans is a faculty member in the department of religious studies at West Virginia University. In addition, she is pursuing her doctorate at the University of Southern California, where she is a Provost Fellow, and is a Mayers Fellow at the Huntington Library and Museum in Los Angeles. Yeomans holds an M.A. in archaeology from the University of Sheffield, England, and an M.A. in art history from USC. She has conducted archaeological fieldwork in Israel, Italy, Turkey, France and England and has worked on several television and film productions, most recently as an interviewed expert on Fox’s The Nativity: Facts, Fiction and Faith. Her current research involves ancient Roman medical technology and cult, as well as the impact of epidemics on Roman society. She is generally happiest when covered in dirt, roaming archaeological sites somewhere in the Mediterranean region.

This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on December 26, 2014.


Related reading in Bible History Daily:

Medicine in the Ancient World

Ancient Pergamon: City of science … and satan?

Ancient Cupping in Israel

Justinian Plague Linked to the Black Death

The Cyprian Plague

Epilepsy, Tutankhamun and Monotheism

Heart Disease in Mummies

Prehistoric Parasite Bloomed with Mesopotamian Farming


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  1. Margery says

    Ms. Yeomans has given a fascinating talk. Well presented. I learned a great deal. Thank you.

  2. Peter says

    Fascinating and most interesting – however one point is that the Egyptian Oxyrhynchus records of just about all periods show the village inhabitants ‘ran away’ (anachoresis) when ever things got sticky – from too high tax demands to local bandits and even when a Roman grandee came visiting (locals did not want to bear the cost), so I’d like to see more evidence the records show the absences were due to the plague at that period. The other thing that worries me are the ‘arguments from a negative’ – simply because records stop does not mean the practice stops (the Balkan Roman army discharges), only that the records are not there, so I’d like to know there was other positive evidence that this cessation was due to stopping discharges. But, despite these minor thoughts, again many thanks for a most interesting lecture.

  3. joe says

    Interesting lecture. Well organized.

  4. Kurt says

    The Bible—A Book of Accurate Prophecy, “The Last Days”
    Prophecy: “In one place after another pestilences.”—Luke 21:11.
    Fulfillment: Despite medical advances, millions still die each year as a result of infectious diseases. International travel and the world’s growing urban population have increased the likelihood that disease outbreaks will spread rapidly.
    What the evidence reveals:
    ● Smallpox killed an estimated 300 million to 500 million people in the 20th century.
    ● The Worldwatch Institute reports that during the past three decades, “more than thirty previously unrecognized diseases such as Ebola, HIV, Hantavirus, and SARS have emerged as new threats.”
    ● The World Health Organization has warned of the rise of drug-resistant germs, saying: “The world is heading towards a post-antibiotic era, in which many common infections will no longer have a cure and, once again, [will] kill unabated.”

  5. A says

    Fascinating – ironically I go to Rimini every year, next time I’ll be sure to go to the Domus del Chirurgo!

  6. Randy says

    Very interesting and informative lecture. Many thanks to Sarah Yeomans. Hopefully we will be able to view a lecture next year on her findings regarding religion and Christianity during this era.

  7. LEO says

    Thanks for this enlightening lecture. One surgical instrument was not present among those presented from Rimini archaeological finds that I assumed would be there, the pipettes for draining fluid from crushing wounds.

  8. Jereomy says

    Very interesting! I really enjoyed your thorough understanding of ancient Rome! God bless!

  9. Mark says

    Sarah Yeoman’s presentation was absolutely fascinating and one item got me thinking. The account of the magi in Matthew makes it clear that they were looking for the “the King of the Jews” because they wanted to “worship” him. Athough it also says they leave gifts of frankincense and myrrh, it does not say to what purpose these aromatic gums were to be put. Could the magi have intended the frankincense and myrrh for Mary as a protection against postpartum infection?

  10. GENE says

    Features of the Two Spices Offered to Jesus

    Both frankincense, or olibanum, and myrrh came from resinous gum that was obtained by making incisions in the bark of small trees or thorny shrubs.

    The frankincense tree grew along the southern coast of Arabia, and the myrrh bush thrived in the semidesert countries of present-day Somalia and Yemen. Both spices were highly esteemed for their fragrance. Jehovah himself chose them in connection with his worship—myrrh was a component of the holy anointing oil, and frankincense of the holy incense. (Exodus 30:23-25, 34-37) But they were used differently.

    Frankincense, commonly used as incense, had to be burned to release its fragrance. The resin extracted from myrrh, on the other hand, was used directly. Myrrh is mentioned three times in accounts about Jesus: as a gift when he was a baby (Matthew 2:11), as an analgesic offered with wine when he was hanging on the stake (Mark 15:23), and as one of the spices used in the preparation of his body for burial (John 19:39).

  11. Larry A says

    I’m not a student or scholar but I subscribe to Biblical Archaeology. I could have listened to her all night. I would have liked to know what the medical training was like. I guess I learned about dissections and anatomy; they didn’t happen. I was wondering about that before she gave her lecture. I wonder if they had schools of medicine. Class lectures. Internships.

    It was interesting that they were a lot more sophisticated medically than I thought they were. I’m going to have to kick my butt and read my Marcus Aurelius that’s in my Great Books.

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