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 an archaeologist specializing in the Imperial period of the Roman Empire with a particular emphasis on ancient science and religion. Currently pursuing her doctorate at the University of Southern California, she also consults as Director of Educational Programs at the Biblical Archaeology Society and is adjunct faculty at both St. Mary’s College of Maryland and West Virginia University. A native Californian, Sarah holds a M.A. in archaeology from the University of Sheffield, England, and a M.A. in art history from the University of Southern California. 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 The Story of God with Morgan Freeman. She is a Provost Fellow at the University of Southern California and is the recipient of a Research Fellowship from the American Research Institute of Turkey (ARIT) as well as a Mayers Fellowship at the Huntington Library and Museum in Los Angeles. 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 by Sarah K. Yeomans

The Antonine Plague and the Spread of Christianity by Sarah K. Yeomans

Ancient Pergamon: City of science … and satan? by Sarah K. Yeomans

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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  • 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.

  • 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).

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