Original Research

Surgery in the Graeco-Roman era

François P. Retief, Louise Cilliers
Suid-Afrikaanse Tydskrif vir Natuurwetenskap en Tegnologie | Vol 25, No 2 | a149 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/satnt.v25i2.149 | © 2006 François P. Retief, Louise Cilliers | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 22 September 2006 | Published: 22 September 2006

About the author(s)

François P. Retief, Navorsingsgenoot, Universiteit van die Vrystaat, South Africa
Louise Cilliers, Departement Engels en Klassieke Tale, Universiteit van die Vrystaat, South Africa

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Abstract

In the Graeco-Roman era medical treatment characteristically consisted of regimen (diet and a healthy lifestyle), medicaments and surgery – the latter being reserved for those cases in which regimen and medicaments had failed. Evidence of primitive surgery dates back to the Bronze Age, and the Homeric epics describe surgical treatment of war wounds with frequent intervention of the gods. With the arrival of empiric medicine in the 5th century BC, surgery featured prominently in the Hippocratic Corpus by way of excellent contributions on head and orthopaedic surgery in particular. Alexandrian medicine (late 4th century) facilitated surgical development through the knowledge of anatomy and physiology gained from human dissection. Greek medicine brought a much improved standard of surgery to the Roman era (2nd century BC). Physicians were still expected to be proficient in all three modalities of medical practice (above), but surgery was now held in higher regard and specialisation in fields such as eye diseases, obstetrics and women’s diseases, bladder ailments, mouth and throat surgery developed. Military medicine, well organised in Roman times, brought experience in trauma surgery, and procedures penetrating the abdomen and thoracic cavities were no longer uniformly fatal. Veterinary surgery came into being. The first significant surgical textbook after the Hippocratic Corpus was compiled by Celsus in the 1st century AD. From the 3rd century onwards surgery stagnated and the scientific language gradually changed from Greek to Latin. The surgical expertise of the era was carried into the Middle Ages and later predominantly by Islamic physicians.

 


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