15 March 2018

The March Mid-Month Extra: 'A Gang of Doctors Killed Me' by Ruth Downie


Researching MEMENTO MORI, the latest mystery novel in the MEDICUS series, left Ruth Downie relieved that she lives in the 21st century not back in the 1st  …

“There is,” thundered Pliny the Elder, “no greater reason for the decay of morals than medicine.”

It wasn’t just the sight of Roman tombstones bearing the epitaph, “A gang of doctors killed me” that upset him. It wasn’t just the rumours that doctors deliberately poisoned their patients and sought to benefit from their wills. Nor was it only the way doctors had—he said—convinced people that the only good medicine was a costly and complicated one, nor even that they had the nerve to expect payment for their services.  It wasn’t just the way they argued with each other, nor the way they changed their minds: one day prescribing cold baths, the next day insisting baths should be so hot that the enfeebled bathers were lucky not to be carried out feet first.

No. What really annoyed Pliny was the way those cunning Greek medics had seduced formerly tough Romans into pampering themselves with treatments like “wrestlers’ ointment,” while all that lolling about in hot water sapped the moral fibre of the city.

Medics were an accepted part of the Roman military scene (thank goodness, because I write about one) and the emperor Augustus approved of doctors enough to exempt them from paying taxes, but the only good thing the acerbic Pliny could find to say about having so many medical sharks preying on innocent civilians was that the competition kept prices down.

For six hundred years, said Pliny, the people of Rome had managed to administer their own remedies. But now their good habits had slipped. He wasn’t alone: Celsus, who wrote extensively on medicine, agreed that doctors were only necessary because Romans had fallen into indolence and luxury.

I can’t help thinking that the pair of them would feel nicely at home listening to our modern concerns about processed foods, lack of exercise and obesity.

Pliny, whilst exaggerating wildly, did have a point. While the best doctors of his day could perform great feats of surgery—even cataract operations—they had no idea about bacteria, nor about the circulation of the blood. Without x-rays, scans or even microscopes, they were largely working blind. Little wonder that they sometimes got things very wrong.

Faced with the risk of consulting a doctor or trying Pliny’s pull-yourself-together-and-eat-cabbage approach to healthcare, it’s hardly surprising that plenty of sick people in the ancient world turned to religion. After all, the causes of disease were largely a mystery—so why not invoke some supernatural help? Here in Britannia, they could have sought that help at our very own shrine over the hot springs of Aquae Sulis, in the city we now call Bath.

We know that people believed in the power of Sulis Minerva, goddess of the shrine, because we still have some of the curses that they threw into her spring. The curses are written on scraps of lead by victims of petty crime who are demanding justice. Thousands of coins were flung into the waters too, perhaps in the hope of good luck. We don’t have any record of healings, but there are altars giving thanks for answered prayers. If the requests were anything like the testimonies that have turned up elsewhere, people had high expectations.

The traditional way for a sick person to seek a miracle was to sleep, and try to dream of a cure, in the presence of the god or goddess. There would often be sacred snakes or dogs around to help with the healing (although the presence of snakes might not have helped much with the sleeping). A hopeful candidate might drop off while reading encouraging accounts of former patients on the walls.

Ancient Greek inscriptions tell the story of Cleo, who was delivered of a son after a five-year pregnancy. Of a mute boy who was suddenly able to announce that he would bring an offering to the god if he were cured. Of a man called Pandarus who had birthmarks removed from his forehead. Of Lyson, a blind boy, who had his sight restored “by one of the dogs”. Agameda was cured of infertility, and Daietus’ paralysed knees were cured when he dreamed he was trampled by the god’s horses.

Not everything went right first time: Aristagora was cured of worms, but the god Asclepius had to correct his sons’ overenthusiastic treatment by reattaching the patient’s head before performing worm-removing surgery.

We don’t know how much of this sort of thing went on at Bath. The layout is that of a healing shrine but the best clue we have is much smaller: a block of ivory roughly carved into the shape of human shoulders and chest with breasts. It looks like one of the ‘votives’ that were offered to gods to show exactly which part of the body needed help. It would have been old-fashioned even when the Romans were here, but there’s a fine display of them from elsewhere in the Wellcome collection in London.

Votives in the Wellcome collectio
The problem for a modern writer with using these sort of tales is that while they’re a great insight into how people’s minds worked, they’re very distracting. It’s easy to lose sight of your murder mystery while you chase explanations for miracles. So it’s a relief to find that even in the ancient world, people had doubts. Several writers bemoan the fact that the supply of miracles seems to be drying up these days, and Cicero was utterly unimpressed. If it was true, he said, that people could learn medical remedies in dreams, why couldn’t dreams teach anyone how to read and write?

The gods, or their earthly assistants, had answers. There are several accounts of people who scoffed at the inscriptions and then had to eat their words when they walked out of the temple the next morning fully cured. Telling lies to the god was a bad idea, too. There’s a post-script to the story of Pandarus’s birthmarks: shortly afterwards, a man called Echedorus tried to cheat the god out of a donation.
He left the temple with Pandarus’s marks transferred to his own forehead. 

Whatever you believed, it was clearly wise to treat the gods with respect. My Roman doctor, has no intention of picking a fight with anything that gives hope to his patients.  Even though, as the famous physician Galen pointed out, people tend to follow any advice they’re given by the gods, while they ignore exactly the same advice from their doctor.


Temple pediment at Bath
When he’s summoned urgently to Aquae Sulis, my protagonist, Ruso, is keen to see the healing shrine in action. He does manage to spend a night in the temple, but fortunately for those of us who aren’t sure what to say about miracles, he’s too busy trying to defend his friend from a murder charge to conduct a full investigation into the watery offerings of the goddess. 

I’m pleased to say the same cannot be said for his author, who toured the Roman remains and then spent a very happy couple of hours in the nearby Thermae spa, telling herself she was doing research. In reply to Pliny, I can confirm that lolling about in hot water may not be morally improving but it certainly does make you feel good. Pass over some of that Wrestlers’ Ointment, will you?

© Ruth Downie


Book One
Read our review HERE

About Ruth:


I was lucky enough to be born in the West Country, in beautiful North Devon. Some people know from a very early age that they are going to be writers: I wasn’t one of them. I fear this will upset some readers, but I left university with an English degree and a plan to get married and live happily ever after. Perhaps it was all that Jane Austen.

Some of my earliest ventures into creative writing were attempts to type up my indecipherable shorthand in such a way that the boss wouldn’t realise I was making it up. As secretaries were replaced with computers, and my higher-flying contemporaries discovered to their horror that they were expected to type their own letters, there were fewer and fewer outlets for creativity in the office. Finally I took the plunge and started working on my own material.

And then came the Romans. I wasn’t looking for them: we only went to Hadrian’s Wall because we thought our children should do something educational on holiday. Sheltering from the rain in a museum, I read, “Roman soldiers were allowed to have relationships with local women, but they were not allowed to marry them.” Obviously, here was a terrific story waiting to be told. All I had to do was find out everything there was to know about Roman Britain, invent things to fill the gaps, and work out how to put it all together in a novel…

When I’m not researching or writing the Ruso novels, I spend the occasional joyous week grovelling in mud with an archaeological trowel, because Roman Britain is still there. Underneath our feet.

Find out more:
Hardback ISBN 978-1-62040-961-9 Available in ebook and audio

The audio buying link is http://mytitles.net/ruth-downie-memento-mori-audio-cd?uid=2749 – I know that’s a bit of a bizarre link to offer but  it’s the only one that will (hopefully) lead you to the right place both in the US and UK!



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