Thursday, December 09, 2004

Did Roman Baths prompt the development of ancient plastic surgery?

Ancient Roman Medicine:

This past week I watched a special on the Discovery Channel about ancient plastic surgery. I had seen a program earlier about how surgeons in ancient India developed nose repair techniques that are still in use today. This information was included in the new program but was augmented by an interesting discussion of Roman plastic surgery. The narrator said that the most important influence on the development of plastic surgery in ancient Rome was the social emphasis on bathing in public baths. To avoid scandalous remarks, many men with battle scars on their backs, or worse, scars from flogging, sought a remedy from Roman surgeons. This was especially true of former slaves who sought to have brands or whip marks removed. I was surprised to learn that one of the most commonly requested procedures was circumcision reversal. Another procedure described was male breast reduction.

Since the Discovery Channel gets a little over zealous in its documentaries at times, I was a little dubious. But, I found this article with references that presented consistent information:

"It was war injuries, of course, that really advanced Roman surgery. If you were lucky, your military unit would have a good medicus/chirurgus who could patch you up before you bled to death, and if you were really lucky he might retire to the same colonia that you were pensioned off to. (Chirurgus was really a corruption of the Greek word for surgeon, which transliterates into English as 'cheirourgos'. The pure Latin phrase for surgeon was actually 'medicus vulnerarius', which means, literally, 'wound doctor'.) Roman military surgeons were, in fact, only rivaled by specialist arena surgeons, who repaired valuable gladiators.

Roman surgeons were also adept at several forms of minor plastic surgery. They did facial and other repairs, removed growths, etc. The most common operation appears to have been male de-circumcision. Reversal of genital mutilation, which might have been the result of religious observance or mischance, was an important procedure which one would seek in order to avoid embarrassment when appearing naked at the baths or in the gymnasia."

The program also mentioned that the Emperor Elagabalus asked a Roman surgeon to perform a sex change operation on him. However, it said there was no further evidence that such a procedure was, in fact, done. The narrator mentioned coyly that when Elagabalus was assassinated, it may have been the first assassination of of a Roman Empress!
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