In 219 B.C. a Greek named Arcagathos (Ἀρχάγαθος) from the Peloponnese arrived in Rome and settled in the city, as recounted by Pliny the Elder, drawing from the Annals written by Lucius Cassius Hemina around 146 B.C.

It wouldn’t have been exceptional, as many Greeks were arriving in Rome at that time, if not for the fact that Arcagathos was a physician, and until then, there had been none in Rome.

Thus, he became the first physician to work in the city. His arrival was well-received by citizens, and even the Senate granted him Roman citizenship, providing him with an office (taberna) located at the crossroads called Compitum Acili (named after the Acilia family), where he practiced his profession.

So, Rome’s first medical consultation was situated north of the Temple of Venus and Roma on the Velia hill, near where the Colosseum would later stand.

Cassius Hemina, an ancient author, recounts that the first doctor to come to Rome was from the Peloponnese, named Arcagathos, son of Lysanias, during the consulship of Lucius Aemilius and Marcus Livius Salinator, in the “anno urbis” 535. He was granted the privilege of Roman citizenship, and publicly a shop was bought for him in the “compitum Acili.”

Pliny the Elder, Natural History 29.6

Initially, things went well for Arcagathos. Romans flocked to the consultation of the man soon known as the vulnerarius, or the wound doctor, seeking treatment for their ailments.

But gradually, his reputation declined. In some extreme cases, Arcagathos employed procedures that seemed almost barbaric to the Romans, such as cutting (surgery) and burning (cauterizing), earning him the nickname carnifex (butcher or executioner). It’s essential to remember that efficient pain relief methods did not exist, making these operations especially painful.

According to John Bostock, Arcagathos’ medical practice likely consisted almost exclusively of surgery and the use of the knife and caustics. At a time when Roman society still viewed Greek culture with suspicion, despite its increasing influence in Rome, Arcagathos’s good intentions fell on deaf ears.

In contrast, Roman medicine relied on rituals, religious chants, incantations, and herbs, as described by Cato the Elder, who rejected both medicine and Greek culture in his famous manual De Agri Cultura, the oldest surviving Latin prose work. Therefore, Romans did not see a need for specialization in healing, and medical care was one of the responsibilities of the head of the family.

However, not everyone shared Cato’s views, and by the late 3rd century B.C., medicine was becoming a concern for the Romans. The word medicus (physician) appears for the first time in the comedy The Twins (Menaechmi), written by Plautus and performed around 200 B.C.

It is unknown whether Arcagathos left Rome or continued practicing medicine in the city, though many historians believe he did not stay. Pliny himself hints that he returned to his native Laconia in Greece.

What we do know is that the Acilia family, which supported him throughout, sponsored the issuance of coins in the late 1st century B.C. These coins featured the representation of a laurel-crowned female figure with a snake and the inscription Valetu(dinis) (Health), demonstrating their close connection to the healing arts, undoubtedly stemming from Arcagathos attending to patients on their property.

Three recipes of remedies made with medicinal plants are attributed to Arcagathos, one of which is mentioned by Aulus Cornelius Celsus in his work De Medicina:

A third remedy, said to be invented by Arcagathos, contains 16 grams each of antimony sulfide and calcined copper, 32 grams of white lead boiled, 40 grams of turpentine resin, and 24 grams of litharge

Aulus Cornelius Celsus, De Medicina 5.19.27

Furthermore, a papyrus found in Oxyrhynchus or ancient Hermopolis Magna, Egypt, contains a letter dated April 26, 59 A.D., in which a person named Chairas writes to a physician named Dionysius: I sent you two recipes, one according to Arcagathos and another for healing. The first has no errors, but the second lacks the indication of the amount of pine resin.

In the 5th century A.D., the physician Caelius Aurelianus mentions that the Greek doctor Themison of Laodicea used a healing plaster in the 1st century B.C. attributed to Arcagathos. These mentions in ancient sources demonstrate that Arcagathos’s influence on Ancient medicine was lasting, and his legacy persisted even in the Roman Imperial era.

In any case, Lawrence Conrad believes that after Arcagathos’s departure, darkness loomed over medicine in the city of Rome for another century.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on November 28, 2023. Puedes leer la versión en español en Arcagato el “carnicero” fue el primer médico que trabajó en Roma, a finales del siglo III a.C.


Ferdinand Peter Moog, Die Fragmente des Themison von Laodikeia | Lawrence I. Conrad, The Western Medical Tradition: 800 BC to AD 1800 | Vivian Nutton, Ancient Medicine | Wikipedia

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