The most famous book of Roman medicine was the work entitled De medicina; the author’s full name was most likely Aulus Cornelius Celsus, and tradition has shortened this mouthful simply to Celsus. We know almost nothing of his life. The rhetorician Quintilian describes him as a learned man writing on a variety of subjects, including agriculture, war, philosophy, and law; but of this output the only surviving part is his treatise on medicine. His year of birth appears to have been around 25 B.C.
It is an unsettled question whether Celsus himself was a practicing physician, or just a compiler of medical information; in those days, it was not uncommon for a wealthy Roman gentleman to equip himself with a wide knowledge of practical medicine which would prove useful in handling his domestics and slaves. The landed estates in the countryside, the latifundia, would need ready access to such information. His book contains many details on surgical procedures, some of them quite advanced; but this is not conclusive. He certainly understood Greek, and with his wide reading, he was able to condense much of the essentials of Hellenic medicine.
It is an interesting work, written in a lucid and simple Latin prose. The introduction, or prooemium, of the book gives a fair and adequate summary of this history of medicine, summarizing the development of the several schools of medical knowledge (dogmatic, methodic, and empiric). Anatomy is one of the cornerstones of medicine, and must be thoroughly understood; for this reason, dissection is essential. He considers hygiene, prognosis, diagnosis, and prevention to be of critical importance; more diseases are avoided, he reminds us, than are cured. Yet he is no faith-healer: drugs and surgery are enthusiastically described and recommended when needed.
Of course, most of the information here has been superseded by the progress in medical science since his day. But it is still interesting to see what riches can be found here, if only to satisfy our historical curiosity. The least perishable part of Celsus’s advice lies in his general principles of good health, which I have tried to extract as follows:
1. A man in good health should prefer variety to a tedious routine: now in town, now in the country, with a variety of activities such as hunting, sailing, walking, running, and hiking. Variety is critical.
2. It is a good idea to frequent baths, but cold waters are also essential. Alternating hot and cold baths can cure many maladies (II.17). Frequent visits to the calidarium and the frigidarium should be accompanied by rubdowns.
3. Sex (concubitus) is “neither to be obsessively sought after, nor to be feared; if it is indulged in infrequently, it excites the body. If indulged in frequently, it restores it.” [Concubitus vero neque nimis concupiscendus, neque nimis pertimescendus est. Rarus corpus excitat, frequens solvit.] I.4. These are perhaps the wisest words ever spoken on sexual activity.
4. Be careful about the environment in which you live. You should try to live “in a house that is light, airy in summer, and sunny in winter.” Try to avoid the sun at noon, and the sun in the morning. Avoid also the evening chills.
5. Beware of the vapors rising out of lakes, rivers, and marshes. Frequently the air in such places can be fetid and latent with disease or pestilence.
6. Observe your urine with frequency for any signs of discoloration or strange effect.
7. In winter, it is a good idea to lie in bed during the entire night. Siestas should be before the midday meal; when the days are short, the siesta should come after it.
8. Exercise is always critical, and should preferably come before food. Handball, running, walking, and all varieties of sport are examples of good exercise. The exercise should “come at the end with sweating, or at least rest, which should be not utter exhaustion.” [I.7].
9. With regard to eating, too much is always a bad thing. By the same token, excessive fasting or abstinence is no good either. When eating, it is better to begin a meal with “savories”, salads, and small appetizers; after this, meat should be eaten, whether roasted or boiled [I.8]. Desserts are a matter of choice; they do no real harm to a healthy person in moderation, but to one with a weak stomach, they are a problem.
10. Digestion after a meal is best aided with a drink of cold water, and then not sleeping for a time.
11. If you desire to make any changes in your health routines or eating habits, it is best to accomplish such changes gradually. Sudden changes can cause serious problems.
12. Vomiting should not be seen as a bad thing; purgative action of the stomach sometimes does much good. A vomit can be more advantageous “in winter than in summer, for then more phlegm and more severe congestion in the head occur.” [I.17].
13. You must become acquainted with the nature of your body in all different climates and environments. Only in this way will you learn how to respond adequately to problems.
14. Purging of the bowels can also be of advantage, and should be accomplished regularly by the eating of fibrous substances. If these are unavailable, aloes can be used. But this type of thing must be done with great care, as it may leave the body in a weakened state if done too often.
15. Regarding hunger, we should be mindful of the following: middle-aged people sustain hunger better than do young people and very old persons. Wine should be diluted for children, but for old people, it should be more concentrated. Constipation can be a problem if not addressed. “It is better to be rather relaxed when young, and rather costive when old.” [Melior est autem in iuvene fusior, in sene adstrictior.] I.3.
16. It is better to eat more in winter, and to drink less alcohol. But the alcohol you do drink should be stronger than in the summer.
17. Cold is very bad for aged people, but rather good for the very young. Cold water baths or immersions are very good for the health generally. It helps the stomach and joints, and tightens the sinews.
These, then, are some of Celsus’s general rules for the maintenance of good health. It is interesting to note how frequently he mentions baths, rubdowns, anointments, and purgatives; these things were common in the Roman world, but fell out of widespread use in later centuries. We moderns probably could still use more of them.
Reading him, we become suddenly conscious of just how toxic most of our daily habits can be to our general well-being. It is also interesting to note how he links eating and drinking with times of the day, and the seasons of the year; perhaps we should pay as much attention to how we eat and drink, as to what we actually consume. Balance, moderation, and variety emerge as underlying principles of health. We would do well to remember this.
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