There is a story to be told of some amazing women from Ancient Rome who worked as medicae, or formal female healers. In this post, I’ll highlight some truly inspiring women who worked in a healing capacity and were well-respected by their families and communities. I love talking about these women and surprising people with the knowledge that women were doctors 2,000 years ago. I wanted to write a post about this topic because it would be amazing to see it covered in a museum looking to update their ‘Roman women’ section from hairstyles and childbirth.
In this post, I’ll give a bit of background about the Roman medical system, give some context for female healers, and introduce some by name.
Medicine in Ancient Rome
There were a variety of medical practitioners and specialists operating in the Roman Empire, who were grouped and classified according to their approach to health and wellbeing and their specialisation. A Roman had many healthcare options open to them, with varying treatments and approaches. There are a variety of terms and titles for these different practitioners.
Those who practised the ars medicinae as their profession were medici (or medicae), obstetrices (midwives), iatraliptae (medical trainers or attendants) and herbarii (herbalists; dealers in medical materials). Those practitioners who dealt more in other forms of medical care involving superstition and magic were the magi (workers in magic), mathematici (astrologers), and ονειροκριταί (dream-interpreters).
Against this backdrop of a crowded Roman medical marketplace, female healers operated on a formal and informal level. Texts and physical evidence supports the presence of women acting in a healing capacity throughout the late Republican and early Imperial period. A woman could be a member of the household providing traditional remedies, or an external professional practitioner of medicine.
But let’s go back a bit. Textual references to female healers go back to the 5th century BC, and are mentioned in Euripides’ Hippolytus.
In the text, a nurse very carefully distinguishes between γυναικες (women), who will heal an unmentionable ailment, and ιατροίί (doctors), who are men. The nurse’s reference to γυναικες suggests, to me, the existence of a ‘women’s network’ of informal female healers.
The Roman author Hyginus, writing around 150 AD, refers in his Fabulae to the first Greek obstetrix (midwife), who lived in fourth-century BC Athens:
antiqui obstetrices non habuerunt, unde mulieres uerecundia ductae interierant. (Hyg., Fab., 274)
The ancients did not have obstetrices, and because of this, women died owing to a sense of modesty.
The female healer as obstetrix appears often in Roman literature of the Republic and Empire, and is referred to in Plautus, Terence, and Horace, as well as the third-century AD legal text Digesta seu Pandectae refers to obstetrices in four passages attributed to Ulpian.
The social standing of the female healer appears to have been more dependent upon class rather than occupation, with female healers from different backgrounds treated with varying degrees of respect. Some female physicians appear to have been well respected during their lifetimes and at least one, Antiochis of Tlos, was even celebrated with a statue.
Who were these women?
Two relief commemorative sculptures from the second/third centuries AD show female healers. One is possibly a doctor, and the other may be a pharmacist/doctor. The first is a relief of a heavily draped woman standing in an arched recess holding a small box. Above her is the last line of an inscription, which reads INI FIL(IA) MEDICA (…daughter [possibly] of -inus, physician).
The second (to the left) is a relief sculpture of a group of three figures surrounded by baskets, containers, and pots. Two of the figures are mixing liquids in vats, while the draped woman dominating the centre of the sculpture sits with a book on her left knee, and her left foot upon a foot-stool. Although the setting has been disputed, the figure in the centre could be a female pharmacist or doctor. It has been suggested that the figure is Meditrina, the sister of Hygeia, or possibly Juno, making soap.
Women such as Panthea, wife of Glycon, and Naevia Clara, were married to doctors or surgeons, while Aurelia Alexandria Zosime may have been instructed in medicine by her father or husband. It seems that women weren’t able to undertake a formal medical training, but may have learnt by experience, observation, and sometimes from husbands or fathers who were doctors.
Despite a lack of formalised medical training, female physicians could be praised for their knowledge. Naevia Clara, in the first century BC, was described by her husband, himself a medicus chirurg(us) (surgeon), as being a medica philolog(a) (physician and scholar). (EDR001214) The full inscription reads:
C(aius) Naevius C(ai) l(ibertus) Phi[lippus] / medicus chirurg(us) / Naevia C(ai) l(iberta) Clara / medica philolog(a) / in fro(nte) ped(es) XI s(emissem) / in agr(o) ped(es) XVI
It seems it was important to mention that she was a l(iberta) (freedwoman).
The fourth-century AD Christian physician Scantia Redempta was described on her grave inscription as being:
antistis (sic) disciplin[ae / in] medicina
(‘excelling in the field of medicine’), and
coiugem familiarem salutis et vitae suae
(‘her husband’s partner in health as well as in life’). (ILS 7805 – CIL X 3980)
The traditional female healer appears to have acted as an obstetrix (midwife), and probably attended women in childbirth in groups which formed a more informal ‘women’s network’, drawing on an oral folk tradition of remedies and incantations. As Roman medical system developed throughout the Republic and into the Empire, the female healer became a more formal occupation, and there are references to medicae (female physicians) on funerary inscriptions, in relief sculptures, and in literature. From this textual and physical evidence, it appears that the medica was respected and valued by her family and community, and administered medical care primarily to other women.
These stories are surprising and often change people’s perceptions of the Roman world. Who knew women could be doctors 2,000 years ago? Who knew there was a statue to one of them? I would love to see a museum explore these stories.
For my own part, I have a Christmas decoration of a Roman lady. I have named her Naevia Clara and we put her on top of the Christmas tree. Who needs an angel when you have an awesome historical woman to inspire you?
I’ve taken a lot of this post from my work on Roman medicine. You can read my dissertation on my Academia page.
Next week: more awesome women, possibly in space