The Romans believed that if you kept fit you were more able to fight off illness, so rather than going to see doctors to get advice on how to stay healthy many Romans spent a large part of their day doing exercise and going to the baths. Prevention is better than a cure!

Romans were brought up to believe that to have a ‘Healthy Mind’ you had to have a ‘Healthy Body’.

To make this easy for everyone the Romans were the first ancient civilisation to develop a series of public health strategies to reduce the levels of disease in their cities. The need for fresh water for drinking and for washing was recognised, with aqueducts being built to ensure that enough fresh water was available to those living in the towns and cities of the Empire. Vindolanda has some great wooden water pipes and a stone aqueduct for carrying water around the site. Public toilets were built in all towns, and often had a sewage system that used running water to clean away the waste.

A wooden water pipe being excavated in 2019 - it was still flowing!

When they did become ill Romans would treat themselves with traditional cures (mostly made from plants). We know from archaeological studies that the types of plants that were used as remedies were often grown in the gardens of houses so that there would always be a supply of medicine available if needed. They would also make sure to pray to the gods and leave votive offerings to remind the gods of what is ailing them and ask for healing. Most Romans would only go to see a doctor if these remedies and prayers did not work.

Asclepius was the Roman god of medicine and would have been a popular choice to pray to. Even today the staff with the snake appears in a lot of medical logos.

The ‘Humoral Theory’.

The work of the famous Roman physician Galen became the basic ‘science’ that explained how most Roman patients (and the doctors who were treating them) thought about their illness and what had caused it.

It was believed that the body was made up of four essential elements: Earth, Air, Fire and Water. For a person to remain healthy these four elements had to remain in a perfect balance. If the balance was upset for any reason the individual became unwell and showed an excess of one of the so called ‘Humours’ (Yellow bile; Black bile; Blood and Phlegm).

Patients were treated for their excessive humours by giving them medicines that had opposite properties to restore the healthy balance of the body. Many people nowadays still say that the cold and wet weather of the winter brings with it the seasonal outbreaks of colds and flu. You can see the chart below try 'curing' the common cold what remedies would be suggested?

On Galen's diagram wet and cold in excess will lead to an overproduction of the Humour phlegm (the medical word for snot). Galen would have suggested treating your snotty cold with medicines that were thought to be ‘Hot’ and ‘Dry’ … like Garlic or Pepper

The ‘Humoral Theory’ also affected the way that Roman’s ate. It was thought that an over-indulgence in anything would lead to the elements becoming unbalanced, with an over-production of one or more of the humours. We actually know that the Roman’s (in general) ate a much more balanced and healthy diet than most of the other ancient civilizations. With the exception of the poorest sections of Roman Society, malnutrition was uncommon. We also know that the wealthiest Roman’s tended not to follow Galen’s advice about over-indulgence!

Many of the Vindolanda Tablets tell us about the food the Roman Army enjoyed at Vindolanda and shows they had a healthy, balanced and  energy rich diet.