From Ancient Tech to Modern World
Updated: Sep 5
Technology over the ages in health and social media illustrated with Roman Republican coins.
I am starting my blog with a post on a Roman Republican coin that a purchased a few years ago. So much of what could be found in ancient Rome has carried forward to the today from Roman roads to social media. Social media? yes, ancient coins were an early form of social media, used to shape public opinion about the people who issued them. Fortunately some of our technologies have advanced quite a bit from ancient Rome.
A Civil War Coin
This coin, "Acilia 8" as Ernest Babelon called it, comes with a handwritten note from Christmas 1967 and opens a door to a turbulent date in Rome, medical technology and practice in ancient Rome, and a connection to another well known denarius.
Man. Acilius Glabrio circa 49 BC AR Denarius
Obv: SALUTIS Laureate head of Salus right
Rev: IIIVIR VALETV M ACILIUS Salus standing left, leaning against column and holding serpent.
Ref: Crawford 442/1a
This coin was minted at the beginning of the Roman Civil War that would last four years, see Julius Caesar declared “dictator perpetuo” and subsequently assassinated on the ides of March. Between 60 and 53 BC, the republic was governed by a triumvirate of Julius Caesar, Gnaeus Pompeius (Pompey the Great), and Marcus Licinius Crassus. Crassus died in 53 BC during as attempt to conquer Parthia. Political tension between Pompey and Caesar grew, and the health of the republic was at risk. IIIVIR on the reverse of this coin (for triumvir) refers to the office of the mint magistrate or moneyer (triumvir monetales).
M ACILIUS, Manius Acilius Glabrio was the moneyer and a supporter of Pompey. The coin's images could be a message of personal support to Pompey who fell ill or was recovering from illness around this time, or a broader message in support of the health of the republic.
The Goddess of Health
Salus, the goddess of health, was also known by other names, the reverse on this coin refers to VALETV for “Valetudo” (wellness), and the Greek goddess was Hygeia.
Salus, was the daughter of Aesculapis. Aeskulapis (or Greek Asklepios) was the son of Apollo and the Thessalian princess Koronis. After ordering Koronis to be killed for adultery, Apollo rescued Asklepios, and put him in the care of the Centaur Chiron, who taught Asklepios healing. Asklepios had 5 daughters, Hygeia the greek goddess who aligns to the Roman Salus. His four other daughters were Panacea: universal remedy, Iaso: recuperation from illness, Aglea: glow of health, and Aceso: healing process.
A Response from Caesar
The other well known denarius that this coin is linked with is this elephant of Julius Caesar, my example a worn fouree:
Julius Caesar, circa 49 BC, AR denarius (fouree)
Obv: Elephant advancing right, trampling horned serpent
Rev: CAESAR in exergue / Pontifical implements: ladle (simpulum), sprinkler (aspergillum), axe (securis), and pontiff's cap (apex)
The tools of pontifex maximus can also be seen as a message in support of the health and well being of the republic of the republic. What these two coins also have in common is a snake…and perhaps more. Michael Harlan, in his book and in this internet exchange, discusses the possibility that the elephant trampling the snake could be a social media reply to the first coin. In this case the elephant, associated with Pompey supporter Mettelius, is trampling the snake, a symbol of the health of the republic. Somehow it brings to life the politics of Rome to think about Caesar calling out his rival with a denarius tweet.
Ancient Rome to Modern World
The snake is associated with the staff of Asculapius. We can recognize the staff or rod of Asculpius in many modern contexts like this logo for the world health organization:
Why is a snake, a symbol of evil and a deadly threat, linked to healthcare and medicine? The link has been made to Moses healing Israelites afflicted by a plague of serpents, as well as to the shedding of a snakes skin as a form of rebirth, and the snake itself as a source of healing medicine.
This is the letter that has been retained with the coin (I’ve redacted names and addresses for privacy). These materials tell a story not only of the coin but of previous owners of the coin and their relationship and the practice of medicine today and in ancient Rome. The receiver of the coin in 1967 was a well-respected leader in his field:
“Many thanks for your kindness to Alessandra earlier this year. The man whom this coin commemorates Archagathos, a Greek surgeon. Pliny states that when he first opened up practice in Rome, he was called VULNERARIUS (wound surgeon) – later when the Romans got to know him better he was called CARNIFEX (butcher)! No comparison is intended – and I wish you and Agatha a Merry Christmas. Affectionate Regards, Adrian.”
In the quote from Pliny, he tells us that Arcagathos was a doctor in 219 BC:
"who came over from Peloponnesus, in the year of the City 535, L. Æmilius and M. Livius being consuls....from the cruelty displayed by him in cutting and searing his patients, he acquired the new name of "Carnifex"
- Pliny the Elder, The Natural History (full context)
Marcus Valerius Martialis, "Martial", who lived between 38 and 104 AD, writes of medicine in imperial Rome - apparently not much improved from the times of the early republic:
"less popular physicians were sometimes compelled to take more lucrative callings to escape starvation. Martialrefers to one who became an undertaker's assistant,
Dialus, who was once a surgeon, Now assists an undertaker, Here at length he finds the office, To which alone his skill is suited."
- The Practice of Medicine in Rome, William A. Scott, MD
I am glad I wasn't a patient in ancient Rome, and that I live in a world with cell phones, pharmaceuticals, cloud computers, helicopters, genetics, and many other technologies of modern healthcare, not to mention the infinite information resources and collaboration technologies of the internet. The ancients, would probably be amazed and envious of their descendants.