Think of the Roman legacy to Britain and many things spring to mind – straight roads, under-floor heating, aqueducts and public baths. But they were also pioneers in the health arena – particularly in the area of eye care, with remedies for various eye conditions such as short-sightedness and conjunctivitis. Perhaps most surprisingly of all is that the Romans – and others from ancient times, including the Chinese, Indians and Greeks – were also able also to carry out cataract operations. The Romans were almost certainly the first to do this in Britain.Surgical skills
Nowadays the procedure can be carried out with the help of ultrasound, but in Roman times technology was rather more basic – needles were inserted into the eye. The sharp end of the needle was used for surgery and the blunt end heated to cauterise the wound. Blows to the head were sometimes used to try and dislodge the cataract.
Dr Nick Summerton, GP and advisor to the National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) has written a book “Medicine and Health in Roman Britain”. In it, he details how various medical instruments found in Britain indicate that the Romans carried out other advanced procedures, such as head surgery and induced abortions.
“Archaeological finds of eye medicine stamps, representations of eyes together with a sickness report from the Roman fort at Vindolanda suggest that eye diseases were a particular concern within Roman Britain,” said Dr Summerton.
“Interestingly the Roman author Celsus described cataract extraction surgery using a specially pointed needle – and possible cataract needles (specilla) have been found in Britain as well as elsewhere in the Roman Empire.” Detailing the procedure Celsus said: “A needle is to be taken, pointed enough to penetrate, yet not too fine, and this is to be inserted straight through the two outer tunics.
“When the (correct) spot is reached, the needle is to be sloped………and should gently rotate there and little by little.” Dr Summerton explained how eye doctors (oculists) manufactured ointment sticks (collyria) stamped with the ingredients and the name of the eye specialist. These were used to treat a range of eye problems such as conjunctivitis and other inflammatory or infectious eye condition in addition to short-sightedness. A large number of the eye remedies contained antiseptics in one form or another.
“The vinegar lotion of Gaius Valerius Amandus (from a stamp found at Biggleswade) or the copper oxide of Aurelius Polychronius (from a stamp found at Kenchester) would have been very effective antiseptics either in treating conjunctivitis or in preventing any scar on the eye becoming infected while it healed.”