Thursday 9 March 2017

Diagnosing Lovesickness in Ancient Rome

by Caroline Lawrence 

Readers of my Roman Mysteries books for kids know that I am obsessed with Roman medicine, the four humours, and apotropaic images that keep away sickness (and other bad things). 

Children at schools I’ve visited will never forget my demonstration of how the Romans used a sponge-on-a-stick: ancient Roman toilet paper! 

I have also blogged about other Roman health topics, including Slimming Roman Style

So I thought I knew pretty much all there was to know about Roman health and medicine in the first century CE. 

Then, just a few days ago, I discovered Professor Helen King’s free online Open University course on Health and Wellbeing in the Ancient World. I have only completed one module but it was full of fascinating facts, many of them new to me. Here are a few to whet your appetite. 

1. The Romans considered unrequited love to be a kind of sickness. Catullus and Martial, among others, describe some of the symptoms: blushing, sweating, shivering, loss of appetite, stuttering and a buzzing in the ears.

2. Another symptom of lovesickness was a yellow or greenish tinge to the complexion.  In fact, lovesickness was sometimes called chlorosis amatoria which means something like love-greenness. The greenish pallor was a result of an imbalance of one of the four humours, i.e. lack of blood. 

3. If the patient’s greenish complexion, lack of appetite and buzzing ears didn’t give away their affliction, their pulse might. There are several ancient variations on the story of a doctor taking the patient’s pulse when a certain person (or message) arrives and the pulse begins to race. This is how the doctor deduces not only the sickness but its object. Sometimes the patient is male, sometimes female, but the cure is usually the obvious one: sex with the object of desire. (Read more HERE.)

4. When ancient Greeks and Roman doctors took a patient’s pulse, they didn't just note the speed but also the size, frequency, strength, fullness, order, equality and rhythm. 

5. The second century CE physician Galen was a virtuoso pulse-taker. He once diagnosed a tumour purely by anomalies in the patients pulse. He described various types of pulses as ‘ant-like’, ‘wave-like’, ‘worm-like’ and ‘mouse-tailed’. A ‘goat’s pulse’ was a short beat and then a stronger one. 

In the comments section of module 1 of Health and Wellbeing in the Ancient World, online students were asked to take their own pulses and tell which animal it resembled. The results are fascinating. One little girl likened her pulse to a monkey. Her older sister thought hers was a worm. Others described their pulse as a mouse: timid and shy; a goat, nibbling grass; a crocodile waiting to move; a cheetah: strong and fast; an elephant: slow and plodding; a butterfly: changeable, fluttering and somewhat irregular; a dog: faithful but excitable; a plodding carthorse; a stalking tiger and a squirrel eating a nut - nibbling steadily then pausing to observe the surroundings, then speeding up when a risk may be present… 

My pulse was slow and soft but also strong and steady. (No love-sickness there, thank goodness!) At first I thought of a deer but it felt stronger than a doe: more confident. So I settled on stag. Yes. My pulse is ‘stag-like

How about you? Why not try it out HERE.

In fact, I encourage anybody interested in Greek and Roman Medicine to do the entire course. If you feel it's too late to catch up it is repeated in June. 

Brava to Helen King and all her engaging and erudite colleagues!

Caroline Lawrence has written over twenty history-mystery books for kids set in Ancient Rome and is now working on a series set in Roman Britain. Adults might like them, too. 

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