How Did the Ancient Romans Heal Common Ailments?

Edited and published by Wellness Monster Louise

Ancient Roman Medicine, which was influenced by the Greeks, may not have been accurate, but it was the beginning of medical understanding. They were just starting to see how to cure diseases. They thought four humors or bodily fluids affected health. The humors were black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood. Besides physical cures, some believed in prayers and chants.

Common Cold

Chicken soup

Lettuce helped colds. Known as Lactuca Scariola, it is rich in sap, and the name lactuca meant “rich in milk”.

Galen, a Greek doctor who worked in Rome, believed in using opposites such as hot pepper for a cold.

Roman surgeon Pedacius Dioscorides recommended chicken soup in 60 A.D.


The mint plant helped coughs.

Pliny, a Roman scholar, said the herb marshmallow or althea officinalis could be used as cough syrup. Marshmallow pollen has been found at the Roman ruins, Bearsden Fort.

The volatile oils in Hyssop or hyssopus officinalis can help coughing.

Pliny and Celsus, a second century Greek writer, said horehound helped coughs. An amphora, a Roman jar, was discovered at the Roman fort at Carpow in Scotland, and the Greek word for horehound was written on it. Legio sexta victrix or “Victorious Sixth Legion”, a legion of the Roman army, used medicated wine as cough syrup. The Latin word for horehound is Marrubium, and the scientific name is Marrubium Vulgaris.

Galen wrote about a cure for cough, from the formula of physician Ascelpiades, Pontic rhubarb, Cilician crocus saffron, opium, frankincense, myrrh, Celtic nard, and storax all administered with honey mixed with wine”. (

During the summer, the resin/gum of cherry or prunus avium would be mixed with wine to help coughing.

Anise, a flowering plant from the Mediterranean and Southeast Asia, helped coughs.



Marigold or anethum graveolens was used as a fever reducer. It was grown in southern Europe.

Borage or borago officianalis may be from the Latin word “borus” which was a rough, woolen cloak worn by Roman shepherds. It lowered fever.

Pliny said Chamomile, also known as Matricaria Chamomilla and Anthemis nobilis, cured headaches.

Pliny also recommended Monkshood for fever. Its Latin name is Aconitumeurs, and its scientific name is Aconitum Napellus.

Extracts of opium(morphine) and henbane seeds(scopolamine) helped with pains like headaches.

Animals were used in headache cures. Wine in which a chameleon had been soaked could be put on the patient’s head. An elephant trunk could touch the head. It was better if the elephant sneezed. Drinking the water an ox or ass had drank was a cure. Another cure was a liniment created from burned cloth with menstrual oil on it and mixed with the oil of roses. If desperate, cut-off fox genitals could be worn around the head.

Galen promoted cool cucumbers for fevers.

Sweet-smelling herbs such as rose, lavender, sage and hay were used for headaches.

Coriander, an annual herb known as cilantro or Chinese parsley, decreased fever.

In ancient Rome, people with terrible headaches were treated with jolts from the electric black torpedo fish.

Thought to be an extinct plant of the genus Ferula, a kind of fennel, silphium was used for fever.


Borage leaves can also help bruises. It is high in calcium and potassium, and Roman-era borage was discovered in the South Downs of England.

Cato, a Roman historian, recommended cabbage for bruises.

Pliny said unwashed wool, dunked in a mixture of pounded rue and fat, helped bruises.

Hippocrates, a physician who was considered “the father of medicine”, said Roman doctors used rendered pig fat, resin, and bitumen to heal burns.


Aloe vera

A crushed leaf of oak can be put on cuts. The bark, leaves, and galls are strong astringents.

Yarrow or achillea millefolium is an astringent that is anti-inflammatory and hurries healing.

Aloe, a cactus-like plant from hot, dry climates, and frankincense, a resin from the tree of the genus Boswella, helped cuts.

Galen wrote that he used the leaves of the herb Uva ursi or Arctostaphylos uva-ursi to treat cuts and prevent bleeding.

Plantain, also called Plantago, major, minor, and lanceolate, healed cuts.

Vinegar or wine disinfected cuts.

Ground-up pills were rubbed on cuts. These pills were discovered on a shipwreck in 2011. The pills were made of celery, onions, carrots, cabbage, alfalfa, and chestnuts. They also contained extracts of parsley, nasturtium, radish, yarrow, and hibiscus.


Three pinches of cumin, a plant from the Middle East to India, were thought to help nausea. Pennyroyal, an European herb, helped nausea if cooked in vinegar. Rose juice and drinking wine were thought to be nausea cures. A pregnant woman with nausea was supposed to eat a pomegranate or drink its juice. Human breast milk was thought to cure nausea.


Rubus fruticosus

Brambles or rubus fruticosus helped gout, a kind of arthritis. It is a prickly vine or shrub like blackberry.

A mixture of mustard, saffron, male goat fat, and female goat dung was a cure. Rubbing a sea hare on gout-afflicted body parts, and wearing beaver-skin shoes helped. Pliny recommended the pontic beaver. He also thought touching a menstruating woman would help. Another cure was calf dung boiled with lily bulbs.

Romans in pain were to stand on living black torpedo fish while standing on a wet beach until the foot and ankle are numb up to the knees.

Skin rashes

Calendula, calendula officinalis, or marigold helps skin rashes. Calendula is from the Roman word “Calendae” which means the first day of the month, and the plant blooms during several months.

Intestinal problems

The skin of pomegranate or punica granatum was used for intestinal problems. It was introduced to Roman life around the time of the Punic wars.


A hen’s white droppings helped flatulence. Basil mixed with cobbler’s blacking helped. Pliny suggested mixing cumin and asparagus. Ground beaver meat with vinegar and rose oil was helpful in liquid form.


Romans ate raw quinces in honey for constipation. Also, they put wolf’s gall or bile on the belly button with milk, salt, and honey. A bull’s gall could be mixed with wormwood and used as a suppository. Cabbage and beet juice were cures. Celandine with the Latin name of Chelidonium and the scientific name of Chelidonia Majus was a laxative.


Crocodile meat

Ancient Rome may have been the first civilization to treat acne. Crocodile meat mixed with cypress oil helped with acne. Romans took a bath with sour cheese and oil to get rid of pimples. Leek leaves rubbed on the skin could remove pimples. Myrrh juice mixed with cassia and honey was a cure. A Roman physician in the fourth century recommended wiping the face with a cloth while looking at a falling star. The pimples supposedly fell off the face.

Romans used warm sitz baths of sulfur for acne. During the Roman Empire from 27 B.C. to 393 A.D., people thought pores could be unclogged and cleaned by putting sulfur in mineral baths. This helped because it decreased bacteria-causing acne. Sulfur dehydrates which dries up the oil that clogs the skin.


Romans burned cow and mouse dung and swan fat to eliminate warts. Pliny recommended touching each nodule with a freshly podded pea then wrapping the peas in a cloth and throwing them backwards. Another cure was rubbing the wart with sea foam or white sea sand. Wealthy people could use gold. Romans could wait until the twentieth day of the month, lie down faceup on the ground, watch the moon, and grab whatever was closest to rub on the wart.


Soaking a hyena’s bladder in wine and eating it may have helped incontinence. Roasted boar’s bladder, roasted seahorses, and a smaller fish that was inside a larger fish were cures. Pliny said a child could eat boiled mice with their food. Other cures were touching one’s genitals with linen and tying linen or papyrus around the genitals and leg. Incontinence could be helped by burning a pig’s penis, mixing it with wine, and drinking the concoction. As the Roman drank the swine wine, he had to pee in a dog’s bed and say in Latin, This I do that I may not wet my bed as a dog does”. (

Heart Disease

An herb from around the world, garlic was thought to be good for the heart. Garlic was used for a variety of ailments. The Romans used the plant foxglove for heart disease.

Lung Disease

Fenugreek seeds and oil

A Roman physician named Aulus Cornelius Celsus used bloodletting to treat dyspnea or shortness of breath. There is too much fluid in the lungs. He also used bloodletting to treat orthopnea which causes excessive fluid in the lungs and breathing difficulties while lying down. The plant fenugreek was for lung diseases like pneumonia.

For asthma, Celsus recommended bleeding, purgatives, hot, wet compresses, emetics, and diuretics. Purgatives are laxatives, emetics cause vomiting, and diuretics or water pills help remove water from the body. Pliny suggested the use of ephedra or anabis in red wine for asthma. Ephedra is a medicinal herb from the plant, Ephedra Sinica.


For the flu, put mustard paste between two articles of clothing, and put them on the chest.


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Image Credits:

Roman food from the empire. Pepper, bread. [ID 48645554 © Franzgustincich |]

Chicken Soup. Cream, golden. [ID 105159243 © Oksanabratanova |]

Marigold [ID 82500275 © Eddydegroot |]

Aloe vera. Closeup, herbal. [ID 61588983 © Nipaporn Panyacharoen |]

Rubus fruticosus. [ID 32232602 © Lucasos |]

Cooked crocodile meat [ID 40610514 © Edward Westmacott |]

Fenugreek seeds and oil [ID 107975095 © Picstudio |]