The Ancient Romans That Healed Through Pleasure

Many physicians of the Classical era employed brutal practices including bloodletting and burning, but some treated patient pain with baths, naps, and wine.

A Capriccio of Classical Ruins by Giovanni Paolo Panini (Christie's images / Corbis)

When the Greek-born physician Antonius Musa successfully cured the emperor Augustus of a stubborn, life-threatening disease in 23 B.C.E, he was treated like a demigod. The people of Rome voted to erect a statue of Musa next to that of the healing god Aesculapius. Musa’s rise to fame also meant an explosion of interest in the physician’s methods. How had he managed to cure Augustus when so many others had failed? As it turned out, Musa had been trained in the teachings of the so-called Methodist sect or school of medicine, so called because its practitioners relied on practical method, methodos in Greek, rather than abstract medical dogma.

The Methodist sect had been founded about eighty years earlier by a former struggling orator named Asclepiades of Bithynia. According to the Roman encyclopedist Pliny the Elder, the self-styled doctor was no more than a snake-oil salesman who attracted patients (and filled his pockets) by promising to treat them with wine and naps rather than the more standard bloodletting and induced vomiting. Pliny explains,

[Asclepiades] devised also other pleasures, such as suspended beds, so that by rocking them he could either relieve diseases or induce sleep; again, he organized a system of hydropathy, which appeals to man’s greedy love of baths, and many other things pleasant and delightful to speak of...

The reputation of Asclepiades’s type of medicine contrasted sharply with the reputation of physicians more generally in the ancient world. Rome’s first professional physician, a Greek named Archagathus, was welcomed into the city with fanfare in 219 B.C.E., but public sentiment soon turned against him “because of his violence in cutting and burning,” according to Pliny the Elder. Soon Archagathus was nicknamed “carnifex”—the executioner—and was driven out of the city.

Pliny goes on to claim that a common phrase inscribed on Roman tombstones was, “It was the crowd of physicians that killed me.” Several tombstones have indeed been found with inscriptions along these lines. One, belonging to a freedman named Euhelpistus, reads in part, “In the prime of his life, sudden death snatched him away: a most innocent soul! Doctors cut him and killed him.” Another begins, “Here rests Ephesia Rufria, a mother and good wife. She died of a bad fever, which the doctors caused unexpectedly.”

The most extreme Roman criticism of medical professionals came from Cato the Elder, a Roman politician and writer who was renowned for his conservative morals. In a letter to his son Marcus preserved by Pliny, Cato forbade his child from ever seeking medical help from a professional doctor. According to Cato, professional medicine—overwhelmingly practiced by ethnic Greeks—was nothing less than a conspiracy to destroy Rome: “[Greek doctors] have sworn to kill all barbarians with medicine,” he wrote, “and they charge a fee for doing it, in order to be trusted and to work more easily.”

With standard treatments including bloodletting, purging, fasting, and cauterization, it’s no surprise that many Romans were attracted to the idea of being healed through pleasure. As Pliny concisely put it, “the success of Asclepiades owed much to the many distressing and crude features of ancient medical treatment.”

But was pleasure really what dictated Methodist treatment? Intriguingly, what little we have of the Methodists’ writings suggests that Methodist doctors did not actually shy from Pliny’s “distressing and crude” treatments when they thought it appropriate. In fact, in the only surviving complete book written by a Methodist, Soranus’ Gynecology, treatments such as bleeding and purgatives are recommended occasionally. And as the medical writer Celsus explains, Asclepiades was a believer in what (millennia later) would be termed pyrotherapy, the encouragement of high fevers during illness. He notes,

Therefore those are quite wrong who believe that his regimen was a pleasant one in all respects; for in the later days he allowed even luxuries to his patient, but in the first days of the fever he played the part of torturer.

What does seem to have been unique among Asclepiades’s followers is that every treatment undertaken by a Methodist was supposed to be dictated by the symptoms themselves. This was a stark contrast to more established schools of ancient medicine, which relied on the assumption that all disease was caused by specific—and hidden—imbalances within the body.

One major practical difference resulting from this mindset was that Methodist doctors saw pain as something to be treated for its own sake. The writings of more traditional doctors show strikingly little concern for patients’ discomfort. Take, for example, these passages from the Aphorisms, part of the collection of Greek medical writing known as the Hippocratic Corpus.

If a patient be subject to two pains arising in different parts of the body simultaneously, the stronger blunts the other.

Rest, as soon as there is pain, is a great restorative in all disturbances of the body.

At best, the physician might attempt to distract the patient from his pain, as recommended in another Hippocratic treatise, Decorum.

“Perform all this calmly and adroitly, concealing most things from the patient while you are attending to him. Give necessary orders with cheerfulness and serenity, turning his attention away from what is being done to him; sometimes reprove sharply and emphatically, and sometimes comfort with solicitude and attention, revealing nothing of the patient’s future or present condition.”

Unpleasant as the grin-and-bear it method of pain relief might sound, the few examples of active pain treatment in the Aphorisms are not especially appealing.

When there is pain at the back of the head, some help may be given by cutting open the vessel which runs vertically in the forehead.

Pains in the eyes should be treated by the administration of a draught of neat wine, the application of warm water, and bloodletting.

After the arrival of the Methodist school on the Mediterranean medical scene, however, drugs specifically intended to relieve pain began to appear more and more frequently in medical texts. The Roman physician Galen, who worked in the second century C.E., included a number of painkillers in his book of drug recipes. Due to their inclusion of heavy doses of opium, these would almost certainly have worked better than bloodletting—and Galen attributes these recipes to known Methodists.

While their real innovation may have simply been taking their patients’ pain seriously, the Methodists’ reputation for pleasurable healing was remarkably persistent in popular thought. Some writers, like Pliny, thought the Methodists defrauded patients by appealing to hedonism without any medical knowledge to back up their claims. Others saw real healing potential in pleasure. In a philosophical dialogue set at a doctor’s dinner party, the later writer Plutarch has one of his characters, a Methodist physician, defend the concept.

What kind of pain, what deprivation, what sort of poisonous [drug] can solve a disease as easily and simply as a bath taken on the nick of time, or wine administered when the patients need it? Food too, if taken with pleasure, can solve all the complaints and restore nature to its proper course, as when good weather and calm waters return. But the remedies which work through pain accomplish little with great labours, they enforce themselves viciously and do violence to nature …

While the ancient Methodists’ reputation for pleasure may not have reflected the reality of their treatments, a growing body of scientific research suggests that partaking in pleasurable activities may in fact reduce pain and speed along the healing process.

A study published in April 2015 in the journal Emotions focused on the influence of feeling certain positive and negative emotions on subjects’ blood levels of proinflammatory cytokines, molecules produced by our immune systems response to injury and disease. While these cytokines are crucial in the immediate aftermath of an injury or infection in a healthy person, chronically high levels are correlated with poor health and longer recovery times. The study’s authors found measurably lower cytokine levels in subjects who reported experiencing more positive emotions like awe, joy, contentment, and pride.

Another study published in December 2015 in Current Pharmaceutical Design found that oxytocin—a fascinating though incompletely understood neurotransmitter released by the pituitary gland during childbirth, breastfeeding, and orgasm—has potent analgesic properties. Even more stunning is an older study published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology in 2010. In that study, both members of 37 married couples were given small wounds on their arms, and their healing process and oxytocin levels were monitored. The study found that participants who had higher oxytocin levels in their blood—a result of closer and more enjoyable marital relationships—healed significantly faster than those with lower levels.

The Methodists, of course, didn’t know any of this, nor were they as obsessed with pleasure as their critics imagined. But perhaps they should have been. Aside from being less tortuous—not to mention less dangerous—than the bloodletting and purging favored by many ancient doctors, a glass of wine and a nap may have actually been more likely to help patients heal.