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.