There is very little evidence for Roman military medicine, which inevitably means it is the subject of much debate amongst historians. There is no clear evidence at all for any organised medical care for Roman armies in most of the republican period, but it would seem that things did get better during the first century BCE. The legions had two types of medical specialists – the first, medici, had some medical knowledge, although they probably rarely deserved the modern translation of ‘doctor’, as most probably had only basic skills gleaned more from experience than any training. Second were the capsarii, named after the capsa or bandage box, who might equate to modern first-aiders but again with very limited medical knowledge. However the Romans are credited with inventing the valetudinarium, or military hospital, which by the time of the early Caesars formed a part of all Roman camps and offered at least some chance for treatment and recovery for sick or wounded legionnaires.
With so little hard evidence to go on it is not surprising that few people have ventured to recreate Roman medical services, but Linear-B have given it a go so we will try and evaluate their handiwork. That starts in the top row with a stretcher party (did the Romans even have dedicated stretchers like this?). The two bearers are soldiers wearing mail and helmets with the cross reinforcements across the crown that are generally associated with the campaigns in Dacia. The stretcher they carry is quite short – the poor patient has both feet and half his head overlapping the edges, although since he still wears his helmet with the wide rear peak for some reason, this is probably giving him more discomfort. However foremost in his mind is the great thick thing protruding from his stomach. Presumably a spear, since it has not been removed it must be quite a deep wound, in which case this man is surely without hope of survival.
The pair next to this is a rather more likely form of battlefield evacuation – we find a man carrying another on his back in an awkward but probably common and really quite touching scene. The wounded man looks to have a very serious head wound, but we suspect that it is just a poorly judged misalignment of the mould rather than anything intentional. Nevertheless we liked this little grouping, reflecting as it does the desire by some men to aid their fallen comrades in a largely unsympathetic environment.
The last figure in the top row is a simple one of a man leaning on a crutch, although his right arm is in a funny position and why is the crutch so far away from his feet and at that angle? Clearly he cannot be moving from this position.
The next row begins with what looks like someone administering aid. We couldn’t decide if the apron he is wearing was reasonable or smacked too much of much later medical precautions, although handling wounded men would be a very messy business so perhaps it is possible. However this man is not one of the men in the Legion because he wears no armour or uniform, so presumably is a civilian perhaps brought along by a wealthy officer, which seems to have represented almost all the medical cover early Roman armies had. He also has a large beard protruding at ninety degrees to his chin, which is perhaps a crude attempt by the sculptor to make him seem to be Greek, where much Roman medicine came from and allegedly where the best doctors were to be found. He holds something indistinguishable in his left hand, and like many of the others is a very flat pose.
The rest of the middle row looks to be made up of a table with a patient on it and two men presumably holding him down. If so then the match is quite poor, but almost any sort of surgical work would be enormously painful and in the absence of anaesthetic most patients needed restraining like this. The patient is stripped to the under garments and has been sculpted with a badly torn leg (which this time looks to be deliberate). One of the men doing the holding is in uniform, but the other is in civilian clothing, and both have enormous and exceptionally clumsy hands. It looks like the sculptor has tried to convey the hands actually holding something, but the crude style here is simply not good enough to get away with this, so the hands are vast, ugly and in one case suffering from a very badly broken wrist in order to get into that position.
Row three has some oddities. First there is a man doing something, but what? This is another very flat pose, and all we could guess is he holds a hammer and chisel, although from where he holds the hammer he is going to smash his own head rather than the chisel. Given the subject of the set we can only speculate he is about to use these tools to break the bone of something which is at his head height, or perhaps he is supposed to be in the act of trepanning, although if so then what he is about to do will smash the patient's skull rather than perform this delicate operation.
Next to the sculptor is a man lying on a shield. He is missing his left leg below the knee and has his left arm in a rudimentary sling. Amputation was usually the only thing to do when a limb was badly damaged, and even then the patient often did not survive the procedure for long. Shields were an obvious form of transportation for incapacitated men, but a drawback is nicely illustrated here, for the shield is curved and has a prominent boss in the centre. As a result it does not lie flat, but only on one side or the other. Unless you found some nice soft ground or similar support, this must have been a problem in ancient times too, and this figure seems to grip the right side of the shield, so must be leaning to the left. Again the shield is not really big enough for the job, but at least here they have removed his helmet and armour to make him a bit more comfortable.
Time for another mystery figure. What we have is a man dressed in a tunic sitting on a box. He holds both hands on his chest. Perhaps he is discussing a nasty chesty cough, or suffering from itchy nipples, or perhaps he is the subject of the man with the hammer and chisel. If the latter than perhaps he has some wound that all know will be fatal, and he is waiting for that man to bring his life to a less painful and swift end by striking his spine at the neck - a form of ancient mercy killing.
As we have already suggested the sculpting is not good. The usual rudimentary features and poorly proportioned details are on show, and the attempt to portray smaller items such as whatever the figure in row two is holding merely shows what this sort of sculpting cannot achieve. There is not much flash, but as you can see the stretcher team goes together poorly, and the separate legs of the table are decidedly wonky too. We could not explain several of the poses, and since there is lots of empty space on the box perhaps Linear-B should have labelled some of the more obscure ones so we at least know what was intended.
Perhaps the number of unrecognised poses is to blame, but this set did little for us. It was quite brave of Linear-B to undertake such a subject, but we felt the quality of their sculpting simply isn’t good enough to do this sort of quite detailed and specific depiction any sort of justice. Despite some misgivings we cannot prove that anything here is inaccurate, and the history of ancient medicine can be fascinating, but it would take a much better set than this to make us think of putting together a nice model of a Roman valetudinarium.