Dec 21, 2022

Ars Vituperandi – The Roman Art of Insult

Insult is a universal cultural practice and insults are known from the oldest written sources. In ancient Rome insults were not a marginal phenomenon. They are found in all kinds of Roman sources from ordinary wall inscriptions to literature and rhetoric. The Romans were veritable masters of insult. In this blog post I want to highlight some of the relevant sources and show some examples of Roman insults and reflect on the value of insults as a source for academic research.

A Roman speaker,
Vatican Museums.
Roman rhetoric

According to theories of rhetoric it was important to choose the style and figures of speech with regard to one's audience and the occasion. Invective was one of the genres of epideictic speech and was used especially in political and judicial oratory. In his work Institutio Oratoria the Roman rhetorician Quintilian gives instructions on how, when and why a speaker should use rhetorical invective. The basic principle is that the speaker should praise that which is honourable and blame that which is shameful.

In judicial rhetoric particular attention was drawn to the defendant's and other involved parties' character. The defending counsel was supposed to praise the defendant and describe their virtues, whereas the prosecutor was supposed to highlight the defendant's vices and disgrace them. It was thought that a depraved person was more likely to commit a crime than a virtuous one. Similar praise and blame were used in political speeches as well. Politicians sought to influence the popularity of their peers and other magistrates by praising or insulting them publicly.

In his work De Inventione, which focuses on how to choose and arrange the arguments of a speech, Cicero mentions topics which a speaker should pay attention to such as a person's place of birth, nature, mental capacity, appearance, upbringing, manner of life, profession, achievements, family and friends. These same topics can be used for both praise and blame depending on the purpose of the speech.

Cicero (106–43 BCE)

An excellent example of rhetorical invective is the speech In Pisonem which Cicero gave at the Roman senate. He spoke against Lucius Calpurnius Piso who was Cicero's political opponent and accused him of exploiting the province of Macedonia when he was the governor of the province. Cicero didn't mince words while rebuking Piso.

Right in the beginning of his speech (In Pisonem 1) Cicero describes Piso as ugly:

We were not deceived by your slavish complexion,
your hairy cheeks, and your discoloured teeth

Next, he turns his attention to Pisos character, intelligence and talent as orator:

There were but few of us who knew of your filthy vices,
few the crassness of your intelligence
and the sluggish ineptitude of your tongue.

Later on (In Pisonem 10) Cicero describes Piso's morals, what kind of bad company he keeps, and how dissolute a life he leads:

Piso meanwhile, neither so elegant nor so artistic a debauchee,
lolled amid his tipsy and malodorous Greeks, – –
and in it none can say whether that wretch spent more time
in drinking or in vomiting or in excreting his potations.

Cicero has much more to say about Piso. It was claimed that he never spoke publicly at the Forum. He hadn't achieved anything worth mentioning. He was elected to public office by accident because he shared his name with his ancestors. He was a thief who took bribes. He wore strange clothes, was a drunkard and a debauchee who often visited brothels.

Throughout the speech Cicero insults Piso in various terms calling him a monster (belua, pecus), dog (canis), ass (asinus), murderer (carnifex), plague (pestis), criminal (scelus), enemy (hostis) and traitor (proditor). Similar insults were used in Roman comedy as well.

Theatrical masks in relief, Ostia.

Most of the extant Roman comedies come from Plautus and Terence who are the most famous Roman playwrights. Roman comedy was a continuation of the Greek tradition of comedy, the most famous representatives of which were Aristophanes and Menander. The themes of these comedies were often taken from everyday life, and some of the common characters were slaves, soldiers, prostitutes, young lovers and old men and women. The text and the dialogue of the plays reflected popular language and idioms. This included insults and swearing which were an essential part of comedic expression and vocabulary.

Plautus (ca. 254–184 BCE)

Let's take Plautus' play Bacchides as an example of insults in comedy. The play is about two sisters who are prostitutes and who share the name Bacchis. Men fall in love with wrong sisters, people end up in inconvenient situations, arguments ensue, and deception is the norm. This all leads to heated exchanges where insults are tossed back and forth. In the end everybody ends up happily in the same bed in a brothel.

Here are some insults coined by Plautus:

You triple-dyed poisoner (terveneficus)
(Bacchides 813)

O you poor, poor fool (stultus)
(Bacchides 814)

He’s now walking around as the scum of the earth,
he doesn’t have his wits or his senses any more,
and he’s worth as much as a rotten mushroom. (fungus putidus)
(Bacchides 820–821)

You hardened criminal (scelerum caput)
(Bacchides 829)

Fresco from Pompeii,
National Archaeological Museum of Naples.

Roman poetry usually brings to mind epic stories of heroes and passionate love poems. One popular genre of Roman poetry was satire of which insults were a crucial part. Some of the most famous writers of poetic satire were Catullus, Horace, Martial and Juvenal. Horace's poems represent a light-hearted type of satire based on witty humour, whereas Catullus and Juvenal use much more stinging language. Martial is somewhere between these extremes with his keen and pointed verses which take their themes from Roman everyday life and habits. Besides poetry the prose work Satyricon by Petronius can also be regarded as satire. The adventures of the three main characters are often spiced up by sharp dialogue and insult.

Catullus (ca. 84–54 BCE)

Catallus is best known for his love poems to one Lesbia, but he also wrote some nasty invective. He had a lot to say about his contemporaries such as Caesar and his associates. Catullus had this to say about Mamurra who served under Caesar in Gaul:

Who can look upon this, who can suffer this,
except he be lost to all shame and voracious and a gambler,
that Mamurra should have what Gallia Comata
and farthest Britain had once?
Pansy Romulus, can you see and endure this?
(Poem 29, verses 1–5)

Mamurra became rich through these military campaigns and the help of Caesar. Catullus also rebukes Caesar – calling him Romulus – for allowing Mamurra's shameless actions. In another poem (94) Catullus calls Mamurra simply a dick!

Rufus mentioned in the next poem is probably Marcus Caelius Rufus, a friend of Catullus. Rufus had an affair with Clodia, the same woman whom Catullus also loved. This poem apparently refers to this love triangle and the deceit that Catullus felt he had suffered because of the affair between Rufus and Clodia.

Rufus, whom I, your friend, trusted in vain,
and to no purpose—in vain? nay, rather at a great and ruinous price—
have you stolen into my heart and burning into my vitals torn away,
alas, all my blessings? Torn away, alas, alas!
you the cruel poison of my life, alas, alas!
you the deadly bane of my friendship.
(Poem 77)

In the end Clodia betrayed both men and incurred the hatred of many others as well. One of Cicero's speeches, Pro Caelio, recounts parts of this story with Clodia. Rufus was accused of political violence and murder. Cicero's defence was partly based on defaming Clodia as he sought to show that the jealous Clodia, who had been rejected by Rufus, was behind the accusations. This speech is another great example of Cicero's skills of rhetorical invective.

In his other poems Catullus calls people greedy, ugly, stupid and perverse, among other insults. Catullus did not hesitate to use even the crudest Latin obscenities.

Drunken satyr, found at Herculaneum,
National Archaeological Museum of Naples.
Martial (ca. 40–102 CE)

Martials followed the model of Catullus in many ways. Both wrote shameless ad hominem attacks; the difference being that Catullus openly disparaged some of his famous contemporaries, whereas Martial maintained that he never insulted anyone with their real name. Martial wanted to comment on vices and not to offend anyone personally. This in no way diminishes the ingenuity and acuity of his insults.

Martial pays attention to people's questionable morals and behaviour such as drunkenness, thievery and deviant sexuality.

Anybody who thinks that Acerra reeks of yesterday’s wine misses his guess.
Acerra always drinks till sunrise.
(Poem 1.28)

This short and succinct poem reveals Acerra as a drunkard who drinks through the night. This kind of structure where the point of the insult is revealed at the end is typical of Martial's epigrams.

Another favourite topic of Martial's was married life. He wrote about one-night stands, unfaithfulness, adultery and murders of husbands and wives. Here's an example of this last theme:

Chloe the murderess inscribed on the tombs of her seven husbands that
“she did it.” What could be plainer?
(Poem 9.15)

Chloe buried her seventh husband. It was customary in Roman funerary inscriptions to mention who took care of the burial, often with a name and fecit, 'so and so made this'. Martial insinuates that Chloe was responsible for more than just burying her husband. Inheritance was often the motive for murdering one's partner. Legacy-hunting is a recurring theme in Martial's poems. Young men and women pursue older partners in the hope of eventually inheriting them, and old men and women enjoy and take advantage of their young lovers' flattery and gifts.

In this next poem Martial describes a man lying on a couch enjoying a dinner. The man is bald and toothless but tries to conceal this.

That person who lies lowest on the middle couch,
he of the bald pate with its three strands of hair and its trails of pomade,
who picks his loose mouth with smoothed sticks of mastic,
is a liar, Aefulanus: he has no teeth.
(Poem 6.74)

Martial often portrays bald and toothless people in his poems. Making jokes at the expense of someone's physical appearance may seem distasteful to us but it appears to have been very popular in ancient Rome. Other stereotypical characters portrayed by Martial include lusty women, impotent men, greedy and cruel owners of slaves and incompetent doctors to name just a few.


Wall inscriptions have been found all over the ancient Roman empire. The most important collection of over 10 000 documented examples was preserved in Pompeii and its environs thanks to the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE. Such unofficial and mundane inscriptions could be made by anyone who could write by scratching into or painting on the walls of houses or on other suitable surfaces. Graffiti in a strict sense are those inscriptions which were incised with a sharp instrument into the surface of a wall. These were usually quite unnoticeable unlike modern graffiti. Most of Pompeian graffiti were written in private houses and public buildings and usually in very visible locations. So, it seems that writing on the walls was an acceptable or at least a tolerated practice in Pompeii.

A caricature drawing,
Villa of Mysteries, Pompeii.
The contents of ancient graffiti include names, greetings, expressions of love, shopping lists, drawings, alphabets, poems, curses and – of course – insults. Even the crudest Latin obscenities were used in graffiti, such as were usually avoided in Roman literature. In addition to textual insults there were many caricature drawings. The drawing in the picture to the right was (CIL IV 9226) found in the atrium of a private villa in Pompeii. Above the drawing there is the text Rufus est 'this is Rufus'. (This is not the Rufus Catullus wrote about. He lived a hundred years earlier.) In the drawing Rufus is depicted as bald, small-eyed and with a large nose, all features that were commonly disparaged in Roman insults.

Here is a selection of insults from Pompeii:

Epaphra, you are hairless.
(CIL IV 1816)

The hairlessness of Epaphra is perhaps due to depilation which was regarded as feminine and improper for men.

Virgula to his Tertius: you are indecent!
(CIL IV 1881)

A man named Virgula calls out another man. The pronoun suus 'his' indicates a close relationship so this might be a case friendly banter rather than an insult.

Ladicula is a thief.
(CIL IV 4776)

This is a rather straightforward insult unless Ladicula was actually a thief in which case it may be a warning to others dealing with her.

Serena hates Isidorus.
(CIL IV 3117)

A few other graffiti have been found elsewhere in Pompeii calling one Isidorus a cuntlicker and a prostitute. This may be one and the same person.

Lucilla made a profit with her body.
(CIL IV 1948)

Lucilla is called a prostitute. According to Roman law, prostitutes lost some of their civil rights and were officially under a shameful status.

You're a huge dick.
(CIL IV 7089)

This is one of my personal favourites among the Pompeian insults. It was written on an external wall of a house so that anyone passing by and reading the graffito became the target of the insult.

Felix, you defecate.
(CIL IV 2075)

This graffito is an embarrassingly public announcement of Felix's bodily functions.

Most of the graffiti were short and simple, but sometimes the scribblers were inspired to create longer and more sophisticated writings on the walls, even turning some of them into poetic metre.

Chius, I hope your piles again become sore
and burn worse than they did before.
(CIL IV 1820)

Chius suffers from haemorrhoids which were thought to be the result of excessive anal sex. This may also be a joke concerning the man's name. Both piles and figs were called ficus in Latin and the best figs came from the island of Chios which the name Chius refers to.

Gaius Hadius Ventrio, knight, born Roman between a beet and a cabbage.
(CIL IV 4533)

Gaius Hadius Ventrio was no real knight but a Roman noble belonging to the upper class called knights. Gaius is said to be of humble origins. A Roman man's reputation depended largely on his background and birth.

We wet the bed, innkeeper. I admit we did wrong.
If you ask why, there was no chamber pot.
(CIL IV 4957)

This graffito was found next to a doorway leading into a building that may have been an inn. This message was perhaps left as feedback by a guest who stayed overnight at the establishment. What is more, the graffito was written in elegiac metre:

Míximus ín lectó fateór peccávimus hóspes.
Sí dicés quaré, || núlla matélla fuít.

Insults as a source of research

Roman insults reflect the social norms of the Roman society and offer interesting and meaningful perspectives into ancient Roman culture. The study of insults advances our understanding of the attitudes and prejudices prevalent in the Roman society. Comparing different sources, it is possible to examine how social context and various stereotypes influenced the content and form of invective, and how insults were put to use in different situations. Insults, especially those in graffiti and other informal sources, also reflect the everyday interactions and language of the ordinary people.

Ancient insults also provide a great point of comparison to modern hate speech. We can investigate how prejudices and social norms related to defamation have changed or stayed constant in the West from antiquity to modern times, and what sort of mechanisms promote and enable hate speech. In recent years this historical dimension of hate speech has come more and more into focus. This point of view is crucial when we seek to understand what kind of thinking hate speech arises from, and what it has led to in different times. Historical sources show that hate speech is connected to prevalent cultural norms and attitudes in each society. This becomes particularly apparent when we analyse prejudices and stereotypes that insults were based on.

This blog post is based on a talk I gave at an event organized by Paideia association at the public library of Turku on October 7th 2022.

More on Roman insults in this blog:
Sources of translations:

Plautus. Amphitryon. The Comedy of Asses. The Pot of Gold. The Two Bacchises. The Captives. Edited and translated by Wolfgang de Melo. Loeb Classical Library 60. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011.

Catullus. Tibullus. Pervigilium Veneris. Translated by F. W. Cornish, J. P. Postgate, J. W. Mackail. Revised by G. P. Goold. Loeb Classical Library 6. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1913.

Cicero. Pro Milone. In Pisonem. Pro Scauro. Pro Fonteio. Pro Rabirio Postumo. Pro Marcello. Pro Ligario. Pro Rege Deiotaro. Translated by N. H. Watts. Loeb Classical Library 252. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1931.

Martial. Epigrams, Volumes I–III. Edited and translated by D. R. Shackleton Bailey. Loeb Classical Library 94, 95, 480. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993.

The translations of Pompeian graffiti are my own. All photos are my own.

Nov 1, 2022

Popular beliefs about doctors in ancient Rome

Ancient Romans held a wide range of often contradictory views about physicians. Medical writers tended to praise the knowledge and skills of physicians, while other sources often described physicians as dishonest, incompetent and deadly charlatans. I will describe some of the most common beliefs about physicians in non-medical Roman sources such as Pliny the Elder, Martial, inscriptions and graffiti. But first, a few words about the ancient medical art as background to these popular beliefs.

Medical art in ancient Rome

Traditional Roman medicine – before the introduction of Greek medical theories – was based on natural treatments administered by family members, not by professional physicians. The head of the family, paterfamilias, was responsible for the wellbeing of his family and servants. Greek doctors started to move to Rome during the first centuries BC and brought with them new theories, which were slowly incorporated into Roman medicine. Many Romans were skeptical of the Greek influence, but Greek doctors were eventually accepted, especially among the aristocracy.

Aeneas treated by a surgeon.
(National Archaeological Museum of Naples, photo: Joonas Vanhala)

There were several competing theories on the human physiology and how ailments should be treated. One of the most well-known theories is that of the bodily fluids, but other aspects such as diet, heat and climate were thought to affect one’s health as well. The physician’s job was to make a diagnosis and suggest a course of treatments. Some of the most common treatments included diets, cold and hot baths, bloodletting and vomiting to balance the bodily fluids, medicines, herbs, magical cures, surgery and so on. Many of these treatments were, of course, ineffective and sometimes even dangerous to the patient. Healing was also sought in the sanctuaries of the gods of healing such as Aesculapius or through magical aids such as potions and amulets. A great number of votive gifts, offered as thanks to the gods for healing, have been found.

Roman votive gifts depicting healed parts of the body.
(Archaeological Museum of Bologna, photo: Joonas Vanhala)

There were various medical practitioners. Most of the physicians in Rome were Greek and usually from the lower classes. Greek doctors were the ones with the greatest theoretical knowledge, but there were others whose learning was based on a more practical take on medicine such as surgeons, midwives and herbalists. Most of these could be called medici in Latin, although in many instances this term refers specifically to the Greek learned physicians.

A relief depicting a midwife.
(Isola Sacra, photo: Joonas Vanhala)

There was no standardized education, and no qualifications were needed to be able to call oneself a physician. This was naturally reflected in the quality of treatment. On the other hand, we know of doctors specialized in the treatment of eyes, ears, teeth and fistulae, for instance, which indicates a dedication to a particular field of medicine.

Roman medical instruments also show that the ancient doctors could perform a number of practical treatments such as placing a catheter to aid urination, cauterize unhealthy tissue, remove teeth, and perform some basic surgical operations such as removing cataracts from the eye.

Roman medical instruments found in Pompeii.
(National Archaeological Museum of Naples, photo: Joonas Vanhala)

Cato the Elder: Greek physicians trying to destroy the Romans

One of the earliest accounts on physicians comes from Cato the Elder. He wanted to uphold traditional Roman values and practices and was skeptical of the Greek influence in Rome. Of the Greeks and their medicine, he had this to say:

They [Greeks] are a quite worthless people, and an intractable one, and you must consider my words prophetic. When that race gives us its literature it will corrupt all things, and even all the more if it sends hither its physicians. They have conspired together to murder all foreigners with their physic, but this very thing they do for a fee, to gain credit and to destroy us easily. (Pliny the Elder, Natural history 29.7)

For Cato the two main points of complaint were that Greek physicians were ill-willed and wanted to harm people, and that they demanded money for their services. These ideas are expressed in later Roman sources as well. Cato’s view is based on a general prejudice against the Greeks and their culture that he saw as corrupting the Roman society.

Pliny the Elder: dishonest, greedy and dangerous physicians

Another well-known account on medicine and physicians was written by Pliny the Elder. His description reflects many of the beliefs and prejudices held by the Romans. Pliny follows Cato when he describes Greek physicians as dangerous and willing to kill:

Physicians acquire their knowledge from our dangers, making experiments at the cost of our lives. Only a physician can commit homicide with complete impunity. (Pliny the Elder, Natural History 29.8)

While Cato argued that the Greek physicians were simply malicious, Pliny saw a clear motive for the harm done by physicians, medical knowledge through experiments.

Pliny laid down further accusations of poisonings, conspiracies and adulteries:

For what has been a more fertile source of poisonings? Whence more conspiracies against wills? Yes, and through it too adulteries occur even in our imperial homes… (Pliny, NH 29.8)

He also accused physicians of avarice and greed:

Let me not even bring charges against their avarice, their greedy bargains made with those whose fate lies in the balance, the prices charged for anodynes, the earnest-money paid for death… (Pliny, NH 29.8)

Pliny portrays physicians as deliberately harming their patients for their own gain. This may have some basis in reality considering the number of accounts in Roman sources of such nefarious dealings, especially in aristocratic and imperial households.

One more criticism that Pliny raises against physicians is their incompetence:

It is plainly a showy parade of the art, and a colossal boast of science. And not even the physicians know their facts… (Pliny, NH 29.8)

Pliny is opposed to Greek doctors much the same as Cato, because of a general prejudice against the Greeks. It seems that many upper-class Romans were skeptical about the corrupting influence of Greek ideas and their threat to traditional Roman values and virtues even in the 1st century AD.

This aversion to Greek physicians seems to have spilled over to more popular forms of art such as Roman comedy and satire. In these genres the focus is not as clearly on the Greek aspect of medicine, but it still lingers in the background. The point of these biting descriptions is more specifically on the misconducts of doctors and the dangers they pose to their patients.

Martial: incompetent and deadly physicians

One of the most prolific writers of satirical epigram was Martial who wrote many poems specifically about doctors. In this poem the doctor and his students do more harm than good:

I was out of sorts; but at once you visited me, Symmachus, accompanied by a hundred pupils. A hundred hands chilled by the north wind touched me. I did not have a fever, Symmachus. Now I do. (Mart. 5.9) 

Many of the physicians in Martial’s epigrams end up killing their patients. An extreme case is this one where the mere sight of a doctor is enough to kill a man:

Andragoras bathed with us, ate a cheerful dinner; the same man was found dead in the morning. Do you enquire the cause of so sudden a demise, Faustinus? In his dreams he had seen Doctor Hermocrates. (Mart. 6.53)

The doctors in Martial's poems almost always have Greek names, which may simply reflect the fact that most physicians of his time were still of Greek descent, but there may be a hint of prejudice embedded in there too. The focus is not so much on the physicians being Greek but on their general lack of competence and their questionable morals.

The fact that this kind of abuse against physicians was not solely a matter of prejudice against Greeks is especially evident when we compare the poems of Martial with Greek epigrams, where many of the same themes appear. An incompetent doctor ends up killing his patient in this ridiculously exaggerated account:

Socles, promising to set Diodorus’ crooked back straight, piled three solid stones, each four feet square, on the hunchback’s spine. He was crushed and died, but he has become straighter than a ruler. (Greek Anthology 11.120)

Just like the patient in Martial’s poem who was killed after seeing a doctor in his dream, here remembering the doctor’s name is enough to kill a man:

Phidon did not purge me with a clyster or even feel me, but feeling feverish I remembered his name and died. (Greek Anthology 11.118)

And here is an example of the recurring topic of greed and avarice of the physicians:

Rhodo removes leprosy and scrofula by drugs, but he removes everything else [i.e. steals] even without drugs. (Greek Anthology 11.333)

Invective against physicians had clearly become a literary topos that was expressed in both Greek and Latin writings and over a span of centuries. The Greek epigrams cited above were roughly contemporary with Pliny and Martial, that is from the 1st and 2nd centuries AD. The collection of Greek epigrams, however, contains similar material even from previous centuries.

Cicero: positive mentions of physicians

The remarks on physicians in Roman literature are not entirely negative, however. There are occasions when doctors are remembered in a positive light such as when Cicero laments the death of one of his doctors:

What a misfortune about Alexio! – – It is his love for me, his kindness and charming manner that I miss. There is another thing, too. What have we not to fear, when so temperate a person and so skillful a physician can be overcome suddenly by such a disease? (Cicero, Letters to Atticus 15.1.1)

Or when Cicero recommends a physician to a friend:

To you I most earnestly recommend Glyco, the physician of Pansa, who has the sister of our man Achilles for his wife. – – Besides, he is steady and a worthy fellow who, you would think, could not even be driven to crime by the prospect of gain. (Cicero, Letters to Brutus 1.6.2)

Here Cicero is mindful of one of the common complaints against physicians, namely their willingness to commit crimes in hopes of monetary gain. On other occasions Cicero does voice similar criticism against physicians as seen in Cato, Pliny and Martial.

Inscriptions: praise and blame of physicians

Physicians are mentioned in many inscriptions, especially in funerary contexts. These inscriptions offer a glimpse into the thoughts and views of social classes outside of the literary circles of Rome. Many of these inscriptions were produced by and for slaves and freed slaves. Roman inscriptions express both praise and blame for doctors.

Here is a votive inscription offered to the gods of healing by a Roman officer Ulpius, praising a doctor named Lucius Julius Helix:

(Photo: Catalogo dei Musei Vaticani)

Dedicated to Aesculapius and Hygia – Marcus Ulpius Honoratus, cavalry officer, for his health and of his family, and that of Lucius Julius Helix, the physician who diligently took care of me according to the gods, has fulfilled his vow willingly and happily. (CIL VI 19, Rome, 131–179 AD) 

Another inscription, written in the first person, portrays a physician praising himself, which is not unusual in funerary inscriptions. Judging by his name, Claudius was most likely a freed slave. The inscription may have been commissioned by Claudius himself before his death or by someone else.

(Photo: Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford)

I, physician Claudius Agathemeros, who swiftly learned a remedy against all kinds of illness, rest here. This memorial is common to me and my wife Myrtale. We are in Elysium with the pious ones. (IGUR III 1247, Rome, ca. 50–100 AD)

Praise of a doctor is not unexpected in a votive inscription dedicated to the gods of healing and is quite formulaic in a physicians own funerary inscription. Still, such complimentary remarks show that physicians were not always the target of disparaging invective, but could be remembered fondly, just as in Cicero’s remarks about his doctors.

There are, however, many examples of more negative opinions expressed even in inscriptions. In a few inscriptions physicians are remembered for their inefficient treatments such as here:

(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Felix Asinianus, public slave of the priests, fulfilled his vow to Bona Dea Agrestis Felicula willingly after his eyesight was restored. Abandoned by doctors he was cured after ten months through medicine by the aid of his Mistress… (CIL VI 68, Rome, ca. 1–30 AD)

In this second one the doctors killed the patient:

CIL VI 37337
(Photo: Corpus inscriptionum Latinarum, Archiv)

To the spirits of the dead; Euhelpistus, a freed slave, who is also a Manes, lived 27 years, 4 months and 11 days. A sudden death took away his joyous years, a most innocent soul whom doctors cut up and killed. Publius Aelius Peculiaris, a freed slave of the emperor, [made this] to his fellow slave. (CIL VI 37337, Rome, ca. 101–150 AD)

Inscriptions such as these follow certain traditional forms and are not necessarily a good reflection of popular attitudes, although their content could be varied according to individual tastes and requests. We should look for further evidence in Roman graffiti which tended to be more spontaneous in both their content and how they were produced. The problem is, there are very few graffiti that mention physicians at all, and the ones that do, usually do so in passing.

Graffiti: few mentions of physicians

From Herculaneum we have this famous graffito:

CIL IV 10619
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Apollinaris, doctor, slave of emperor Titus, pooped well here. (CIL IV 10619)

This description of Apollinaris is quite neutral. And even if we want to detect an aspect of insult, it has more to do with the fact that he was defecating, not that he was a doctor.

In this graffito found in Ostia are threatened with oral rape:

– – Shit well and fuck the doctors in the mouth. (AE 1941,8)

This is clearly a hostile take on doctors, but we know nothing about the context or the motives of the writer of this graffito.

Among the Pompeian graffiti I have only found this mention of a man treating another man:

Pierus Celadus, priest of the cult of Augustus, treated Amandus, Papirius' slave. (CIL IV 8810)

The fact that illness was a common occurrence is reflected in a number of graffiti from Pompeii, such as this one making fun of a person suffering from hemorrhoids, which were believed to be the result of anal sex:

CIL IV 1820
(Photo: Varone 2012)

Chios, I hope your piles become sore again, so that they smart more than they smarted before. (CIL IV 1820)

In a few Pompeian graffiti the writer wishes disease for someone else, resembling a curse: 

I hope you will fall ill. (CIL IV 2960)

Greetings Asbestus, you should get ill. (CIL IV 762)

Insults against doctors are almost completely absent from Roman graffiti. It is difficult to say why this is when abuse against them is so prominent in Roman literature. There were physicians even in small towns like Pompeii. The most likely explanation for the absence of invective against physicians from the graffiti is that doctors simply did not warrant much attention in people’s lives. A visit to a doctor may have been a rare occurrence. And if the doctors were mostly itinerant ones, writing about them on the walls wouldn’t have made much sense. The prejudice against physicians expressed in Roman literary sources probably was familiar even to the non-elite, but this was simply not expressed in wall inscriptions.

Invective against physicians seems to have been a matter of literary expression and a point of discussion among the upper classes, rather than a popular topic among the ordinary people. The criticism of physicians in literary sources was, at least in part, based on a more general prejudice against the Greeks and their growing influence in Rome. The accusations of malpractice and harmfulness of the physicians was likely based on reality because the ancient medical theories led to ineffective and dangerous treatments. The negative beliefs about physicians discussed here were popular in the sense ”widely held”, at least among certain literary circles, but not ”popular” in the sense that the wider public would have expressed them in their occasional writings.

This blog post is based on a paper I gave at the 14th annual conference of the International Society for Cultural History in Verona, Italy in August titled "Popular beliefs about physicians in ancient Rome". The PowerPoint slides can be found through this link.


Cicero in Twenty-Eight Volumes. XXVIII, ed. M. Cary, Cambridge 1989.

Cicero. Letters to Atticus, ed. E.O. Winstedt, Cambridge–London 1987.

The Greek Anthology, Books X–XII, ed. by W. R. Paton, Loeb Classical Library 85, Cambridge MA 1918.

Martial, Epigrams, Vol. 1–3, ed. by D. R. Shackleton Bailey, Loeb Classical Library 94, 95 & 480, Cambridge MA 1993.

Pliny the Elder, Natural History, Volume VIII: Books 28-32, ed. W. H. S. Jones, Loeb Classical Library 418, Cambridge MA 1963.

The translations of inscriptions and graffiti are my own.

Other sources:

AE = L’Année épigraphique

CIL IV = Corpus inscriptionum Latinarum, vol. 4, Inscriptiones parietariae Pompeianae Herculanenses Stabianae, Berlin, 1871–.

CIL VI = Corpus inscriptionum Latinarum, vol. 6, Inscriptiones urbis Romae Latinae, Berlin, 1876– 

IGURInscriptiones Graecae urbis Romae

Varone 2012 = A. Varone, Titulorum graphio exaratorum qui in C.I.L. vol. IV collecti sunt, imagines, ”L’Erma” di Bretschneider, Roma 2012.

Sep 25, 2022

My Journey Home through Europe

My fellowship at the Finnish Institute in Rome ended at the end of August, and I decided to travel from Rome back to Finland by train. This was the first time I chose to travel like this instead of flying. I'd thought about this option, but I never had the time or the money to do it. Flying is still so much cheaper and easier. But this time I had enough time to travel across Europe, and I even got a travel grant from the The Swedish Cultural Foundation in Finland to attend a conference in Bordeaux along the way.

On my way from Rome to Paris.

I bought a seven day interrail-pass and booked seats in all the trains and a couple hotels along the way. I wanted to stop in a few cities such as Cologne and Copenhagen. My preparations also included sending my big suitcase to Finland in advance. Luckily, one of my acquaintances in Rome was flying to Finland and took my suitcase with her. I could now travel with only a backpack and a carry-on. Some items, such as the horn of a gramophone I'd just bought at the Porta Portese market in Rome, I had to carry with me in an Ikea-bag.

The train rode along the lake Geneva.

I departed from Rome in the morning on Saturday 27th of August and headed to Paris. The best views along this leg of my trip were along the ride between Milan and Geneva, where the train passed through the Alps, along deep mountain passes and the Lake Geneva. I arrived in Paris late in the evening. I stayed overnight and spent almost all day on Sunday at the Louvre. In the evening I picked up my stuff from the hotel and took a train to Bordeaux.

My new favorite item at the Louvre, an owl dressed up in military equipment.

In Bordeaux I attended a conference of Greek and Roman epigraphy (CIEGL 2022). I had been accepted to present a poster on my doctoral research (you can see the poster here). The most memorable moments of the conference were all the meetings with colleagues, a reception at the archaeological museum of Bordeaux after hours, where we could freely explore the museum, and a trip to Perigueux, where we got to know the Roman history of the city and visit the excellent Vesunna Museum.

The modern conference resembles the pilgrimage...

Presenting my poster. (Photo: Alessandra Tafaro).

On Friday morning 2nd of September I left Bordeaux and took a train to Cologne where I arrived in the afternoon. Right outside the railway station I was greeted by the impressive silhouette of the Cologne Cathedral. I took my stuff to the hotel and headed right away to the cathedral. It's just as magnificent as I'd heard. Two huge spires, high gothic arches, colorful stained glass windows, and curious details everywhere. Under the church some Roman architectural remains could be seen. I, of course, wanted to climb up to one of spires which had an amazing view over the city. It was an ascent of some 100 meters and over 500 steps.

Cologne Cathedral.

Next day I visited the Roman-German Museum, which is temporarily housed in a different and smaller place due to a renovation of the museum. The exhibition was, nonetheless, excellently organized. Items were grouped thematically and the Roman history of Cologne was presented in a chronological order. I was particularly impressed by the collection of Roman glassware. In addition to this museum, there was another temporary exhibition "Rom am Rhein" across the street. This exhibition showcased many of the same themes as the Roman-German Museum, but I was disappointed by the poor execution and incoherence of the exhibition. There were plenty of interesting items on display but there was very little information and the items were left detached from a larger historical and cultural context, and there was seemingly no common thread running through the exhibition. Still, I was happy with the collections of Roman items I'd seen that day. Finally I took a walk around some of the Roman sights in the city such as a piece of a Roman street, a piece of an aqueduct and some city walls.

Roman glassware at the Römisch-Germanisches Museum of Cologne.

I departed from Cologne on Saturday evening and headed towards Copenhagen. I had an overnight 12 hour train ride without a sleeper car ahead of me. I was prepared with snacks and several episodes of various TV series. The journey went without incidents, except for a one and a half hour stop before the Danish border. Apparently the only reason for the long stop was to delay the arrival of the train in Copenhagen. Without the stop the train would have arrived around 5 am. When we got to the border the train stopped for passport inspection and Danish officials boarded the train. One family traveling with two young children were forced to disembark because they couldn't present valid travel documents. They were promised a place to stay the night and that they could continue their journey once their documents would be cleared.

The train arrived in Copenhagen on Sunday morning around 7 am. I had booked a hotel right next to the railway station. I left my luggage at the reception, ate breakfast at the hotel, and then headed to the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek. I was at the door of the museum a little before opening time so I was one of the first ones in.

Waiting for the museum to open.

The sculptural collections of the Glyptotek.

I had long been waiting for a chance to visit the Glyptotek which houses a grand collection of Greek and Roman sculptures. The museum is also known for colorful reconstructions of some of their sculptures. The replicas have been painted with the colors that scholars think the original sculptures had. These painted copies have given rise to varied reactions, but they represent the original polychromatic style of the sculptures. There was also a concert at the museum that day with music from Mozart and Brahms.

Here are a few examples of the painted sculptures:

On Monday morning I continued my journey from Copenhagen to Stockholm where I arrived in the afternoon. I walked with my luggage to the old city of Stockholm where I bought some souvenirs. I had planned to visit the Fotografiska Museet, but in the end I was so tired and there was so little time that I just walked to the ferry terminal to wait for the departure of of the ship that would take me across the Baltic Sea to Finland. I finally arrived in Turku early in the morning of Tuesday 6th of September.

The ferry arriving in Turku.

That was the end of my journey from Rome to Finland, and the end of my one-year-long fellowship at the Finnish Institute in Rome. I've already settled back in my old apartment in Turku and started working as a doctoral researcher at the University of Turku. I will continue my research here at least for the next couple of years. My year in Rome was wonderful but I'm glad to be back home again.

The last leg of my journey: the city ferry Föri took me across the Aura River.

All photos are my own unless mentioned otherwise.

Aug 17, 2022

Cultural History Conference in Verona

In early August I attended a cultural history conference in Verona. This was my first big international conference and I enjoyed it immensely. The papers given at the conference were interesting, the city is beautiful, the weather was nice (although a bit too hot) and the company I had was excellent. Here are a few highlights from my week in Verona.


I arrived in Verona from Finland, where I'd been on summer holiday, on August 1st. With a few other Finnish attendees we had booked lodging for the whole week at a local student residence. The residence was close to the university of Verona and was comfortable, clean and relatively cheap. The conference started on Tuesday and lasted until Friday so we had time for some sightseeing too.

The best panel of the conference: me, Saara, Juha and Jasmin.

I had prepared a panel together with Juha Isotalo, Saara Kauppinen and Jasmin Lukkari. We gave papers on ancient beliefs about barbarians, Roman politicians, doctors and practitioners of magic (conference programme, abstracts). Our panel gave rise to a lot of questions and discussion. At the end we had to cut the questions short because we were running out of time and drinks were being served in the lobby. My own paper was about popular beliefs about Roman physicians (here are the slides). I enjoyed presenting my paper and thought it went well. I got good feedback and some great tips on how to proceed with my research. I will write more thoroughly about Roman doctors in another blog post later.

Ote esitelmästäni (kuva: Juha Isotalo)

We held our panel in the first session of the conference on Tuesday so for the rest of the week we could just enjoy other participants' papers. I listened to talks about pestilence, medieval theology, public administration in classical Athens and mysteries in late antiquity among other topics. During the conference I got to meet scholars from many countries such as the United Kingdom, Canada, Italy, Germany, Romania and, of course, Finland. About a quarter of the papers given at the conference and of the attendees were from Finland. All in all there were about 70–80 scholars in attendance and many more online. The contribution of the Finnish contingent was thus quite significant.

Conference dinner

Besides the conference programme we had time to explore Verona. We tried the local restaurants and bars and saw some of the most important sights. (We did avoid the balcony of Juliet, though.) A major highlight was the opera Aida which I saw at the Arena of Verona, a Roman amphitheater which is exceptionally well preserved and still in use. I was impressed by both the opera and the venue. We had bought cheap tickets so we sat on the original stone benches. It was extraordinary to think that we were sitting in the same seats as the Romans when they came to see entertainment at the arena. Lucky for us the entertainment was opera rather than public executions and gladiatorial fights.

Aida at the Arena of Verona

I also had time to visit a couple of archaeological museums. The first one was at the Roman theater of Verona which is also in use in the summer. Unfortunately this means that much of the theater can't be seen because of the modern seating and the scene.

Veronan roomalainen teatteri on yhä käytössä kesäisin.

The museum's collection consists of local finds that illustrate the history of Verona, and a great number of inscriptions which I was very interested in. One of the most curious ones was a warning not to defecate among the tombs or otherwise violate them. The one doing so was threatened with blindness.

Stercus intra cippos qui fecerit aut
violarit nei luminibus fruatur.

Me and the inscriptions :)
(photo: Saara Kauppinen)

We got to see even more inscriptions at the Museo Lapidario Maffeiano, which was founded around a collection gathered by Scipion Maffei who lived between 1675 and 1755 in Verona. The collection consists of inscriptions from all around the ancient Greek and Roman world and from different time periods. In addition to the typical honorary and funerary inscriptions there was even an epitaph for a horse from the 2nd century CE.

Museo Lapidario Maffeiano
(photo: Jasmin Lukkari)

"you, who outran the wandering birds and
beat the winds, graze no longer in the
Tuscan and Sicula woods, but in this tomb"
(CIL V 4512)

We visited several churches such as the Duomo, San Fermo and Sant'Anastasia. There was plenty of beautiful art and architecture, but what caught my eye were the scribblings on the walls of some of the churches. I'm no expert in these periods but based on the handwriting and the content I believe many of them to be from the middle ages or from the early modern period and not the product of tourists. For example in Sant'Anastasia there is a fresco depicting Virgin Mary and Jesus with all kinds of texts and drawings scratched in the plaster. I found some dates from the 15th century and the phrase Ave Maria. So at least some of the writings seem to be prayers to Virgin Mary, which makes sense considering the theme of the fresco.

Fresco depicting Virgin Mary and Jesus, church of Saint'Anastasia

Detail: writings carved in the plaster of the fresco

There would be so much more to tell about our time in Verona but I think this is enough. I'll leave you with some more photos from the trip.

University of Verona

Arena of Verona

A funicular

The bridge of Castelvecchio (photo: Jasmin Lukkari)

Arco dei Gavi (photo: Jasmin Lukkari)

Piazza delle Erbe

A selfie with an inscription

Duomo of Verona