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Health and wellbeing in the ancient world
Health and wellbeing in the ancient world

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2.1 Curing eye disease

Vindolanda, on Hadrian’s Wall, is famous for the Vindolanda Tablets; thin pieces of wood on which people wrote letters in ink and then folded the pieces in half. Their survival means that it is still possible to read the personal correspondence and official reports written by soldiers and their families.

One of the tablets does something no other comparable document does: it not only lists but also classifies the soldiers who were considered unfit for service. Of nearly 300 soldiers, over 10 per cent were classed as unfit, and these were divided into the wounded (uolnerati), the ill (aegri), and those with eye disease. The Latin word for those with this last condition is lippientes, which relates to the word lippitudo meaning ‘inflammation’. It’s striking that people with inflamed eyes were seen as a separate category of the sick.

Eye disease may have been the most common condition in the Roman world. Further evidence of this comes from the collyrium stamps, which are found in many parts of the north-western Roman Empire. They were also used as amulets and votive offerings. Most of them are green, made, for example, of steatite, with green being a colour associated with eye care. Some are decorated with magical symbols. Most come from Gaul, and so it may be significant that the Vindolanda tablet which mentions lippientes is for an auxiliary unit which came to Hadrian’s Wall from Gaul (Tungria). Was this because the people of Gaul were particularly concerned with their eyes, or were they for some reason more likely to suffer from eye disease?

The stamps were used to mark strips of aromatic substances mixed with something to make them hold together. Pieces could be torn off and mixed in water before being applied to the eye. There is literary evidence of them being used. For example, in Lucian’s Lexiphanes, 4, one speaker says:

My sight is weakened, I am constantly blinking, my eyes are watering: I need an eye salve. I need a disciple of Asclepius, some oculist to make up a remedy to take away the redness from my eyes, clear their bleariness and stop their running.

(Lucian, Lexiphanes, 4)

As with other forms of medicine, the ancient Greeks and Romans described how the idea for using these remedies came from the animal kingdom:

When hawks have eye trouble they immediately find some crumbling stone wall and dig up the wild lettuce that grows along it, then hold it above their eyes while the bitter juice runs into them. This restores their vision. Doctors, I hear, also use this remedy on patients who are having eye trouble, and the remedy takes its name from the bird, ‘hawk medicine’.

(Aelian, On Animals, 2.43)

The hieracion (or hieracium) plant, used in eye salves, is still known as ‘hawkweed’. Some eye salves, however, were so strong they made your eyes water (Lucian, The Passing of Peregrinus, 45); making the patient cry was seen as part of the treatment. One salve was even known as ‘the thankless’, and Galen described it as effective against eyes running with tears, perhaps because it would make the condition worse before making it better!