The Surgeon Eutyches: His Instruments, His Gods
Eutyches was a homo bonus - a good man - and evidently a good surgeon . His name was engraved, probably by a grateful patient, on the wall of the cubiculum where patients were kept under observation, in the Roman taberna medica of Rimini (the Roman A riminum, a city in the northern Italian region of Emilia-Romagna, corresponding to the ancient Cisalpine Gaul and then to the VIII regio Aemilia of Augustan Italy).
The house is known as Domus del Chirurgo , the Surgeon's House, and is a splendid example of Roman architecture dating back to the 2nd century AD. It was destroyed by fire between 258 and 260 AD by an Alemanni raid which, according to Zosimus the Historian (5/6th century AD) and later to Joannes Zonaras (12th century), broke into various areas of northern and central Italy, only to end near Mediolanum (Milan), where the barbarian forces were routed by the troops of Emperor Gallienus .
Who was Eutyches?
Eutyches was a military doctor of Greek origin, as can be deduced from accounts and from the finds unearthed in the domus and in the garden. These artifacts include, for example, a large marble basin and the foot of a statue of the Epicurean philosopher Hermarchus (325-250 BC circa), Greek writing on the medicine jars, and the elegant oriental taste of the decorations, in particular the fine mosaic of Orpheus.
Eutyches arrived in Rimini with his wealth of knowledge, his skills, and his precious surgical instruments. The collection of the instruments found in his house is exceptional: 150 items, the largest array in the world for number and typology. There are no gynecological instruments, but mainly tools for bone traumas and wounds, confirming Eutyches’ military professional experience.
The inscription "Eutyches homo bonus" found on an internal wall of a cubiculum of the Domus del Chirurgo di Rimini (courtesy of Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali - Soprintendenza Archeologia, Belle Arti e Paesaggio per le Province di Ravenna, Forlì-Cesena e Rimini).
The collection also includes an extremely rare instrument for extracting arrowheads from bodies, called "Diocle's spoon" ( Diocles cyathiscus ). It has a long iron handle with a sharp spoon-shaped tip with a hole and was used by surgeons working on the battlefields - another confirmation, if needed, of Eutyches’ activity.
Ancient medical literature, written by Aulus Cornelius Celsus for example, (c. 25 BC – c. 50 AD, a Roman encyclopedist, known for his ‘ De Medicina ’), speaks of such a spoon; but the only one found is the specimen from Rimini.
Among Eutyches’ instruments there is a unique piece called the "Spoon of Diocles," used in ancient times to extract arrowheads (Image courtesy of Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali - Soprintendenza Archeologia, Belle Arti e Paesaggio per le Province di Ravenna, Forlì-Cesena e Rimini).
The name of the instrument refers to Diocles of Karystos, a Greek physician who lived in the 4th century BC, not long after Hippocrates, (the “father of medicine”, 5th century BC). Diocles of Karystos was so famous and good that he was almost as famous as Hippocrates himself.
According to tradition, a similar instrument was used to remove the injured eye of Philip II the Macedonian , Alexander’s father, without disfiguring his face.
The Ancient Surgeon Brought a Special God with Him to Rimini
But science and skill alone were not enough to deal with the spectrum of diseases and wounds, so Eutyches also brought various apotropaic amulets and the special protection of gods with him to his final destination in Rimini.
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The surgical instruments found in the surgeon's domus amount to 150 pieces (some of which are still closed in their cases and others melted together due to the fire that destroyed the house in the mid-third century) and constitute the most complete ancient surgical collection in the world. (Image courtesy of Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali - Soprintendenza Archeologia, Belle Arti e Paesaggio per le Province di Ravenna, Forlì-Cesena e Rimini).
At that time, people had a very precise god of medicine, Asclepius, to which we will return, but the “personal” god of Eutyches was a special one, as attested to by the bronze votive hand found in his domus , which belonged to the eastern cult of Jupiter Dolichenus.
This god was the Roman syncretic acceptance of an Asian deity imported to Rome between the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD by the legions returning from wars in Doliche, an ancient settlement not far from the current city of Gaziantep in the western part of Turkey's Southeastern Anatolia Region.
He was particularly revered by soldiers, but not a purely military god, and was also revered by civilians, especially by the "mobile" population of the empire: traders, slaves, liberti (freedman or freedwoman), and officials in imperial service.
Rimini, Domus del Chirurgo, votive hand linked to the cult of Iuppiter Dolichenus. It is an empty lost wax bronze sculpture depicting an open right hand, rendered in a naturalistic way, with grooves that outline the nails and the inner folds of the fingers. A scaly snake with a crested head wraps itself around the wrist and rises along the thumb. In the upper part, between the index and middle fingers, there is an ovoid element, similar to a bud with its stem blocked by the fingers. (Image courtesy of Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali - Soprintendenza Archeologia, Belle Arti e Paesaggio per le Province di Ravenna, Forlì-Cesena e Rimini).
Dolichenus’ cult was popular in the VIII regio Aemilia - in fact, after Rome, this was the location with the second highest number of followers. It is epigraphically documented not only in Rimini but also in Bologna, Ravenna, and Cesena.
The particular devotion shown by the soldiers towards Jupiter Dolichenus is immediately clear also from the iconography of the god, who almost always appears with a thunderbolt, beard, and at times an eagle and a double-headed axe (originally a symbol of Minoan power). He is dressed in a military fashion, armed, and in a cuirass; thus following a Hellenistic artistic convention in the portrayal of a deity.
Jupiter Dolichenus as a Roman commander, but with the standard weapons of the god: a double-axe in his right hand, and a lightning bolt in his left. From Carnuntum, early 3rd-century. (MatthiasKabel/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
All these are strong attributes indicating power and royalty and are worthy of a deus exsuperantissimus et summus (a most highly admirable god); which obviously brings Dolichenus closer to the Olympic god Jupiter (Iuppiter Optimus, Maximus Capitolinus.)
The peculiar characteristic of Dolichenus' iconography is his almost constant representation standing on the back of a marching bull, a totemic animal that has always been associated with the concepts of strength, virility, and fertility and, in Hellenistic Asia Minor, identified with Nike/Victoria.
Sometimes Dolichenus is flanked by his wife, Iuno Dolichena, which is also a result of Roman syncretism.
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It is not exactly known what the Dolichenian oracles were like, what agreements he had with humans, and what type of rituals and cults he required. Only hypotheses can be made. Ceremonies were undoubtedly managed by special priests but, due to the total absence of sacred texts, we are unable to know how they were dressed or whether they were holding scepters surmounted by typical triangular bronze plaques or by votive hands such as the one found in Rimini. If it was a hand, it was usually the right one, with the palm open and the fingers stretched out in a gesture that probably alludes to the beneficial and rescuing character of this divinity.
Bronze votive plaque dedicated to Jupiter Dolichenus from Kömlöd, Hungary. Now in the Hungarian National Museum, Budapest. ( Public Domain )
The god from Doliche was in fact a guarantor of the universal cosmic order and not a savior in an individual eschatological sense. The salus (salvation) required by Iuppiter Dolichenus’ worshipers appears to be exclusively of a worldly nature, aimed at obtaining and maintaining a state of good health, status bonae salutis .
Asclepius Worked Alongside the Surgeon Too
To obtain this, however, aside or probably in addition to his personal god, the surgeon Eutyches certainly also turned to another divinity, the god of medicine par excellence : Asclepius, or Aesculapius to the Romans.
Son of Apollo and a mortal woman (Arsinoe or Coronis), Asclepius was a demi-god and was said to have been educated in medicine by the centaur Chiron or to have inherited his therapeutic skills from his father Apollo. He was benevolent with people and very revered, he had numerous sons and daughters, and after various clashes with Zeus (who was envious of his powers), he became immortal as a minor god and transformed into the constellation of Ophiuchus, "the snake".
Asclepius - the ancient healer, god of medicine. ( Repina Valeriya /Adobe Stock)
Snakes were in fact sacred to him and lived freely in every temple that was dedicated to Asclepius. Killing a snake from a temple of Asclepius (an Asclepieion) was considered sacrilege. In memory of this, a species of non-venomous pan-Mediterranean serpent, the Aesculapian snake ( Zamenis longissimus ) is named for the god.
Twisted around the god’s miraculous rod, Asclepius’ snake is still today the international symbol of medicine. The rod with two snakes (Mercury’s or Hermes’ caduceus) became the symbol of pharmacists in Italy, where the two snakes represent the therapeutic and the toxic quantity of poison - expertly known and dosed.
Cult Center, Sanatorium, or Early Hospital?
From the 5th century BC onwards, the cult of Asclepius grew very popular and pilgrims flocked to his healing temples to be cured of their ailments. The main cult center was Epidaurus, but the god was also highly revered in Pergamum. It was nature that first had to exert its beneficial effect on the patients, thus Aesculapius’ sanctuaries, veritable sanatoriums, were located on hills or places where the air was pure and the sun’s rays were not too strong.
An essential part of the Asclepius rituals was incubation, incubatio - the religious practice of sleeping in a sacred area with the intention of experiencing a divinely inspired dream or cure to recover from any disease. Similar rituals, already practiced by Sumerians and various populations of North Africa, was also adopted by some early Christian sects and is still in use in some Greek monasteries.
Patients sleeping in the temple of Aesculapius at Epidaurus. By Ernest Board. (Wellcome Images/ CC BY 4.0 )
We should not think however that those places were simple places of peace, such as Lourdes is today, or the rituals were pure practices of suggestion. In many epigraphic accounts of those temples of healing it is clearly indicated that real surgical operations took place and effective therapeutic applications were actually performed by medical priests.
The cult of Asclepius was introduced to Rome around 291 BC when, according to a legend, a serious epidemic broke out in the Urbs (city) and a Roman commission sailed towards Epidaurus to ask the god for help and advice. During a propitiatory rite, a snake came out of the temple and slipped into the Roman ship. During the journey back to Rome, when the ship was approaching Tiber island, the snake jumped out and swam to the island, indicating the location where the healing temple should be built. The temple was a veritable hospital from the very beginning, as attested to by countless ex voto (vows) and dedications to the divinity.
Votive hand and containers for medicines (Image courtesy of Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali - Soprintendenza Archeologia, Belle Arti e Paesaggio per le Province di Ravenna, Forlì-Cesena e Rimini).
In the first half of the 1st century BC the island was monumentalized and, in memory of the event, remodeled into the shape of a boat. In the early Middle Ages the temple was destroyed and on its ruins, around 1000 AD, the Basilica of San Bartolomeo all'Isola was built by order of the Holy Roman Emperor Otto III.
Between 2006 and 2007, an archaeological excavation conducted by the Archaeological Superintendence and Sapienza University of Rome revealed the presence of an underground crypt, about 3.5 meters (11.48 ft.) below the transept of the current church, and two rows of large blocks of tuff pertaining to one of the courtyards of the ancient temple. At the center, there is a marble well that still reaches a vein of water about 9 meters (29.53 ft.) below the surface. The well, regularly used in the early Middle Ages, establishes a suggestive continuity with the source of healthy water from the ancient temple, where patients were treated "especially with water", as the 4th-century grammarian, Sextus Pompeius Festus writes.
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Even today, the island continues to be considered a place of healing and a center dedicated to caring for the ill was built just in front of the church. This is the hospital "Fatebenefratelli,” founded in 1583 and still operating, staffed by the Hospitaller Order of St. John of God.
Roman Medicine Makes Way for New Procedures
With the fall of the empire, Roman medicine also declined, leaving space and fertile ground to the terrible epidemics and pestilences of the Middle Ages. With the rise of Christianity, the cult of Aesculapius, once seen as a savior, was replaced by Christ, physician of the soul and the body. And Christian religious medicine fought against pagan “magic formulas” and instead promoted prayers, the laying on of hands, and anointings with Holy Oil. Scientific approaches were considered useless.
Seven Sacraments Altarpiece (detail) (1445-1450) by Rogier van der Weyden. ( Public Domain )
Over time this religious medicine started to be influenced by different oriental mystical currents and merged into popular medicine, also resulting in the cult of the "Saints Anargyroi, Physicians and Healers," mainly in the Orthodox Church.
Starting from the 11th century, through the massive activity of cultural exchanges and translation of Greek texts into Latin, the Byzantine culture paved the way for conventual medicine; which marked the beginning of a new medical science through methodical study, the use of medicinal herbs, and the rediscovery of ancient medical texts.
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