How did soldiers treat their wounds thousands of years ago?

For example alexander the great or greek or roman soldiers, it would seem that even a small wound would result in a long and painful death from infection, and that knowing this most men would try to avoid being soldiers. How did they treat their wounds, did they have stitches to close slashes to the arms and legs and abdominal surgery for stab wounds?

Stitching wounds closed is old tech, predates writing (actually, there are various techniques - stitches, pins, ant jaws (no, really)…)

Abdominal surgery? Not likely - certainly if the intestines were punctured that was pretty much it, you were doomed. Maybe a few, very simple things but remember this was being done without anesthesia by docs/surgeons with, by our standards, only a sketchy knowledge of anatomy. Surgery was done quickly, if at all, with no blood transfusion, no anti-biotics, no sterile field…

Oddly enough - skull surgery has a very long history (see “trepanning”)

Honey was used by the ancient Egyptians in wound care. We still use it today. It kills bacteria and heals wounds in a couple of different ways.

Herbs were used to pack wounds, and some of them have bactericidal properties. The first Greek herbal was written about 300BC. 500 years later, Galen was a surgeon famous for his skills in wound healing. He figured out (or popularized) the very important notion that a wound should remain moist so that the flesh heals, something I wish more people today would remember. Wounds should not be left “open to air”! They get their oxygen from inside! (Sorry, pet peeve.)

Alcohol makes a pretty darn good disinfectant, and was widely used in Greece and Rome to wash wounds with.

People survived a lot of pretty gruesome flesh wounds, by today’s standards. Spilling your intestines was probably a little rarer to survive, but even today that’s not a sure thing to recover from.

EDIT: By the way, anyone in Chicago, the International Museum of Surgical Science (my favorite museum no one has heard of) is working on an exhibit about wound healing, ancient and present: I can’t wait!

“Joseph Lister: father of modern surgery”, by Dennis Pitt, MD MEd and Jean-Michel Aubin, MD:

Why was that? Simple: If you opened people up too far in the era before antisepsis, let alone modern sterile technique, they got massive infections and they died in horrible, agonizing pain.

Here’s a look at what Lister accomplished:

Lister did his research in the prevention of iatrogenic (hospital-caused) disease starting in 1869. Not coincidentally, “[t]he First World War was the first major conflict in which battlefield deaths exceeded those caused by diseases.” (That is, however, a British source. An American source says “Not until World War II would the U.S. fight a war in which more soldiers died of battle wounds than of disease.”)

So, how were battlefield wounds treated? Unsanitarily, and there was no effective treatment for subsequent infections until penicillin was introduced in 1942.

This PDF is specifically about how battle wounds were treated through history.

This journal article is also on that subject.

I believe some wounds were treated by cauterizing them.

True. A French surgeon named Ambroise Pare did some experimentation and discovered that using an ointment with turpentine was as effective at preventing infection as pouring boiling oil on it. Fewer soldiers died of shock after amputations with his method. He wrote a very influential book on the subject.

Sir John Eric Erichsen, surgeon-extraordinary to Queen Victoria, said in 1873:

ETA: dammit, ninja’d by Derleth. One of my favorite quotes.

Here is a intersting quote about wound care from Homer’s Iliad

"Wounded Eurypylus made answer, “Noble Patroclus, there is no hope left for the Achaeans but they will perish at their ships. All they that were princes among us are lying struck down and wounded at the hands of the Trojans, who are waxing stronger and stronger. But save me and take me to your ship; cut out the arrow from my thigh; wash the black blood from off it with warm water, and lay upon it those gracious herbs which, so they say, have been shown you by Achilles, who was himself shown them by Chiron, most righteous of all the centaurs. For of the physicians Podalirius and Machaon, I hear that the one is lying wounded in his tent and is himself in need of healing, while the other is fighting the Trojans upon the plain.”

“Hero Eurypylus,” replied the brave son of Menoetius, “how may these things be? What can I do? I am on my way to bear a message to noble Achilles from Nestor of Gerene, bulwark of the Achaeans, but even so I will not be unmindful your distress.”

With this he clasped him round the middle and led him into the tent, and a servant, when he saw him, spread bullock-skins on the ground for him to lie on. He laid him at full length and cut out the sharp arrow from his thigh; he washed the black blood from the wound with warm water; he then crushed a bitter herb, rubbing it between his hands, and spread it upon the wound; this was a virtuous herb which killed all pain; so the wound presently dried and the blood left off flowing."

Does anyone know what “bitter herbs” they would have used that would have killed the pain in the wound?

Were medics, armed or unarmed, even a thing?

Even an herb-carrier?

The Romans had field surgeons. Besides stitching wounds I don’t what they could do. As mentioned above, cauterization was known for a long time.

Coca leaf?

There’s not actually a lot of difference between ‘thousands of years ago’ and ‘two hundred years ago’ - the Romans had pretty much all of the medicine and techniques (especially for military-style wounds) that you can do without Germ theory and antibiotics. Wounds on the arms and legs would be cleaned to a lesser or greater degree and stitched or cauterized, same with light wounds to the torso. Setting and splinting broken bones was quite common, as was amputation of infected or badly damaged limbs.

There’s really nothing you can do for deep and especially abdominal wounds without antibiotics. There was actually some fairly impressive surgery, but it was more in the category of ‘well, he’s going to die without it, lets see if we get lucky’ than modern surgery where you expect to survive. And a lot of advanced modern surgery doesn’t actually work without antibiotics, since even if the technique works infection is very likely without them.

Aconite is fiercely bitter, and also extremely toxic, but is nevertheless said to have been used as an anaestethic as late as in WWI. (I’ve read this in a book by Swedish author Matts Bergmark, Lust och Lidande, but I don’t have a copy at hand and can’t find a cite online.)

Not available to the Ancient Greeks, wrong continent.

A lot of pre-antibiotic medicine was toxic and even damaging - it seemed it was often a question of what might kill the patient first, the malady or the treatment for it.

They did what they could with what they had. We still do - we just have more and better options these days.

But those Roman Baths, orgies, etc; you’re tellin me they dint party?
ETA: :wink:

Too late, but you are correct.


The book Ancient Inventions has some pretty impressive examples of Roman surgical gear, including a spoon-like implement for removing arrows and a hollow needle with a probe for performing cataract surgery on the eyes (!!!).

Here’s something on Roman military medicine:|CV2643450064&source=Bookmark&u=lith7757&jsid=49995908fcd7eeb08c8c7eaa958435ef

Greek and Roman surgical implements:

One of those things that I probably should have known but didn’t I just learned a short time ago. Fredrick Treves is now known mostly as the guy Anthony Hopkins played in The Elephant Man. At the time he was mostly known as a prominent surgeon. He performed the first appendectomy in Englan in 1888.

Nice cites. Thank you.

Bitter, pain relieving, and styptic? Sounds like yarrow to me. Achillea millefolium. One of its other common names is soldier’s woundwort. It was also named after Achilles, who was said to carry it with him in battle to treat himself and his soldiers.