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p119 Archiater

Article by William Alexander Greenhill, M.D., Trinity College, Oxford
on pp119‑120 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

ARCHIATER (ἀρχίατρος, compounded of ἀρχὸς or ἄρχων, a chief, and ἰατρός, a physician), a medical title under the Roman emperors, the exact signification of which has been the subject of much discussion; for while some persons interpret it "the chief of the physicians" (quasi τοῦ ἀρχοντος τῶν ἰατρῶν) others explain it to mean "the physician to the prince" (quasi τοῦ ἀρχοντος ἰατρός). Upon the whole it seems tolerably certain that the former is the true meaning of the word, and for these reasons:— 1. From its etymology it can hardly have any other sense, and of all the words similarly formed (ἀρχιτέκτων, ἀρχιτρίκλινος, ἀρχιεπίσκοπος, &c.) there is not one that has any reference to "the prince." 2. We find the title applied to physicians who lived at Edessa, Alexandria, &c., where no king was at that time reigning. 3. Galen (de Ther. ad Pis. c1, vol. XIV, p211, ed. Kühn) speaks of Andromachus being appointed "to rule over" the physicians (ἄρχειν), i.e., in fact, to be "archiater." 4. Augustine (De Civit. Dei, III.17) applies the word to Aesculapius, and St. Jerome (metaphorically of course) to our Saviour (XIII. Homil. in S. Luc.), in both which cases it evidently means "the chief physician." 5. It is apparently synonymous with protomedicus, supra medicos, dominus medicorum, and superpositus medicorum, all which expressions occur in inscriptions, &c., and also with the title Rais 'ala 'l‑atebbá, among the Arabians. 6. We find the names of several persons who were physicians to the emperor, mentioned without the addition of the title archiater. 7. The archiatri were divided into Archiatri sancti palatii, who attended on the emperor, and Archiatri populares, who attended on the people; so that it is certain that all those who bore this title were not "physicians to the prince." The chief argument in favour of the contrary opinion seems to arise from the fact, that of all those who are known to have held the office of Archiatri the greater part certainly were also physicians to the emperor; but this is only what might à priori be expected, viz. that those who had attained the highest rank in their profession would be chosen to attend upon the prince.1

The first person whom we find bearing this title is Andromachus, physician to Nero, and inventor of the Theriaca (Galen. l.c.; Erotian. Lex. Voc. Hippocr. Praef.): but it is not known whether he had at the same time any sort of authority over the rest of his profession. In fact, the history of the title is as obscure as its meaning, and it is chiefly by means of the laws respecting the medical profession that we learn the rank and duties attached to it. In after times (as we stated above) the order appears to have been divided, and we find two distinct classes of archiatri, viz. those of the palace and those of the people (Cod. Theodos. XIII. tit. 3, De Medicis et Professoribus). The archiatri sancti palatii were persons of high rank, who not only exercised their profession, but were judges on occasion of any disputes that might occur among the physicians of the place. They had certain privileges granted to them, e.g. they were exempted from all taxes, as were also their wives and children; they were not obliged to lodge soldiers or others in the provinces; they could not be put in prison, &c.; for though these privileges seem at first to have been common to all physicians (Cod. Just. X. tit. 52 s6 Medicos et maxime Archiatros), yet afterwards they were confined to the archiatri of the palace, and to those of Rome. When they obtained their dismissal from attendance on the emperor, either from old age or any other cause, they retained the title ex-archiatri, or ex-archiatris (Cod. X. tit. 2 leg. 6). The archiatri populares were established for the relief of the poor, and each city was to be provided with five, seven, or ten, according to its size (Dig. 27 tit. 1 s6). Rome had fourteen, besides one for the vestal virgins, and one for the gymnasia (Cod. Theodos. l.c.). They were paid by the government, and were therefore obliged to attend their poor patients gratis; but were allowed to receive fees from the rich (Cod. Theodos. l.c.). The archiatri populares were not appointed by the p120governors of the provinces, but were elected by the people themselves (Dig. 50 tit. 9 s1). The office appears to have been more lucrative than that of archiatri sancti palatii, though less honourable. In later times, we find in Cassiodorus (see Meibom. Comment. in Cass. Formul. Archiatr. Helmst. 1668) the title "comes archiatrorum," "count of the archiatri," together with an account of his duties, by which it appears that he was the arbiter and judge of all disputes and difficulties, and ranked among the officers of the empire as a vicarius or dux. (See Le Clerc, and Sprengel, Hist. de la Méd. Further information on the subject may be found in several works referred to in the Oxford edition of Theophilus De Corp. Hum. Fabr. p275; and in Goldhorn, De Archiatris Romanis et eorum Origine usque ad finem imperii Romani Occidentalis, Lips. 1841.)


The Author's Note:

1 Just as in England the President of the College of Physicians is (or used to be) ex‑officio physician to the sovereign.


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