One of the advantages of signing up as a Roman legionary was access to a better quality of medical care than was generally available to those in civilian life. fter all, there was not much point having the most fearsome armies in the ancient world if your troops were too decrepit to wield a short sword.

And despite a medical predilection for astronomy and bloodletting which both predated and long outlasted the Romans, there are aspects of medicine - surgery in particular - which would be easily recognised by a modern doctor: not least the rather modern looking staples used for closing battle wounds.

Some idea of the items a doctor's black bag might have held a couple of thousand years ago can be seen at The surgery of ancient Rome. Photographs from Virginia University's collection of medical instruments show a range of bone levers, catheters and rectal speculums to make your eyes water.

As we are reminded by The Aesclepion, based at Indiana University, however, it is important not to view the diagnoses and treatments of ancient medicine as the products of ignorance and superstition when they appear strange through modern eyes, and as rational or scientific when we recognise them as part of our tradition.

So while our legionary was off subduing Germanic tribes, his wife was at home receiving the highest standards of maternity care. Pliny favoured fumigations prepared with the fat from hyena loins or a drink made of goose semen to speed delivery. What would the National Institute for Clinical Excellence have said?

You may not be surprised to discover that, according to one paper on midwives and maternity care available through The Aesclepion, that rates of maternal and perinatal mortality in ancient Rome varied according to socio-economic class. The richer you were, the better your chances. What is the Latin for health action zone?