The Launch of the Rootcutter

by Colin Webster & Jessica Wright

Apr. 11, 2022

In ancient Greece, a rootcutter (rhizotomos) was a person skilled in identifying and gathering useful pharmacological materials, or, more generally, an herbalist. Not much is known about these practitioners, although the knowledge that they gained from slicing into rootstock filtered out through the texts of physicians and pharmacologists more broadly. They were thus situated right at the nexus of literary medicine, traditional knowledge, and practical experience, while also maintaining direct relationships with those in need of care. Today we launch The Rootcutter, the official blog for the Society for Ancient Medicine, using these ancient figures as an emblem for our proposed vision.

Rootcutting is about gathering things together. It is about integrating various types of knowledge. It is also about exposing the roots of modern healing traditions to offer incisive and critical examinations of what lies beneath the surface. First and foremost, however, The Rootcutter will be a home for accessible scholarly writing about the history of medicine in the ancient world. Our aim in this blog is to gather the materials for nourishing a historically-informed and self-reflective relationship to ancient medicine, both among scholars and students, and among healthcare practitioners and service users.

The idea for The Rootcutter came about during the early months of the pandemic, when the Society for Ancient Medicine committee members were, like everyone else, stuck inside our homes, wondering how the world would be transformed by COVID-19. Like Bayo Akomolafe in his essay I, Coronavirus, we wondered whether and how the social, economic, and political structures of the modern world would be altered, recast, or reinforced through the changes wrought not only by the virus itself but also by our efforts to halt its spread. As historians of medicine, our first impulse was to reflect on how our training and knowledge base might help us through such a global health crisis, and what frameworks of understanding might render our expertise in ancient medicine and pharmacology useful for wider audiences. As we grappled with big questions and great uncertainty, we found that building community around these reflections was a useful salve.

The Rootcutter is one result. Over the next 12 months, we will publish a series of essays by experts in various aspects of our field, each focusing on a specific piece of evidence for the study of ancient medicine (for example, an ostracon, a recipe, and in one case even a city) and exploring how close investigation of that evidence might enable us to reflect more critically on the ways that ancient medicine informs modern practices and ideas. Each essay will include some key bibliography and a set of questions intended to prompt further reflection and, where relevant, classroom discussion.

Among the key questions we want to pose through The Rootcutter are the following:

  1. How can the study of ancient medicine reframe our understanding and experience of modern biomedicine and its alternatives? What new questions are we prompted to ask? What new aspects or connections can we see through a historical lens that are not readily visible up close?

2. In what ways is modern biomedicine in particular “rooted in” ancient medicine? Which parts of biomedical knowledge and practice draw from ancient sources and in what manners and ways the modern and the ancient are connected? Are we to understand this relationship as “reception” or “inheritance” (which imagine a kind of object being passed from one culture to another), through images such as “chains” or “rivers” (which evoke an idea of linear continuity), or perhaps through the more active term “appropriation” (wherein the past becomes a kind of resource)? What are the effects and implications of how we choose to imagine this relationship?

3. How do healthcare practitioners, service users, and historians look differently at the history of medicine? How do their aims differ? What kinds of questions does each sort of expert bring to the table? What might we learn from one another, if we all look at a single object?

It’s our intention that The Rootcutter can serve as a tool for generating wider conversations—in our comments section, in classrooms, on Twitter, and in academic writing—about how the study of ancient medicine can provoke fresh insights about ourselves, while creating productive new questions about preserving, pursuing, or even understanding that elusive thing called health. As we deal with our hopes and fears for the future, we want to collect these reflections together into our own, communal apothecary.

We are keen for The Rootcutter to generate conversation and debate. If you wish to contribute to this blog and have a proposal, or have comments on any of the articles, please email us at

The Rootcutter has been supported by generous funding from the Society for Classical Studies, through the Ancient Worlds, Modern Communities initiative.