Roman Oculist Stamp

This Oculist Stamp dating back to the Roman Period was found in Maastricht, the Netherlands in the 1980s near the historic Roman thermal baths (S. Aarts, personal communication, February 15, 2023). Oculist Stamps are tools that were used by Roman doctors for eye disease treatment (Birley, 1993, p. 111; James, 1926, p. 114). Specifically, these stamps were used to mark the use of eye treatment creams before the lotion hardened (Jackson, 1990, p. 275). In addition, the eye doctors also engraved their names on these collyrium cakes to show ownership and authenticity of the treatments (Ellerhorst & Cibis, 1968).

3D model of the Roman Oculist Stamp

This object belongs to the following theme:



Place of Origin
Havenstraat 14, Maastricht,
The Netherlands

Time Period of Use (ca.)
27 BCE – 476 CE


Dimensions (cm)
Length: 4.7, Width: 4.7, Height: 0.8

3D Model

Canon EOS 250D + EF 50mm

Processing software
Agisoft Metashape Professional Edition

Bertia Khanbabai & Hannariin Lamp

History Stamped

A Look Into Roman Eye Care

Medical practices have been continuously developing with the advancement of technology. Better practices, more knowledge, improved hygiene, and enhanced instruments have all contributed to healthcare systems becoming what they are today. But what about the times when such instruments and practices did not yet exist? 

The Roman Oculist Stamp

Thinking back to ancient times, more specifically the Roman Period, while modern instruments and overall knowledge were sparse, the Romans still had an incredibly impressive system and medical proficiency, even by today’s standards. It is no surprise then, that apart from their well-known conquests, roads, and aqueducts, experts of the Period have found the medical system of the Romans to be fascinating. From their own version of scalpels with replaceable blades to stone stamps with engraved eye disease treatments, the Romans provided a significant contribution to the advancement of medicine. To explore this further, we dive deeper into the Roman Oculist Stamp that was used at the time to treat different eye diseases. 

Characteristics and Materiality

Oculist stamps are small square objects similar in width to a matchbox, made of fine-grained stone and engraved with the titles of eye medicine preparations written backwards (Boon, 1983, p. 2; Ellerhorst & Cibis, 1986, p. 266). Usually, the ophthalmologist’s name, the collyrium’s composition, and directions for use are written in reverse on the stone’s edges, and therefore, when stamped appear the right way round on the collyrium cake (Ellerhorst & Cibis, 1986, p. 266; Roach Smith, 1848, p. 281).

This specific ophthalmologist stamp is assumed to be made from stone and is rather small with dimensions of 4.7 x 4.7 x 0.8 cm. It features the name of the doctor, the medicinal substance and the disease it treats in capital letters. The names of the oculists mentioned are Probinus and Victorinus. Each side mentions a different type of treatment for diseases such as ‘fog/dim sight’ and ‘granulation/ blepharitis/ trachoma‘. (Dr. Angelos Boufalis, 2023)

The 3D Model of the Roman Oculist Stamp

We can not be sure about this stamp’s lifecycle and how and by whom exactly it was used, but the various scratches seen on the body of the stamp, as well as its lightness indicates its frequent use by one of the Roman eye doctors who presumably transported it in their bag for a longer period of time. Indeed, the prominent scratches on the stamp make one think about the object’s long history of serving as a useful tool. In addition, when moving over the edges of the stamp, the indentations of the letters carved into the sides can be felt – the dip and rise of each letter slowly bringing the stamp to life.  

A Symbol of the Roman Period in Maastricht

Firstly, this object is symbolic as it represents the Roman Period in Maastricht. The city’s natives, “Maastrichtenaars,” have always been proud of their Roman heritage (Panhuysen, 2009, p. 1). The period is considered especially significant as it provided a starting point for the city’s infrastructure development and contributed to the growth of the city (Panhuysen, 2009, p. 1-2). This is mostly because of the bridge the Romans built over the River Meuse provided more routes of connection for the city, therefore, transforming it into a city of great importance (Brakman, 2010, p. 157). 

Drawing of the Roman Bathhouse in Maastricht
(Wikimedia Commons, 2016)

Today, the bathhouse on Havenstraat where this stamp was found is known to be one of the few larger Roman buildings which have been (partly) excavated in Maastricht (Panhuysen, 2009, p. 4). It is known that the Roman thermal baths placed a strong focus on citizens’ hygienic and medicinal practices and served as hospitals for military personnel who had been injured in battle (Gianfaldoni et al., 2017, p. 566). Therefore, the medical tool is noteworthy as it represents the rich Roman history in Maastricht.

Secondly, this particular stamp found in Maastricht is unique and important to the collection as there are not that many similar findings in the area. About 300 of these kinds of stamps have been discovered in the world – mostly in countries like France, Germany and Great Britain (Birley, 1993, p. 119; Boon, 1983, p. 4; Ellerhorst & Cibis, 1986, p. 266). It is noteworthy to mention that one of the earliest Roman medicine stamps was discovered in the Dutch city of Nijmegen in the 17th century (James, 1926, p. 113). Next to this another similar stamp from the Roman times has been found not far from Maastricht in the city of Heerlen belonging to one of the few Roman “Dutchmen”, the ophthalmologist known as Lucius Lunius Macrinus (If then is now, 2011; Jeneson & Vos, 2021, p. 160). Yet, there have not been many local findings apart from the two examples mentioned, making this particular ophthalmologist stamp unique for the collection and putting Maastricht on the map as one of the cities where advanced tools in eye treatment diseases were used during the Roman Period. 

Scale Model of Maastricht in the Late Roman Periods
(Photographed in Centre Ceramique, 2022)

Causes of Eye Diseases and Treatments
During the Roman Period

The Romans were unique among ancient cultures in their extensive consideration and documentation of the gaze (Laes et al., 2013). As eye diseases were common in the Roman Empire, various references to partial blindness were recorded (James, 1926, p. 114). Losing one’s sight was a common occurrence due to frequent disease, accidents, or violence, and therefore seeing visually impaired people was nothing unusual (Rose, 2003, p.79). Additionally, because of the prevalence of eye injuries during wartime, one-eyed men were even considered legendary in the military (Laes et al., 2013, p. 91). 

Among the most prominent causes of vision loss in ancient Rome were diseases and infections during the time. The most frequently mentioned optic disorders are lippitudo and aspritudo (Birley, 1993, p. 111). To treat these diseases, Roman doctors used collyrium stamps. As mentioned, over 300 of these stamps have been discovered – among them, at least 25 per cent refer to treatments for lippitudo and 20 per cent for aspritudo (Laes et al., 2013, p.96). Deficiencies in diet, particularly lack of greens and fruit were also among the basic causes of complete or partial blindness (Boon, 1983). In addition, general hygiene in Central Europe was lower than in Rome as people lived in smoky and poorly ventilated huts making ocular inflammations more common in the area (Ellerhorst & Cibis, 1986, p. 266).

Below is a typical recipe for the collyrium cakes that were used by doctors to treat various eye ailments (Ellerhorst & Cibis, 1986, p. 266). 

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Simplified Collyrium Cake Recipe
(Based on the formula from Ellerhorst & Cibis, 1986)

Archaeological data appears to support the idea that most of the eye conditions recorded could be treated by simple and easily obtainable treatments, with stamped collyrium cakes being one of these remedies. Indeed, many Romans would have experienced the debilitating effects of treatable eye conditions had they not received the proper care, making these stamps and their use by doctors significant for the daily life of an average Roman (Laes et al., 2013). It is important to mention that individuals with vision impairment were not marginalised in ancient Rome, rather they were visible and respected members of the community. Because of the prevalence of (partial)blindness caused by injury or disease, vision loss was not stigmatised in the same way that other physical deformities were at the time. Although prominent blind people held respectable positions, these were typically reserved for the wealthy elite (Laes et al., 2013). 


This Roman Oculist stamp is a unique discovery as it serves as a window into looking at eye care practices during the Roman Period in Maastricht more closely. This small tool that contributed to the treatment of various eye diseases highlights the advanced level of Roman medicine. Furthermore, it is a symbol of the advancement of civilizations of the Roman Times in Maastricht, and how the people of the time lived with the different ocular illnesses that came with the shortcomings of the period. 

Written by Bertia Khanbabai & Hannariin Lamp