Ancient Roman General Possibly First Person to Wear Prosthetic Hand

The loss of a hand in combat did not stay Gen. Marcus Sergius from smiting ancient Rome’s Carthaginian foes. The general made himself an iron hand and got back into battle against Hannibal’s troops.

A hero of the Second Punic War, Sergius, a patrician, or Roman aristocrat, also wanted to be a priest. He probably could have done the job with his good hand and his prosthesis, but he was flat turned down.

“The ancients were cautious not to admit a mutilated person to the celebration of ancient rites, observing that such a defect was to be regarded as a thing of ill-omen,” explained a footnote in Pliny’s Natural History in Thirty-Seven Books, translated from Latin and published by the London-based Wernerian Club in 1847-1848.

The priests who rejected him are all but forgotten. But Sergius is in the history books for more than his bravery in battle. Supposedly, he was the first documented wearer of a prosthetic hand.

A 16th century fresco
A 16th century fresco in the Capitoline Museums in Rome shows Hannibal crossing the Alps.

Image: Craig B, O&P News.

A dedicated warrior

In any event, the Punic Wars were a series of three conflicts fought between upstart Rome and the mighty Carthaginian Empire between 264 BCE and 146 BCE. Rome won them all, supplanting Carthage as the master of the Western Mediterranean and building the foundation for the Roman Empire.

Sergius literally sacrificed himself for his country bit by bit. Tough soldiers like him were desperately needed in the Second Punic War. Hannibal was winning battle after battle in Italy, following his legendary crossing of the Alps and unexpectedly showing up on Rome’s home turf. His formidable forces included war elephants.

Finally, with another Roman army threatening Carthage — in present-day Tunisia — Hannibal had to go home to protect the imperial capital. Hannibal lost. In the Third Punic War, Rome razed Carthage and slaughtered most of its inhabitants. Hannibal escaped but ultimately killed himself to avoid Roman captivity.

Sergius was immortalized by Pliny the Elder. His famous Natural History — Naturalis Historia in Latin — was an early encyclopedia that encompassed a wide variety of topics, not just natural history. The massive work encompasses 37 books in 10 volumes.

The story of Sergius, who commanded a Roman Legion, is in Book 7.

“In my judgment no one may justly prefer any man before M. Sergius, although Cataline, his Nephew’s Son, discredited his name” [sic], Pliny wrote. (Cataline tried to overthrow the Roman republic, failed and went down in Roman history as a traitor.)

Show of heroism

Sergius was unquestionably a hero, to hear Pliny tell it. He lost his right hand “in the second Year of his Service” [sic], according to the encyclopedia author, who died in the historic 79 CE eruption of Mt. Vesuvius that destroyed Pompeii. “…In two Services, he was wounded three and twenty times; by which means he had little use of either his Hands or his Feet” [sic]. Though Sergius was disabled, he was able to keep fighting with the aid of a slave.

Twice, Hannibal took him prisoner.

“He did not serve against ordinary Enemies,” Pliny explained. “…Twice he escaped from his bonds, although for twenty Months he was every Day kept Bound with Chains or Shackles” [sic].

He fought in four battles with only his left hand. He survived, but two of his horses did not. They “were killed under him,” Pliny wrote.


A hand fit for battle

Figuring a soldier needed two hands, Sergius crafted a metal prosthesis that strapped to his arm. Some sources say he hooked his shield to the artificial hand. Others claim he used the iron hand to bash in Carthaginian heads. Perhaps the appendage served him in both roles.

In any event, Sergius “delivered Cremona from Siege, and saved Placentia,” according to Pliny. “In Gallia, he took twelve Camps of the Enemies” [sic].

Sergius’s valor did not go unrewarded. He was elected a praetor, or Roman magistrate, a powerful and prestigious post. Sergius’s son struck a silver coin in his honor, according to the Roman historian Livy.

Alas, the priesthood was beyond the reach of a man with only one hand. “…His Colleagues repelled him from the solemn Sacrifices because he was maimed,” Pliny said, adding, “What heaps of Crowns would he have built up if he had been matched with any other enemy!” [sic].

Pliny advised, “It is very important, in our estimate of Courage, to consider in what Time the Persons lived. For what Civic Crowns yielded either Trebia and Ticinus, or Thrasymenus (all battles Hannibal won)?

“What Crown could have been gained at Cannae, (Hannibal’s greatest victory over the Romans) where the best service of Courage was to have made an escape? (Few Romans did get away.) Others, truly, have vanquished Men; but Sergius conquered Fortune herself” [sic].

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