A page from a Greek edition of De Materia Medica written and illuminated in Constantinople in the ninth century shows carawy and nut grass.
Photo Courtesy The Pierpont Morgan Library/Art Resource, New York
Pedanius Dioscorideswas a first-century Greek who spent most of his life as a military physician with the Roman army. It is not certain when he was born, although we know his birthplace was in Cilicia in southeastern Asia Minor (in present-day Turkey). He worried that his concise, nonliterary style of writing might detract from the appreciation of his life project. Today Dioscorides stands as a giant of the ancient world in the fields of botany, pharmacy, medicine, and chemistry.
Nearly 2,000 years ago, Dioscorides gave us De Materia Medica, a five-part treatise on more than 600 plants, their habits, and uses. Over the centuries, it has been one of the most admired, consulted, amended, edited, expanded, translated, and illustrated collections of medical/botanical information ever assembled. His text was copied over and over by hand, profusely illustrated, and once given as a wedding present to an emperor’s daughter. Dioscorides’s work has been savored for his knowledge of chemistry, of medicine, of botany, of linguistics—and for his simple, disciplined Greek prose.
Dioscorides, a contemporary of the Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder and physician to emperors Claudius and Nero, created a body of work whose excitement lies not just in its sheer bulk, but in both the liveliness and discipline with which he approached his studies. Though he was familiar with earlier writings on the properties of plants, Dioscorides maintained that his work far surpassed that of any predecessor. He was proud of his industry in collecting information, of his ability to find a wide range of medicinal uses for his materials, and of his skill in describing and arranging them.
Not only medicinal plants, but animal substances and minerals were subjects of Dioscorides’s interest. One of the first to recognize the possible uses of medicines from all three kingdoms of the natural world—animal, vegetable, and mineral—he wrote of the uses of some thirty-five animal products and more than ninety minerals.
Military service provided Dioscorides with ample opportunity to travel and collect plants from Italy and Greece, northern Africa, Gaul, Persia, Egypt, and Armenia. In De Materia Medica, he gives the Greek synonym for each plant together with its native name. Whenever possible, he studied plants with his own eye, but he also drew from conversations with travelers and from previously written sources. Proud as he was of the quality and quantity of his original research, Dioscorides was careful to give credit to some two dozen older authorities upon whom he also relied.
His botanist’s eye observed plants rigorously in all seasons. He noted variations due to climate, altitude, and amount of moisture. He mentioned all parts of each plant, from the first shoots through the seeds. He carefully described how to prepare medicines from the various parts and when each part should be harvested for maximum efficacy. Herbs that were much branched should be gathered at seed time. Fruits were best gathered when ripe; seeds, when dry; flowers, before they fell. Liquids should be taken from roots after the plants had lost their leaves; those from stems or leaves, when the plant was in full leaf. Some plant materials retained their strength indefinitely; others were effective for only a short time.
For each substance, Dioscorides first noted its origin and physical characteristics. Next, he told how to prepare it and provided a list of medicinal uses and now and then a list of side effects. He also described how to combine the substance with others to make a prescription. Occasionally, he gave dietetic hints and even tests for detecting fraudulent compounds.
Dioscorides speculated not at all as to the causes of plants’ powers—in fact, he criticized those who did—but emphasized attention to experience in the use of drugs. He observed that scholarly knowledge of plants was always refined by personal experience, as differences in growing conditions produce marked differences in the plants’ efficacy, and he cautioned against making and administering a preparation without careful attention to its effect.
Dioscorides held that the proper storage of medicines was important to preserve their efficacy. Moist medicines were best stored in vessels of silver, glass, horn, or sturdy pottery. Brass vessels were best to store liquids, particularly compounds containing liquid pitch, vinegar, or cedar oil. Some herbs were best stored wrapped in paper; flowers and aromatics, in wooden drug boxes, preferably made of limewood; fats and marrows, in tin vessels.
His classification system, though sometimes obscure, was better organized and more logical than that of any of his predecessors. Book one dealt with some 129 aromatics, oils, and salves of trees and shrubs and their saps, gums, and fruits; book two, with cereals, animals, animal parts, animal products, potherbs, and “sharp” herbs; book three, roots, juices, herbs, and seeds; book four, herbs and roots not previously mentioned; book five, wines and minerals.
How De Materia Medica evolved over the centuries is a story almost as interesting as the work itself. It is a case study for the transmission and adaptation of any valuable written resource in the days before printing. The work was widely studied and relied upon from the time of its writing, late in the first century a.d., through the Renaissance. Not only was it translated frequently—from Greek to Latin, Arabic, and assorted European vernacular languages—but it was almost immediately revised and expanded. In those simpler days before printing presses and copyright laws, editors and copyists alike felt free to make whatever changes they thought best. Other writers’ works were added without credit. Illustrations were borrowed from other sources. Organization was “improved”. De Herbis Femininis, an herbal loosely based on De Materia Medica, became popular during the early Middle Ages, but it bore little resemblance to Dioscorides’s original work. By the late Middle Ages, other texts, falsely credited to Dioscorides, abounded as well.
Dioscorides’s original De Materia Medica, in Greek and Latin editions, held its popularity well into the sixteenth century. No less than thirty-five editions had been produced by midcentury. The most popular and complete, including a list of symptoms and of Arabic and European vernacular terms, was published in Venice in 1554 by Pietro Mattioli, a botanist and naturalist. This edition is still considered to be the springboard for modern botanical publications. So keen was the interest in Dioscorides’s work during the early Renaissance that French naturalist Pierre Belon (1518–1563) made a virtual pilgrimage to the Levant and Greek islands primarily to identify and acquire plants described by Dioscorides.
Today, Dioscorides’s work is one of the foundations of modern botany and plant nomenclature. “Modern” materials found in his writings include wormwood, thyme, sulfur, storax, pine bark, pepper, opium, olive oil, mercury, mastic, marjoram, lead acetate, lavender, juniper, ginger, galls, galbanum, coriander, copper oxide, cinnamon, cherry syrup, calcium hydrate, calamine, belladonna, ammonia, aloes, and almond oil.
While many translations of Dioscorides’s texts exist, the original manuscript does not. Much has been written about his works, much more copied, learned, quoted, and admired. Dioscorides was an obscure Greek physician who spent his professional life mopping up the aftermath of Roman warfare. His other life work was a gift of scholarship, healing, and scientific inquiry that has come down to us through sixteen centuries. As for details of the life of this botanist, chemist, pharmacist, traveler, they are lost in the mists of history.
Robbie Cranch is a Unitarian Universalist minister, folklorist, medieval and Tudor historian, and Master Gardener in central California. She and her husband garden extensively with their two young daughters. She is a frequent contributor to The Herb Companion.