The Legacy of Dioscorides

Physician, soldier and botanical genius.

| February/March 1997

  • 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
  • This Greek De Materia Medica ­manuscript, called the Codex Neapolitanus, was produced in the seventh century. The page shows lady’s bedstraw, cranesbill, and geranium.
    Photo Courtesy Biblioteca Nazionale, Naples, Italy

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.

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