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Dioscorides and De Materia Medica

Category: Healer


Pedanius Dioscorides (Ancient Greek: Πεδάνιος Διοσκουρίδης; c. 40 – 90 AD) was a physician, pharmacologist and botanist, the author of De Materia Medica—a 5-volume encyclopaedia about herbal medicine and related medicinal substances (a pharmacopeia).


The Great Naturalists - David Sutton
De Materia Medica is one of the most enduring works of natural history ever written, it formed the basis for Western knowledge of medicines for over 1,500 years.


De Materia Medica formed the core of the European pharmacopeia right up to the 19th century. Dioscorides' works were not "rediscovered" in the Renaissance, because his book had never left circulation or stopped being used.  In the medieval period, De Materia Medica was circulated in Latin, Greek, and Arabic. While being reproduced in manuscript form through the centuries, it was occasionally supplemented with commentary and minor additions from Arabic and Indian sources, but it was otherwise not changed. Many medical people of today pour scorn upon the medicine of previous ages.  But any medical text book that can survive for 1,500 years in constant use because it works, needs to be taken seriously.  As one commentator has remarked:

the timelessness of Dioscorides' work resulted from an empirical tradition based on trial and error; it worked for generation after generation despite social and cultural changes and changes in medical theory [Paula De Vos ].


The five-volume work describes many drugs known to be effective, including aconite, aloes, colocynth, colchicum, henbane, opium and squill. In all, about 600 plants are covered, along with some animals and mineral substances, and around 1000 medicines made from them.

The enormous achievement that De Materia Medica represents, was recognised by Carl Linnaeus who named an entire genus of plants after Dioscorides - the Dioscorea - which includes the yam.

Edward Lee Greene - Landmarks of Botanical History:
‘If to have written the most practically serviceable book of botany that the world of learning knew of during sixteen centuries were the best title to botanical greatness, to Dioscorides would readily be conceded the absolute supremacy over all other botanists, not only of antiquity but of all time.


A native of Anazarbus, a small city northeast of Tarsus in the Roman Provence of Cilicia (now Turkey), Dioscorides practised medicine in Rome during the reign of the emperor Nero. A learned physician, he practiced medicine as an army doctor, and saw service with the Roman legions in Greece, Italy, Asia Minor, and Provence in modern-day France. His military years provided opportunities for studying diseases, collecting and identifying medicinal plants, and discovering other healing materials. Dioscorides compiled his medical treatise at the suggestion of a fellow-physician, Areius.  He had access to the library at Alexandria, and may have studied at Tarsus.

I dedicate this collection to you [Areius], as a token of my grateful appreciation for the friendship you have shown me. You are always a ready friend to anyone obsessed by knowledge, particularly in this profession, and even more especially to myself. It is clear from the love that wonderful man Licinius Bassus has for you, that you express a loving benevolence that I experienced (I noticed when I stayed with you, the unsurpassing generosity that you shared). I ask that you and all who may read these discussions will not consider so much the value of my words as the effort and practical work that I have based the work on. With careful investigation — since I know many plants personally, and others from previous writings that are generally approved of — and patiently inquiring (by questioning the local inhabitants) about each type of plant, I will attempt a different classification, and also try to explain the varieties and uses of each one of them.

De Materia Medica was compiled between AD 50 and 70.  Dioscorides wrote De Materia Medica in Greek, his native language and in Greek its title was  Περὶ ὕλης ἰατρικῆς, but it is now known by its Latin title De Materia Medica ("On Medical Material").  He also included information that he learned from oral tradition and from previous texts. Included was a study of the 130 plants of the Hippocratic Collection and more than 11 plants from Crataeus, Greek physician to Mithridates VI Eupator, King of Pontus, and author of a lost herbal, Agrimonia eupatorium.


As De Materia Medica is both a botanic and medical encyclopaedia as well as a compilation of the knowledge from other cultures and ages, it is also a prime historical source of information about the medicines used by the Greeks, Romans, and other cultures of antiquity.

The work records, for example, the Dacian and Thracian names for some plants, which otherwise would have been lost. In some respects it is thus a sort of Rosetta stone of the medical world providing access to other texts and helping to unravel them.

Together with Pliny's encyclopaedic writings,  Dioscorides' De Materia Medica provides important documentation about drugs in the early Roman Empire, as well as offering interesting insights into daily life. For example, the Romans used green twigs of Pistacia lentiscus for brushing teeth; they made henna shampoo by pounding henna leaves soaked in the juice of soapwort; other yellow hair-dyes came from Rhamnus, Zizyphus and Xanthium; and black hair-dyes from gum arabica, oak, oak galls, Rhus, myrtle, ivy, Salvia species and Sambucus ebulus. They blackened eyebrows and eyelashes with vegetable soot from the burnt resin of coniferae. They made hair tonic from a mixture of myrrh, ladanum, myrtle oil and wine.


The book is divided into five volumes. Dioscorides organized the substances by similarities, such as their being aromatic, or vines; these divisions do not correspond to any modern classification, but there is a real logic to it. A large part of the logic is based on how one can prepare medicines that are on hand because they have been preserved in immediately usable form – salves, ointments, oils, jellies and jams, wines etc.

Volume I: Aromatics


Volume I covers aromatic oils, the plants that provide them, and ointments made from them. They include what are probably cardamom, nard, valerian, cassia or senna, cinnamon, balm of Gilead, hops, mastic, turpentine, pine resin, bitumen, heather, quince, apple, peach, apricot, lemon, pear, medlar, plum and many others. 
Rationale: The rationale here is in part that these are plants whose oils are for external use, medicines that heal from the outside either by being made into ointments or through inhalation.  Book One thus discusses plants that provide oily, gummy or resinous products for use in salves and ointments; a means of preserving in other words.  The fruit is for jams, pectin and another means of preservation. 
Discorides discusses the preparation of oils and unguents at length. Spissamenta (astringents) were added to preserve and thicken oil, and make it retain desired perfumes from odoramenta (aromatic herbs, aromata). Various forms of medication included acopa, cataplasmata, malagmata, eclegmata and catapotia. An acopum was a soothing or stimulatory liniment. Cataplasmata were plasters or poultices. Malagmata were emollient poultices. An eclegma (electuary or looch) was a thick syrup to be swallowed slowly. Catapotia were pills coated with wax or honey.

Volume II: Animals to herbs


Volume II covers an assortment of topics: animals including sea creatures such as sea urchin, seahorse, whelk, mussel, crab, scorpion, electric ray, viper, cuttlefish and many others; dairy produce; cereals; vegetables such as sea kale, beetroot, asparagus; and sharp herbs such as garlic, leek, onion, caper and mustard. 
Rationale:  Most of these are foods that heal by supplying all the essential nutrients,  vitamins, minerals and amino acids.  Most of the essential food groups are here.  In reading this we should also be aware that many animals we do not think of as food these days are food.  There are about seventy animal-product food based remedies in De Materia Medica, including two using vipers' flesh. This snake meat (pickled in oil, wine, salt and dill) was recommended for sharpening eyesight, and for nerves. A popular remedial delicacy mentions viper roasted with salt, honey, figs and nardostachys (spikenard), and made into a soup.

Volume III: Roots, seeds and herbs

Volume III covers roots, seeds and herbs. These include plants that may be rhubarb, gentian, liquorice, caraway, cumin, parsley, lovage, fennel and many others. 
Rationale:  Many of these are foods and are very important antivirals, anti-bacterials and anti-parasitic plants

Volume IV: Roots and herbs, continued


Volume IV describes further roots and herbs not covered in Volume III. These include herbs that may be betony, Solomon's seal, clematis, horsetail, daffodil and many others.
Rationale:  Many of these are NOT foods but are still very important antivirals, anti-bacterials and anti-parasitic plants.  They thus need a different mode of use from foods

Volume V: Vines, wines and minerals

Volume V covers the grapevine, wine made from it, grapes and raisins; but also strong medicinal potions made by boiling many other plants including mandrake, hellebore, and various metal compounds, such as zinc oxide, verdigris and iron oxide. 
Rationale:  Wine was one way in which tonics could be made, enduring medicines.  Beer was used in the same way in Saxon England.  Many minerals are easily consumed this way in winter months as such they become ‘tonic wines’.  Furthermore the rather more dangerous plants such as mandrake, which do have medicinal use, are better administered this way – as the amounts can be better controlled eg take one thimble full.



De Materia Medica is thus organised so that one gets all the essential nutrients to maintain health  - minerals, vitamins, and amino acids - as food or drink throughout the year.  Where one has become ill - dis-eased or not in balance any more, - then every remedy is carefully preserved in such a form that it can be administered in exact doses at the time it is needed.  In effect the dose can be geared to how out of balance one has become - medicines restore balance.

Dioscorides thus recognised that food can take a dual role as a maintainer of health or as a restorer of health, whilst medicines are by definition for short or one off application as a restorer only.

The entries

Each entry gives a substantial amount of detail on the plant or substance in question.  There is a description of the plant itself to help in recognition, alternative names, culinary use [to encourage people to use the plant], and then medicinal uses.  Dioscorides also  describes how to tell a good from a counterfeit preparation, a feature we are sorely in need of today with so many 'herbal medicines' on the market which are nothing of the sort.

There is also a description of the best time of collection and the place from which the herb is collected, something few people seem to consider today, and it is important:


First it is necessary to pay attention to storing and gathering plants, and only at the proper harvest time, for unless care is taken drugs can either be potent or become useless. Herbs should be collected on a sunny day, as it matters considerably if it is raining when the harvest is gathered. The places they grow also matter; specific medicinal herbs are stronger or weaker if found on hills and mountains; if exposed to winds; if their position is cool and arid — their strength can rest entirely on such conditions. Healing herbs located in the open or in bogs and dark places that do not permit the circulation of air are generally of poorer strength, particularly if they are collected at the wrong time, or are rotten and of inferior quality. We must remember that plants often mature sooner or are delayed depending on the peculiarities of the locale and the variability of the seasons.

To a large extent, therefore Diascorides was classifying plants according to their uses.  Today we have botanical classifications [good for identification], DNA classifications [ditto], classifications based on form, but for the layman who simply wants to know whether to cook the plant or use it as medicine or both, there is nothing.  Diascorides, like all good herbalists, saw all plants as potential medicines – a source of nutrients or a source of rebalancing chemicals and his explanations were based on these premises.

Historia rei herbariae, 1807-1808, volume 1, Kurt Polycarp Joachim Sprengel
For more than sixteen centuries, he was looked up to as the sole authority, so that everything botanical began with him. Everyone who undertook the study of botany or the identification of medicines swore by his words. Even as late as the beginning of the seventeenth century both the academic and the private study of botany may almost be said to have begun and ended with the text of Dioscorides.

Dr James Duke in compiling his excellent Phytochemical database uses De Materia Medica, it is still relevant even today.


Manuscripts and versions


De Materia Medica was circulated as illustrated manuscripts, copied by hand, in Greek, Latin and Arabic throughout the mediaeval period. From the sixteenth century on, Dioscorides' text was translated into Italian, German, Spanish, and French, and in 1655 into English. It formed the basis for herbals in these languages by men such as John Gerard and William Turner. Gradually such herbals included more and more direct observations, supplementing and eventually supplanting the classical text. Several manuscripts and early printed versions of De Materia Medica survive:

  • Vienna Dioscurides  - The most famous of the manuscripts is the lavishly illustrated Vienna Dioscurides, produced in Constantinople in 512/513 AD. It was prepared and presented to the imperial Princess Juliana Anicia (462-527), daughter of Anicius Olybrius, Emperor of the Western Roman Empire. The bound volume, the most prized possession of the Österreichische Nationalbibliothek in Vienna, Austria, is available in facsimile and is now referred to either as the Juliana Anicia Codex (JAC) or the Codex Vindobonensis. Its main disadvantage is that it was reordered into an alphabetical arrangement that loses the overall scheme of the medicinal layout Diascorides used.  Its plus point is that it contains 383 paintings which are really lovely.
  • Michigan Papyrus  - The earliest copies of Dioscorides' manuscript were not illustrated. The oldest survival is a fragment, the Michigan Papyrus.
  • Codex Neapolitanus - the seventh-century Greek alphabetic Codex Neapolitanus, was in the possession of a Neapolitan monastery for many years, and then presented to Emperor Charles VI in 1717. It was taken to Vienna and subsequently to the Bibliotheca Nazionale in Naples. The drawings in Codex Neapolitanus are from the same source as Codex Vindobonensis, but are smaller and grouped together on fewer pages.
    Morgan Dioscurides -there is a line of descent to a fourteenth century manuscript, Paris GR 2091; and a seventeenth century descendant at Bologna — these forming the primary alphabetic group. The secondary alphabetic group includes eleventh- and twelfth-century manuscripts at Pierpoint Morgan, Mount Atlas and the Vatican (GR 284).
  • Arabic manuscripts -An Arabic translation from the eleventh century in the Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris (Codex arab. 4947) shows how faithfully the Arabs reproduced the Greek illustrations. A Persian translation from the thirteenth century is preserved in the Shrine at Meshed, Iran; and an Arabic Dioscorides is in the Bodleian Library. A richly-illustrated Arabic Dioscorides manuscript of 1224 (Codex 2148) in the Top Kapu Saray Museum has exquisitely detailed figurative scenes. A number of other illustrated Arabic manuscripts of De Materia Medica are known. The teachings of Dioscorides have been used in the practice of medicine in the Middle East from their first writing to the present day.
  • The Paris Greek manuscripts – of the other non-alphabetic Greek group, the best example Is the Paris Grec 2179 in the Bibliotheque Nationale, written in ninth-century Egypt, its naturalistic illustrations dating the draughtsmanship to the second or third century CE. Later manuscripts of the same group reside at Venice (St Marks 273 of the eleventh century), Florence, the Vatican, and Vienna.
  • Mount Athos Greek manuscripts - Greek manuscripts survive today in the monasteries of Mount Athos.  And are being used

Sir Arthur Hill, Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, describing a visit to Mount Athos in 1934:
The official botanist monk ... was a remarkable old man with an extensive knowledge of plants and their properties ... he travelled very quickly, usually on foot, and sometimes on a mule, carrying his flora with him in a large black bulky bag ... his flora was nothing less than four manuscript volumes of Dioscorides, which apparently he himself had copied out. This flora he invariably used for determining any plant which he could not name at sight, and he could find his way in his books — and identify his plants to his own satisfaction — with remarkable rapidity.

  • De Materia Medica of Dioscorides.
    by Yusuf al Mawsili Mosul, Dec. 1228. folio 2b
    Latin translations 1- De Materia medica : libri V Eiusdem de Venenis Libri duo. Interprete Iano Antonio Saraceno Lugdunaeo, Medico, translated onto Latin by Janus Antonius Saracenus (1598).
  • Latin translations 2 - The ninth-century Dioscorides Lombardus in the Munchener Staatsbibliothek (with its direct descendant, a South Italian manuscript in Beneventan script, Codex Longobard, Munich 337) has an excellent text, making it the most important of the Latin manuscripts. It is illustrated with approximately 900 lovely miniatures, more than twice as many as the 387 in Codex Vindobonensis.
  • John Goodyear manuscript – a manuscript in English completed in 1655 by John Goodyear that now resides in Magdalen College, Oxford, based on a lost Latin translation
  • John Goodyear printed version – a printed version of the above - The Greek Herbal of Dioscorides... Englished by John Goodyer A. D. 1655, edited by R.T. Gunter (1933).
  • Greek published version - Max Wellmann (1906-1914) published a critical Greek edition in 3 volumes in 1906-1914.
  • English published version  - De Materia Medica: Being an Herbal with many other medicinal materials, in English and translated into more modern English  by Tess Anne Osbaldeston, year 2000, based on the translation of John Goodyear of year 1655.
  • English published version – based on the Max Wellmann (1906-1914) critical Greek edition and translated from Greek into English by Lily Beck, De Materia Medica, translated by Lily Y. Beck (2005)

Other References

  • De Vos (2010) "European Materia Medica in Historical Texts: Longevity of a Tradition and Implications for Future Use", Journal of Ethnopharmacology 132(1):28–47
  • Krebs, Robert E.; Krebs, Carolyn A. (2003). Groundbreaking Scientific Experiments, Inventions, and Discoveries of the Ancient World. Greenwood Publishing Group
  • Hefferon, Kathleen (2012). Let Thy Food Be Thy Medicine. Oxford University Press.


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