University of Virginia Historical Collections at the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library

Vienna Dioscorides from De Materia Medica, 512

Dioscorides: the authority in medicinal plants for 1500 years

Greek physician Pedanius Dioscorides (c. 40-c. 90) was from Anazarbus, a small town near Tarsus in what is now southcentral Turkey. As a surgeon with the Roman army of Emperor Nero, Dioscorides traveled through Italy, Gaul, Spain, and North Africa, recording the existence and medicinal value of hundreds of plants. He compiled an extensive listing of medicinal herbs and their virtues in about 70 A.D. Originally written in Greek, Dioscorides’s herbal was later translated into Latin as De Materia Medica. It remained the authority in medicinal plants for over 1500 years.

Title page of De Materia Medica by Pedanius Dioscorides, 1554

Title page of De Materia Medica by Pedanius Dioscorides, 1554

The oldest known manuscript of his work is the Juliana Anicia Codex (ca. 512 A.D.), housed in the Austrian National Library in Vienna. Listed as Codex Vindobonensis Medicus Graecus 1., it is better known as “Vienna Dioscorides,” the oldest and most valuable work in the history of botany and pharmacology. Since an original copy of Dioscorides’s herbal has never been found, we cannot be certain that it included illustrations. It is certain, however, that, in 512 A.D., a Byzantine artist illustrated Dioscorides’s herbal for presentation to Juliana Anicia, the daughter of Emperor Anicius Olybrius. The artist seems to have based his work on illustrations from the Rhizotomicon of Crateuas of Pergamon (1st century B.C.).


Kentaureion To Lepton

Kentaureion to lepton
Erythraea centaurium: Centaury

The genus of this herb was originally named Chironia after Chiron, a centaur of Greek mythology who was famous for his knowledge of medicinal plants. According to legend, Chiron healed himself with this plant after accidentally wounding himself with one of Hercules’s poisoned arrows. Dioscorides alluded to the myth and prescribed Centaury as a treatment for wounds. He also recommended the herb for lung disorders, namely “the old cough” and “blood spitting.”


Apsynthion Bathyprikon

Apsynthion Bathyprikon
Artemisia absinthium: Wormwood

Next to Rue, Wormwood is the bitterest herb. Dioscorides recommended it as a stomachic, a vermifuge, a remedy for jaundice, and a flavoring for absinthe. According to Dioscorides, absinthe was a popular summertime drink in Propontis and Thracia, where they believed it maintained good health. Dioscorides also recommended the use of Wormwood in clothes drawers to repel moths and mice.

 


Kyklaminos

Kyklaminos
Cyclamen europaeum: Cyclamen, sowbread

This herb gets its name (cyclamen means “circle”) from its bulblike, underground stem. Dioscorides suggested its use as a purgative, antitoxin, skin cleanser, and labor-inducer. When used as a purgative, juice from the tuberous root-stock was applied externally, either over the bowels and bladder region or on the anus. Dioscorides also mentioned its use as an aphrodisiac. Many English farmers called Cyclamen “stag-truffle” or “sowbread” since they often observed deer and swine digging up and eating the roots.


Panax Heraklios

Panax Heraklios
probably Ferula galbaniflua: Galbanum

The genus of this plant (panax means “universal remedy”) suggests its wide use among the ancient Greeks. Dioscorides prescribed the milky juice of Galbanum for ulcers, coughs, convulsions, ruptures, headaches, stomach pains, menstrual cramps, toothaches, snakebites, and labor pains. Rubbed on the eyes as an ointment, it improved eyesight. And taken with honey, Galbanum was a sure remedy for indigestion and flatulence.


Physallis

Physallis
Physalis alkekengi: Physalis, or Winter-cherry

The Physalis plant grows in many parts of the world: in Europe, China, South America, South Africa, and in the United States. Often called the Winter-cherry or “Chinese Lanterns,” physalis was used as a decorative and medicinal herb. Dioscorides prescribed its stem as a sedative and its berries as diuretics. Mixed with honey, Physalis was said to improve eyesight; with wine, it supposedly cured toothache.

 


Rhodon

Rhodon
Rosa lutea: Rose

The beauty and fragrance of the rose secured its popularity in the ancient world. The Greeks associated the rose with Aphrodite, the Graces, and the Muses. Dioscorides recommended rose petal paste as an eye salve and suggested a decoction of rose petal dust in wine for headaches, earaches, and hemorrhoids. He also prescribed a rose hip decoction against hemoptysis.

 


Strychnos Megas Kepaios

Strychnos Megas Kepaios
Solanum nigrum: Black Nightshade

A relative of the notorious Atropa belladonna, or Deadly Nightshade, the Black, or Garden, Nightshade is potentially harmful, but its poison is relatively mild. Dioscorides recommended its leaves for treating skin diseases. He also suggested a decoction of the plant’s leaves for earaches, indigestion, and internal bleeding.

 


Drakontaia Mikre

Drakontaia Mikre
Arum maculatum: Arum, or Cuckoo-Pint

Ancient physicians called this plant the Drakontaia Mikre, or “small dragon,” because the central stalk resembles a serpent. According to Dioscorides, its shape revealed its purpose as an antidote for snakebites. Rubbing one’s hands with Arum root was supposed to make one unbiteable. Dioscorides also recommended the Arum root as an expectorant. The leaves, “beaten small,” were to be used on fresh wounds.