De materia medica is a pharmacopeia of medicinal plants and the medicines that can be obtained from them.
The five-volume work was written between 50 and 70 CE by Pedanius Dioscorides, a Greek physician in the Roman army.
It was widely read for more than 1,500 years until supplanted by revised herbals in the Renaissance, making it one of the longest-lasting of all-natural history books.
The 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.
De materia medica was circulated as illustrated manuscripts, copied by hand, in Greek, Latin, and Arabic throughout the medieval 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 Leonhart Fuchs, Valerius Cordus, Lobelius, Rembert Dodoens, Carolus Clusius, John Gerard and William Turner. Gradually these 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, including the illustrated Vienna Dioscurides manuscript written in the original Greek in sixth-century Constantinople; it was used there by the Byzantines as a hospital text for just over a thousand years. Sir Arthur Hill saw a monk on Mount Athos still using a copy of Dioscorides to identify plants in 1934.
Between 50 and 70 AD, a Greek physician in the Roman army, Dioscorides, wrote a five-volume book in his native Greek, Peri hules iatrikēs, “On Medical Material” known more widely in Western Europe by its Latin title De materia medica.
He had studied pharmacology at Tarsus in Roman Anatolia (now Turkey). The book became the principal reference work on pharmacology across Europe and the Middle East for over 1500 years and was thus the precursor of all modern pharmacopeias.
In contrast to many classical authors, De materia medica was not “rediscovered” in the Renaissance, because it never left circulation; indeed, Dioscorides’ text eclipsed the Hippocratic Corpus.
In the medieval period, De materia medica was circulated in Latin, Greek, and Arabic. In the Renaissance from 1478 onwards, it was printed in Italian, German, Spanish, and French as well. In 1655, John Goodyer made an English translation from a printed version, probably not corrected from the Greek.
While being reproduced in manuscript form through the centuries, the text was often supplemented with commentary and minor additions from Arabic and Indian sources. Several illustrated manuscripts of De materia medica survive.
The most famous is the lavishly illustrated Vienna Dioscurides (the Juliana Anicia Codex), written in the original Greek in Byzantine Constantinople in 512/513 AD; its illustrations are sufficiently accurate to permit identification, something not possible with later medieval drawings of plants; some of them may be copied from a lost volume owned by Juliana Anicia’s great grandfather, Theodosius II, in the early 5th century.
The Naples Dioscurides and Morgan Dioscurides are somewhat later Byzantine manuscripts in Greek, while other Greek manuscripts survive today in the monasteries of Mount Athos. Densely illustrated Arabic copies survive from the 12th and 13th centuries.
The result is a complex set of relationships between manuscripts, involving translation, copying errors, additions of text and illustrations, deletions, reworkings, and a combination of copying from one manuscript and correction from another.
De materia medica is the prime historical source of information about the medicines used by the Greeks, Romans, and other cultures of antiquity. The work also records the Dacian names for some plants, which otherwise would have been lost. The work presents about 600 medicinal plants in all, along with some animals and mineral substances, and around 1000 medicines made from these sources.
Botanists have not always found Dioscorides’ plants easy to identify from his short descriptions, partly because he had naturally described plants and animals from southeastern Europe, whereas by the sixteenth century his book was in use all over Europe and across the Islamic world.
This meant that people attempted to force a match between the plants they knew and those described by Dioscorides, leading to what could be catastrophic results.
Each entry gives a substantial amount of detail on the plant or substance in question, concentrating on medicinal uses but giving such mention of other uses (such as culinary) and help with recognition as considered necessary.
For example, on the “Mekon Agrios and Mekon Emeros“, the opium poppy and related species, Dioscorides states that the seed of one is made into bread: it has “a somewhat long little head and white seed“, while another “has a head bending down” and a third is “more wild, more medicinal and longer than these, with a head somewhat long — and they are all cooling.”
After this brief description, he moves at once into pharmacology, saying that they cause sleep; other uses are to treat inflammation and erysipelas, and if boiled with honey to make a cough mixture. The account thus combines recognition, pharmacological effect, and guidance on drug preparation. Its effects are summarized, accompanied by a caution:
A little of it (taken with as much as a grain of ervum) is a pain-easer, a sleep-causer, and a digester, helping coughs and abdominal cavity afflictions. Taken as a drink too often it hurts (making men lethargic) and it kills. It is helpful for aches, sprinkled on with rosacea; and for pain in the ears dropped in them with oil of almonds, saffron, and myrrh. For inflammation of the eyes it is used with a roasted egg yolk and saffron, and for erysipelas and wounds with vinegar; but for gout with women’s milk and saffron. Put up with the finger as a suppository it causes sleep.— Dioscorides—Mekon Agrios and Mekon Emeros
Dioscorides then describes how to tell a good from a counterfeit preparation. He mentions the recommendations of other physicians, Diagoras (according to Eristratus), Andreas, and Mnesidemus, only to dismiss them as false and not borne out by experience.
He ends with a description of how the liquid is gathered from poppy plants and lists names used for it: chamaesyce, mecon rhoeas, oxytonon; papaver to the Romans, and wanti to the Egyptians.
As late as in the Tudor and Stuart periods in Britain, herbals often still classified plants in the same way as Dioscorides and other classical authors, not by their structure or apparent relatedness but by how they smelt and tasted, whether they were edible, and what medicinal uses they had.
Only when European botanists like Matthias de l’Obel, Andrea Cesalpino and Augustus Quirinus Rivinus (Bachmann) had done their best to match plants they knew to those listed in Dioscorides did they go further and create new classification systems based on the similarity of parts, whether leaves, fruits, or flowers.
De materia medica is divided into five volumes.
Dioscorides organized the substances by certain similarities, such as their being aromatic, or vines; these divisions do not correspond to any modern classification. In David Sutton’s view, the grouping is by the type of effect on the human body.
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.
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.
Volume III: Roots, seeds and herbs
Volume III covers roots, seeds, and herbs. These include plants that may be rhubarb, gentian, licorice, caraway, cumin, parsley, lovage, fennel, and many others.
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.
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 what may be zinc oxide, verdigris and iron oxide.
Influence and effectiveness
On Arabic medicine
Along with his fellow physicians of Ancient Rome, Aulus Cornelius Celsus, Galen, Hippocrates and Soranus of Ephesus, Dioscorides had a major and long-lasting effect on Arabic medicine as well as a medical practice across Europe.
De materia medica was one of the first scientific works to be translated from Greek into Arabic. It was translated first into Syriac and then into Arabic in 9th century Baghdad.
Writing in The Great Naturalists, the historian of science David Sutton describes De materia medica as:
“one of the most enduring works of natural history ever written” and that “it formed the basis for Western knowledge of medicines for the next 1,500 years.”
The historian of science Marie Boas writes that herbalists depended entirely on Dioscorides and Theophrastus until the sixteenth century when they finally realized they could work on their own.
She notes also that herbals by different authors, such as Leonhart Fuchs, Valerius Cordus, Lobelius, Rembert Dodoens, Carolus Clusius, John Gerard and William Turner, were dominated by Dioscorides, his influence only gradually weakening as the sixteenth-century herbalists “learned to add and substitute their own observations“.
The historian of early science and medicine Paula Findlen, writing in the Cambridge History of Science, calls De materia medica “one of the most successful and enduring herbals of antiquity, which emphasized the importance of understanding the natural world in light of its medicinal efficiency“, in contrast to Pliny’s Natural History (which emphasized the wonders of nature) or the natural history studies of Aristotle and Theophrastus (which emphasized the causes of natural phenomena).
In the view of the historian Paula De Vos, De materia medica formed the core of the European pharmacopeia until the end of the 19th century, suggesting that:
“the timelessness of Dioscorides’ work resulted from an empirical tradition based on trial and error; that it worked for generation after generation despite social and cultural changes and changes in medical theory”.
At Mount Athos in northern Greece Dioscorides’s text was still in use in its original Greek into the 20th century, as observed in 1934 by Sir Arthur Hill, Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew:
“At Karyes there is an official Botanist Monk … he was a remarkable old Monk with extensive knowledge of plants and their properties. Though fully gowned in a long black cassock he traveled very quickly, usually on foot, and sometimes on a mule, carrying his ‘Flora’ with him in a large, black, bulky bag. Such a bag was necessary since his ‘Flora’ was nothing less than four manuscript folio 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.”