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Dioscorides (or Dioscurides) of Anazarbus (today's Turkey) (Διοσκουρίδης o Πεδάνιος) was a Greek physician born in southeast Asia Minor in the Roman Empire in the first few decades AD. During his lifetime, he traveled extensively seeking medicinal substances from all over the Roman and Greek world. He served in Nero's armies as botanist. All we know from sources other than Dioscorides' own work is his name-Pedanius Dioscorides from Anazarbus. Greeks normally had only one name, but if one received Roman citizenship, he frequently added a Roman name, perhaps from a benefactor. Three candidates for Dioscorides' first-name benefactor are L. Pedanius Secundus, Roman prefect in AD. 56; Pedanius Secundus, who was likely governor of the Roman province of Asia in the early 50s; and Gn. Pedanius Salinator, consul in AD. 60. These possibilities are conjecture, however.

Between about 50-70 AD., he wrote his fundamental work, Περί ύλης ιατρικής , known in Latin as De materia medica. This five book study focused upon "the preparation, properties, and testing of drugs" and became the most central pharmacological work in Europe and the Middle East for the next sixteen centuries! This work is the first systematic pharmacopoeia. De materia medica was translated and preserved by the Arabs, and finally translated back into Latin by the 10th century.

Dioscurides Codex,

Books of De materia medica:

On plant materials
On all manner of animals
On all manner of oils
On materials derived from trees
On wines and minerals and other similar substances

Part of Dioscorides books include the work of others such as Diocles and Crateuas. Crateuas (fl. c. 100 BC) was a court physician to Mithridates VI Eupator, King of Pontus and his original work was lost.

Dioscorides, early 6th century AD. Vienna Imperial Library Cod. Graec. 5

Today most physicians employ the Physicians' Desk Reference as a principal guide to drugs. It contains about 10000 medicaments, or slightly more than twice the 4740 medical uses in De materia medica. As important as the scale of his work was, the quality of his information and his organization by drug affinities were potentially of greater significance. It seems relatively clear how he could accomplish this: he obtained most of his information through direct clinical observation. He asked his readers not to criticize his style of writing but to consider "my careful practical experience" (Pref . 5). The ability to synthesize so much empirical data almost certainly would have been based on experience. Dioscorides must have made his observations in clinical situations, because it is highly unlikely that he could have acquired the knowledge in any other way. He must have been a practicing physician, trained in the Hippocratic way of Hellenistic physicians.

His mentor, Areios, stressed drug therapy in his practice in Tarsus, a pharmacology center. As a physician, military or not, Dioscorides traveled considerably, mostly in the eastern Mediterranean provinces; he talked with local people about their remedies; he read the authorities; he observed the effects of drugs on patients' bodies; he saw relationships in how different drugs affected the patients; and he identified drug affinities. Above all, he had the ability to observe nature and then to base his working postulates on empirical data

For the sixteen hundred years of the modern era, termed Christian, in the stretch from the Viking north to the Indian Ocean, the knowledge of medicines came more from the prodigious search effort of one man, Dioscorides. than from any other person. While he may not have been the first to discover most of the usages, he industriously collected them from various lands, codified the data, and organized it in a clear, concise, and rational fashion. For this reason he became the chief authority on pharmacy and one of the principal ones on medicine. Successors to Dioscorides took simples and mixed them to control multiple results. For a long time after Dioscorides, the tendency was to develop medicines containing many natural drugs, that is, polypharmacy. Not until the sixteenth century was the direction reversed; the reversal came about partly with the observation by Paracelsus (ca. 1493-1541) that a single natural-product drug, was itself a mixture of compounds. If Dioscorides' method had been followed, his successors would have looked within each simple for those active ingredients which caused similar reactions regardless of their natural home, just as Dioscorides did when he saw calcium oxide as the common substance shared by shell aquatic animals and the mineral limestone. Inobtrusively, Dioscorides offered science a direction, but it took fifteen hundred years to catch up with him. Explaining why it took so long is as important as understanding Dioscorides' achievement.


MacKinney, L. C. Medical Illustrations in Medieval Manuscripts. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1965.


See also:

Vienna Dioscurides

The illness of Antiochus
Other ancient Greek medical facts



For a most cruel insanity
Has warped your mind;
While drugs may well have
Caused it, they can bring
No Cure
Euripides, The Bacchae


De Materia medica First Page in Greek (He is interestingly called “Pedakius” Dioscorides)

Julius Berendes, 1902: Dioskorides Books in German Scanned version.

Dioscorides De Materia Medica, Examples with some “modern” images (In German!!!)

Pharmacist preparing drugs From Dioscorides Materia Medica, 7th/13th century

Illustration from De Materia Medica of Dioscorides ,Baghdad, 621/1224

Example Text from De Materia Medica (Aromatics) by Pedianos Dioscorides

References: Antique Pharmacology and Botanic Science

History of Pharmacy

A History of Pharmacy : Robert Thom's Paintings

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