Pedanius Dioscorides Biography


(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

Article abstract: Roman physician and author{$I[g]Roman Empire;Pedanius Dioscorides[Dioscorides]}{$I[g]Asia Minor;Pedanius Dioscorides[Dioscorides]} Through wide travel and much observation, Dioscorides compiled, organized, and published the most comprehensive pharmacological text produced in the ancient world. The work remained a standard reference work for herbalists and physicians for some sixteen hundred years.

Early Life

Pedanius Dioscorides (di-uhs-KOHR-uh-deez) came from the city of Anazarbus, located along the banks of the Pyramus River in Roman Cilicia, in the far southeastern corner of Asia Minor. In his day, Anazarbus considered itself a worthy rival to its more famous neighbor Tarsus for preeminence in this province. Other than for Dioscorides, Anazarbus is most famous for its red stone buildings and for having produced the poet Oppian in the second century c.e.

Dioscorides probably received his early education and medical training in Tarsus, a city famous for its pharmacologists (experts in the preparation, administration, and effects of drugs). Scholars have inferred that Dioscorides was schooled in Tarsus, not only because of Tarsus’s reputation but also because Dioscorides dedicated his De materia medica (c. 78 c.e.; The Greek Herbal of Dioscorides, 1934, best known as De materia medica) to the physician Arius of Tarsus, from whom he seems to have received his medical training. It is also worth noting that Galen, the most famous of all Greek medical writers, referred to Dioscorides as Dioscorides of Tarsus, rather than of Anazarbus, indicating that Dioscorides was closely associated with the medical traditions of Tarsus in the minds of later scholars.

It may also have been in Tarsus that Dioscorides acquired his Roman name, or nomen, Pedanius. Even after the Romans had made the entire Mediterranean area part of their vast empire, it remained common for Greeks to have only one name. However, it was also common for provincials who were granted Roman citizenship to recognize their Roman patrons by adopting their names. Most likely, Dioscorides took his name from a connection with a member of the gens, or family, of the Pedanii (one of whom, Pedanius Secundus, had served as governor in the neighboring Roman province of Asia in the 50’s).

There is some debate over whether—and in what capacity and for what duration—Dioscorides served in the Roman military. It is quite possible that Dioscorides did serve in the military; if he did, it would account for some of his wide travels and would probably have brought him into contact with people from distant parts of the Roman world. His military experience would not account for his genius, however, and his later work does not greatly reflect the most pressing concerns of a field surgeon: treating wounds. It will suffice to say that his military experience was not an obstacle to his later career.

Life’s Work

Virtually all that is known about Dioscorides comes from the single source of his lasting fame, his great book on the medical properties of plants and other natural agents, De materia medica, which he wrote in Greek. In this book, a pharmacological text that describes hundreds of plants—as well as animals and minerals—and their properties when employed as drugs, Dioscorides reveals himself to be high-minded and genuinely concerned with the physician’s essential task of healing. Although Dioscorides may have been associated with the empirical school of medicine, his writing shows no trace of the contentious spirit or rancor so prevalent elsewhere in the ancient medical corpus. He was, almost without question, a physician himself rather than, as has sometimes been suggested, a traveling drug dealer. Selling drugs was a highly lucrative profession during Dioscorides’ time, and quackery was a serious problem, as pharmacists and so-called root-cutters competed for business with physicians. There were no licensing boards to protect patients from malpractice or fraud in the ancient world, and the motto of the day was caveat emptor, “let the buyer beware.” Dioscorides, by producing his encyclopedic reference book on pharmacy, did much to alleviate this problem.

Dioscorides’ system of classifying plants based on their pharmaceutical properties is an original one. He divided his study into five books, each concerned with a different broad group of medicinal agents. Within these books, he then discussed each plant, animal, or mineral in its own chapter. He methodically lists the plant’s name (including common variants or synonyms), presents a drawing of it, gives its habitat and a botanical description, and then discusses its properties as a drug. He not only discusses positive qualities of these drugs but also warns of dangerous side effects. He instructs his readers on how and when to harvest, prepare, and store each plant or compound. He hastens to add in most cases that he has traveled extensively through the eastern Mediterranean and as far afield as India, Arabia, North Africa, Spain, and Gaul to examine these plants personally.

Book 1...

(The entire section is 2120 words.)