Dioscorides’ Materia Medica is a great repository of botanical, medical and pharmacological lore and thus of essential importance for the history of medicine and science; and it is also a critical witness to the development of other herbal texts, both as source and as witness. In addition, it is a fascinating resource for social history, telling us, of course, about ancient ideas of health, pain, and therapy, but also a great deal about what the people of antiquity did and did not find offensive in the areas of complexion, body odor, thickness and color of hair, and so forth, not to mention nightmares, anxiety, fertility, conception, contraception, and aphrodisiacs. Given all this it is shocking that no English translation was published until 19331 — a translation that was made by Goodyer in the 1650s, using only one manuscript; the translation thus does not fit the best modern critical edition well, that of Max Wellmann.2 As someone who deals with Dioscorides frequently, I can attest to the difficulty of correlating hundreds of pages of horrible quality xeroxes of the out-of-print Wellmann edition with a hideous xerox of the out-of-print 1650s translation, especially when these do not match exactly. It was probably in response to this frustration that T. A. Osbaldeston created a modern-English “translation” of Goodyer, producing a deceptively readable, well-illustrated volume that is, like Goodyer, not based on a modern critical text.3 The new translation by Lily Beck is therefore an enormous service to scholarship and has the potential to energize the use of Dioscorides as a source for social history, culture and so forth to a similar degree as the revolution in the study of magic in antiquity that followed the publication of the English translation of the Greek Magical Papyri.4 The reason is similar: like the magical formularies, this text looks very different when read as a whole than it does when consulted for specific chapters.
Beck’s translation preserves the simple syntax and repetitive descriptive phrases that Dioscorides used to make his text useful for reference and the practice of medicine. This consistency might make the text seem a bit repetitive when read in large sections, but the benefit for the reader is that unique features of each substance leap out all the more dramatically. In the main, each substance is introduced and carefully described, including its potential adulterations and how they may be detected. After this, its various medical uses are discussed, with the occasional inclusion of rumors or folklore that Dioscorides has heard (these latter usually introduced with the distancing phrase “they say”). Medical use is the organizing principle of each book, since drugs are grouped by function, not region or name.5
Although Beck has provided modern English names for each substance (along with the names used in modern technical botany) in each case she also provides the Greek term that is being translated. This simple feature is a huge benefit, since terms like, e.g., “Corn Flag,” (IV.20) do not communicate the connections made in the ancient language — in this case, a plant whose leaves resemble swords or daggers is named
The volume is accompanied with extremely helpful indices of substances, though as noted these are alphabetized by the common English name, not always the most useful for the historian, though the Greek words appear here as well. Most interesting to this reviewer is the Medical Index with which the volume concludes. Though scholars of ancient medicine might also have preferred this to be organized by Greek term, the index is fascinating for the wide range of complaints covered by the text, items that are not ordinarily considered under the heading of “medical writing” and for which Greek terms are not very familiar. For example, we find various adhesives that are used to reattach eyelashes — who knew that this was such a problem — as well as recipes to grow or remove hair, and so forth.8 The book also includes a table of weights and measures for obols, drachmai and other measurements for doses and recipes, with the equivalent in modern grams — something that is otherwise surprisingly difficult to find.9
Lily Beck is to be commended for an important contribution to scholarship and for making Dioscorides accessible as a literary production and as a monument to social history, in a way that it has never been in English.
1. The Greek Herbal of Dioscorides. Illustrated by a Byzantine A.D. 512, Englished by John Goodyer A.D. 1655. Ed. Robert T. Gunther. (Oxford University Press, 1934; reissued New York: Hafner, 1968).
2. Pedanii Dioscuridis Anazarbei, De Materia Medica Libri Quinque. Ed. Max Wellmann. 3 vols. (Berlin: Weidman, 1958).
3. T. A. Osbaldeston, Dioscorides, De Materia Medica. A New Indexed Version in Modern English. Introductory notes by R.P. Wood. Ibidis Press: Johannesburg, South Africa; 2000. A PDF of the first book and the complete indices is available by writing to email@example.com (the first book is also online). According to Osbaldeston’s Introduction, a new edition of the Greek text is in preparation by Alain Touwaide.
4. H. Dieter Betz, ed., The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation, Volume I: Texts (University of Chicago Press, 1986).
5. That this was the original form of the work is made clear by John M. Riddle, Dioscorides on Pharmacy and Medicine (University of Texas Press, 1986).
6. J.E. Raven, Plants and Plant Lore in Ancient Greece (Oxford: Leopard’s Head Press, 2000), 3-10.
7. Introduction, xxvii; Jacques André, Les noms des plants dans le Rome antique (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1985).
8. These indices are remarkably thorough and appear to be relatively free of the hundreds of typos that mar the production.
9. The table is reproduced from the German translation of J. Berendes, Des Pedanios Dioskurides aus Anazarbos Arzneimittellehre (Stuttgart: Enke, 1902).