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History of Carrots - Dioskorides De Materia Medica

The Greek Herbal of Dioskorides (or Dioscorides)

The early MiddleImage of Dioscorides Lombardy manuscript 1400 Ages is a murky period in history for the study of vegetables, but a copy of the Codex of Dioskorides dating from 500 to 512 ad is illuminated with pictures of plants. The drawings are fairly accurate and convey the important physical characteristics of the vegetables and herbs shown. Thus it is possible to determine that a carrot shown in folio 312 (below) resembles pretty accurately modern day carrot, and more importantly is the earliest depiction of an orange root! The Codex is medicinal and therapeutic in nature, dealing with the health and dietary aspects of the plants discussed.

Since an original copy of Dioskorides’s herbal has never been found, we cannot be certain that it included illustrations. It has been suggested that some of the illustrations in the 512 codex may have been derived from Krataeus, author of a lost herbal and physician to the King of Pontus, Mithridates VI Eupater, in the 1st century BCE.  It is certain however, that in 512 A.D. or a little later, a Byzantine artist (or group of artists) in Constantinople  illustrated Dioskorides’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.).  This Codex reflects the habit prevailing in the aristocratic classes of ordering products of the hand book type of Literature.  Juliana was the daughter of Flavius Anicius Olitrius, Western Emperor in 472.

The sixth-century copy of Dioskorides’ Materia medica in Vienna (Nationalbibliothek, cod. med. gr.1) includes 383 botanical pictures, the earliest preserved illustrations to Dioskorides’ description of the pharmaceutical properties of plants. The title page composed specifically for the Vienna manuscript  explains that the book contains Dioskorides’ writings “about plants and roots (rhizomes) and decoctions and seeds along with herbs and drugs” in alphabetical order. Whatever other values the Byzantines may have attributed to the plants that grew in gardens and fields, their significance here is pragmatic and functional. The Materia medica remained fundamental to Byzantine pharmacology; like other much used medical texts, it was rearranged for ease of use in later centuries.  The non-illustrated manuscript of Dioscorides entitled Περί ύλης ιατρικής (De materia medica in Latin; On medical matters in English) was written in about the year 65.

AD 512  The Greek Herbal of Dioscorides: Illustrated by a Byzantine A.D. 512 includes the first pictorial reference to Orange Carrot - Dioskorides Codex Vindobonensis Medicus Greacus. (Austrian facsimiles from 1965, together with commentary - studied at the Royal Botanical Gardens Library, Kew Gardens, England).


Cultivated and wild carrots from the Juliana Anicia Codex of 512

Staphylinos Keras
The cultivated carrot

Staphylinos Agrios
The wild carrot, but appears to be a primitive type of cultivated carrot

The wild carrot (Daucus gingidium).
(also referred to as Cretan carrot)

Above - The oldest known manuscript of Dioscorides 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.

The third book of Dioscorides the Greek – Roots - sets out an account of roots, juices, herbs, and seeds — suitable both for common use and for medications.   Book Five dealt with wines and included a carrot recipe!

This is a modern translation.

Book Three - Roots


SUGGESTED: Staphylinum [Pliny], Pastinaca sativa prima, Pastinaca erratica, Carota [Fuchs], Daucus officinarum [BaDaucus afterThiebault 1881 - Dioscoridesuhin], Daucus carota var sativa [Linnaeus] — Carrot Daucus carota var sylvestris — Wild Carrot

Staphylinum has leaves like gingidium, only broader and somewhat bitter. It has a rough upright stalk with a tuft similar to dill on which are white flowers, and in the midst something small of a purple colour and of almost a saffron colour.

The root is the thickness of a finger, twenty centimetres long, sweet smelling and edible (boiled as a vegetable). The seed induces the menstrual flow, taken as a drink (or inserted as a pessary), and is good in liquid medicines for frequent painful urination, dropsy, and pleurisy, as well as for the bites and strikes of venomous creatures. They also say that those who take it beforehand shall experience no assault from wild beasts. It encourages conception. The root (also being urinary) is applied to stir up sexual intercourse [aphrodisiac]. The leaves, pounded into small pieces with honey and applied, clean ulcers that spread. The garden pastinaca is fitter to be eaten, and is good for the same purposes, working more weakly. It is also called cerascomen; the Romans call it carota, some pastinaca rustica, the Egyptians, babiburu, and the Africans sicham.

3-83. DAUKOS

SUGGESTED: Pastinaca sativa, Pastinaca lucida, Pastinaca dissecta [Loudon] — Parsnip Daucus carota var boissieri — Parsnip, Wild Carrot pastinaca is from the Latin for daucus

Daucus (which is also called dircaeum) from Crete has leaves similar to marathrum [3-81] yet smaller and more slender, a stalk twenty centimetres long, and a tuft similar to coriander. The flowers are white, and in these is the seed which is sharp, white, rough and sweet smelling when chewed. The root is about the thickness of a finger, twenty centimetres in length. It grows in rocky sunny places. There is another kind similar to wild selinum — sharp, sweet smelling and hot to one who tastes it, but that from Crete is the best. The third kind has leaves similar to coriander, with white flowers, but a head and seed similar to dill [3-67]. On the head is a tuft similar to pastinaca [3-59], full of long seed, sharp like cumin. A decoction of the seed of any of them (taken as a drink) is warming. It expels the menstrual flow, is an abortifacient, induces the flow of urine, and frees one from griping, relieving old coughs. A decoction (taken as a drink with wine) helps those bitten by harvest spiders. Applied, it dissolves oedema. Only the seed of all the others is useful, but of the Cretan kind the root is also useful. This is taken as a drink with wine (especially) against harm from poisonous beasts.

Book 5 - Wines


SUGGESTED: Pastinaca sativa, Pastinaca lucida, Pastinaca dissecta [Loudon] — Parsnip — Daucites Daucus carota var boissieri — Parsnip,

Wild Carrot Put six teaspoons of well-pounded daucus root into nine gallons of must [for several months], and then pour it into another jar. It is good for hypochondria [nervous gastric disorder] and disorders of the chest and womb; it expels the menstrual flow, and induces belching and urine. It is good for coughs, convulsions, and hernias.

More about Dioscorides:

Pedianos Dioskourides, also known as Pedanius Dioscorides, probably lived between 40CE and 90CE in the time of the Roman Emperors Nero and Vespasian. A Cilician Greek, he was born in Anazarbos (now Nazarba, near Tarsus) within the Roman Empire of the day, and today in Turkey. A learned physician, he practiced medicine as an army doctor, and saw service with the Roman legions in Greece, Italy, Asia Minor, and Provence in modern-day France. His military years provided opportunities for studying diseases, collecting and identifying medicinal plants, and discovering other healing materials. Dioscorides compiled his medical treatise at the suggestion of a fellow-physician, Areius. He had access to the library at Alexandria, and may have studied at Tarsus. He recorded many plants previously unknown to Greek and Roman physicians, and made an effort to describe not only their qualities and remedial effects, but also something of their botany and living morphology including roots, foliage, and sometimes flowers. Although not as naive as many other herbal writers, he showed little scientific interest concentrating rather on the practical uses of plants and sometimes giving only brief descriptions, perhaps from other primary sources. In all he described some one thousand remedies using approximately six hundred plants and plant products.

Dioscorides probably wrote his great herbal in about 64CE (according to Pritzel 77CE). These medicinal and alimentary plants number about a hundred more than all those (medicinal or not) known to the great botanist Theophrastus, and described in his fine botanical work, the Enquiry into Plants, some two centuries before. Theophrastus of Eresos (a village on the Greek island of Lesbos) lived from about 372 to 286BCE. A close friend of Aristotle, he is the earliest known systematic botanical author in Europe. He discussed about 500 plants (or plant products) familiar at that time, including almost forty plants still used in medicine today, and mentioned plants from all regions of the known world, including India, Egypt and Cyrenaica, possibly discovered during the military campaigns of Alexander the Great. Theophrastus drew on the work of Diokles of Karystos (about 300BCE), a fellow-student of Aristotle.

Dioscorides added extensively to the range of plants used in medicine. He was a contemporary of the Roman, Pliny, whose monumental work on natural history (the history of the world) mentions about 1000 different plants. There is no evidence that they met, and Pliny may not have read Dioscorides' work. Gaius Plinius Secundus, known as Pliny the Elder, was born in Como in 23CE and died in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79CE. A busy Roman official, Pliny was also a prolific author, though only the thirty-seven books of his Historia Naturalis survived. He transcribed the knowledge of his time in accurate and precise detail, uncritically adding myths, legends, superstitions, personal observations, and opinions in a discursive, entertaining, encyclopaedic work. Pliny is less systematic and more credulous than Dioscorides. Pliny's remedies while no more effective are generally more unpleasant.

For almost two millenia Dioscorides was regarded as the ultimate authority on plants and medicine. The plant descriptions in his Peri ulhz iatrikh or De Materia Medica were often adequate for identification, including methods of preparation, medicinal uses, and dosages. There is also a minor work bearing the name of Dioscorides, Peri aplwn farmakwn, but this may not be authentic. Recognising the usefulness of his medical botany and phytography, his readers probably overestimated their worth. In truth, Theophrastus was the scientific botanist; Pliny produced the systematic encyclopaedia of knowledge; and Dioscorides was merely a medical botanist. However Dioscorides achieved overwhelming commendation and approval because his writings addressed the many ills of mankind most usefully.

Pedanius Dioscorides the Greek wrote this De Materia Medica approximately two thousand years ago. In 1655 John Goodyer made an English translation from an early printed version, and in 1933 Robert T Gunther edited this, Hafner Publishing Co, London & New York, printing it. It was probably not corrected against the Greek. This popular version of Goodyer's Dioscorides makes no such attempt either. We eagerly await the comprehensive and scholarly "Dioscorides" from Professor Alain Touwaide based on many original manuscripts.

The main purpose of this new edition is to offer a more accessible text to today's readers. The reader may wish to refer to Greek, Latin, or other versions: including these lies beyond the scope of the present effort. I have not attempted to make the text uniform, and though I have included some sixteenth-century and Linnaean names, many do not indicate current usage. While it is not my intention to contribute to the controversy surrounding the true identities of the plants, minerals, and creatures in De Materia Medica, where available I have suggested possible plant names, with an indication of other plants using the same name today. I will appreciate any pertinent information that has been overlooked, and wish to acknowledge the errors that remain. Thus the proposed herbs provide some possibilities, and the reader is invited to place a personal interpretation upon the material. The illustrations suggest further options in some instances.

This is not a primary resource for medical treatment. Readers should in the first instance obtain medical advice from qualified, registered health professionals. Many treatments considered acceptable two thousand years ago are useless or harmful. This particularly applies to the abortifacients mentioned in the manuscript, most of which contain toxins considered dangerous in the required doses. With all this in mind, I believe the information in this document is still of interest and benefit to us, after all this time.
Tess Anne Osbaldeston, translator and editor
Johannesburg, South Africa,
June 2000


Dioscorides. De materia medica. - five books in one volume: A new English translation by Tess.Anne.Osbaldeston. Introductory notes by R.P.Wood. First Edition, 2000. Edition: ISBN 0-620-23435-0

Full reference material is here.

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