Dioscorides and the rose

Rhodon (Rosa foetida/lutea) from Vienna Dioscorides

The background image used on this blog is Rhodon (rose, Rosa foetida, also known as R. lutea) from the “Vienna Dioscorides,” a manuscript of Dioscorides’ De Materia Medica. It was written in Greek (with later Arabic notes) around AD 512-515 for the Roman princess and art patron Anicia Juliana. This gorgeously illuminated manuscript is extremely rare for being so ancient, especially considering that for a while it seems to have seen use as a hospital manual.

Rosa foetida "bicolor" (also known as Rosa lutea)

Rosa foetida “bicolor” (also known as Rosa lutea)

Dioscorides receiving a mandrake root

Dioscorides receiving a mandrake root from Euresis (or Heuresis), the goddess of Invention and Discovery. This, from the “Vienna Dioscorides,” is the only extant representation of Euresis. At Dioscorides’ feet is a dog, dead either from having eaten the poisonous mandrake, or from the horrible screams that were said to be emitted by the mandrake when its root was unearthed.

Pedanius Dioscorides (the Latin form of his name; the Greek is Pedanios Dioscouridis–lived around AD 40-90) authored a five-volume pharmacopeia describing some 600 plants and other medicinal substances–truly an effort to be admired by any humble herbal blogger! He was born in what is now Turkey, then part of the Roman Empire, and served as an army surgeon under Emperor Nero. He wrote his opus in his native Greek language, though today it is better known by its Latin title, De Materia Medica. The work was incredibly influential up through the 19th century–unlike other Classical works, it never fell out of popularity but continuously circulated in Latin, Greek, and Arabic forms, and was augmented by Arabian and Indian physicians in the Middle Ages (who were the most advanced doctors of the day by far). In an analysis of later herbals published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology, De Vos (2010) found that Dioscorides had far greater influence on the European pharmacopeia than Hippocrates did. In a way, I think one could say that the division between “medicine” as a formal body of learning and practice and “folk medicine”  or “herbalism” as an informal but empirically-based healing tradition goes back all the way to the Greeks. Whether or not that is the case, the gulf only continued to widen, leaving us in our present situation.

pimpernel Vienna Dioscorides


blackberry Vienna Dioscorides


Many of the uses of plants described by Dioscorides are still regarded as accurate today. Regarding the rose, Dioscorides prescribed rose petals for eye problems, headaches, earaches, hemorrhoids, and a decoction of the hips for coughing up blood. Here in the 21st century, Kiva Rose says that rose is healing “for hot, damp, congested headaches that are often accompanied by feverishness, hot flashes, gas and bloating.” And their cooling, astringent properties would indeed be very soothing for hemorrhoids. I suspect that rose hips’ effect on those coughing blood would be mainly through their astringent properties, which would tone the tissues of blood vessels and mucosa, and their high levels of Vitamin C, which would help the body fight off infection.


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