Medicine | Classical Wisdom Weekly

Skip to Content

Category Archives: Medicine

Theriac: the Ancient World’s Miracle Drug

by February 1, 2022

by Kevin Blood
I remember lining up with my younger brothers on the linoleum floor of our kitchen, ready to receive a spoonful of foul-tasting cod-liver oil and another of some vile milky tonic, whose name escapes me. Both made me retch from my boots. I thought my mother was trying to poison me! These vomit-inducing preparations were thought by her to be good for whatever might ail us. Great preventatives and cure-alls! She has been active in her search for cure-alls over the years, a search that occupies many mothers conscious of the well-being of little children.
Particularly valued by her are concoctions that protect and promote overall health and vitality, purify toxins in the body, grant a sense of tranquillity and provide relief from pain and discomfort. From ancient to medieval times a prized cure-all, named theriac, was thought to be effective in eliminating harmful toxins, in the form of venom or poison. It was said to heal a wide range of maladies. While researching its history, how it was tested and the ingredients it contained, I am relieved my mother did not know about this ancient wonder drug.
Theriac finds its roots in the story of the wily King Mithridates Eupator VI (120-63 BC), King of Pontus, in Asia Minor. Mithridates, described by Velleius Paterculus as ‘ever eager for war, of exceptional bravery, always great in spirit and sometimes in achievement, in strategy a general, in bodily prowess a soldier, in hatred to the Romans, a Hannibal’. He was a thorn in the side of the early Roman republic, an adversary of Sulla, Lucullus and Pompey. Ambitious, he rose to power by murdering his brother and imprisoning his mother. His ambition and courtly intrigues meant he feared assassination by poisoning.
Fascinated by the idea, he tested poisons on slaves and criminals to observe their effects. As a protective measure, he consumed small doses of poisons and venoms, as well as their antidotes. Mithradates tasked his physician, Crateuas, to create a wonder treatment effective against poisoning. Crateuas worked with Persian magi, Scythian shamans, and other physicians, to create Mithridatum, an electuary; a mixture of powders in paste form, combined with honey as a binding agent to create a pill. The pill, a mixture of approximately 40 ingredients, was taken daily by Mithridates. It was claimed to be effective against arsenic, and the toxins created by vipers, sea slugs, and scorpions, including a variety of other toxins.
Coin feauring Mithridates
Coin feauring Mithridates
It may have been effective: the sources assert Mithridates lived in good health until his seventies. While waging war against Pompey, he was betrayed by his son. Rather than face capture, he committed suicide. Having built resilience against poisons, he ordered a slave to stab him to death. Pompey took his papers, including the recipe for Mithridatum, back to Rome and translated them into Latin. Thus, the medicine named after him was adapted and became known as theriac. The name theriac means ‘to do with wild beasts’. This medical preparation remained popular right into the mid-eighteenth century.
During the Renaissance, Venice came to produce the best quality theriac, known as Venice (or Venetian) treacle. It carried the official seal of the republic, a guarantee of quality. Amongst the European medical community of the time, there was much debate over the quality and efficacy of the theriacs. The question being, were the modern preparations as good as those of the classical era? Some thought difficulties in procuring many of the ingredients available in ancient times meant contemporary theriacs were ineffective, others that ignorant or negligent physicians were to blame for poor-quality production. Such was the concern that in some European cities, the manufacturing of theriac was done in public, under the supervision of a recognised physician. This was conducted under strict controls and standards, essentially an early medical regulatory framework. Renaissance physicians sought out genuine classical descriptions for the ancient ingredients and production methods of theriac.
Albarello vase for theriac, Italy, 1641
Albarello vase for theriac, Italy, 1641
Ancient theriac first played a role as an antidote. Later, it became a panacea for a variety of illnesses. Given the nature of ancient pharmacology, more than one formula existed. One of the oldest, described by the naturalist Pliny the Elder and later by Galen of Pergamum, physician to Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus, originates from inscriptions found at the temple of Asklepios at Kos, a major centre of the healing cult. Its ingredients contained oppnax (sweet myrrh) thyme, fennel, parsley, and aniseed. One ingredient in many ancient preparations of theriac was opium, the juice of the poppy plant.
An ancient standard for the formulation of theriac was that of Andromachus, AD first-century botanist and court physician to the emperor Nero. Andromachus claimed his theriac superior to Mithridatum because it contained some sixty-four ingredients and was enhanced by the flesh of a viper and a much higher quantity of opium. For Andromachus, his ‘tranquillity’ theriac, unlike Mithridatum, was effective against poisons and venoms, and good for treating colic, dropsy, animal bites, plague, and inflammation.
Galen describes the basic formula for his theriac, based on Andromachus’, in De Antidotis I, De Antidotis II, and De Theriaca ad Pisonem. It contained vipers’ flesh, cinnamon, wine, honey, opium and more than seventy other ingredients. It matured for years and was administered in plaster form or orally. Galen, not one shy of self-promotion, claimed his formula was superior to all others.
Galen of Pergamum, physician to Marcus Aurelius
Galen of Pergamum, physician to Marcus Aurelius
What Andromachus’ and Galen’s versions of theriac have in common is the complexity of preparation, the wide variety of ingredients, and the rarity and great expense of some of its elements. It is reasonable to assume the version found at Kos was more affordable for the average pilgrim.
We can guess at how expensive some versions of Andromachus’ theriac were to produce from Galen’s treatise Peri alupias (Avoiding Distress), a text lost to us until as recently as 2005. It describes how he remained calm after a fire in Rome, AD 192, caused the loss of many of his prized possessions. The fire destroyed the library on the Palatine Hill, and some of the imperial archives and expensive real estate and storehouses on the Via Sacra. Galen lost precious metals, credit notes, medical instruments, medicines, and ingredients for producing more of these and 80 Roman pounds of his theriac.
Galen prescribed daily doses of his theriac for Marcus Aurelius; the ancient sources, including Aurelius himself, describe the emperor suffering for much of his adult life from ill-health. He had ulcers and impaired breathing. In the composition of Aurelius’ Meditations, it is interesting to speculate how daily quantities of opium may have contributed to the sense of Stoic detachment from perturbation, and the dream-like quality of his cosmic speculations about the nature of the universe.
Perhaps the book should have been called Medications, after all!
Houston, G.W. (2003) ‘Galen, his books, and the Horrea Piperataria at Rome’, Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome, vol. 48, pp. 45–51 [Online]. Available at (Accessed 26 January 2022).
Karaberopoulos, D. Karamanou, M. and Androtsos, G. (2012) ‘The theriac in antiquity’, The Lancet. Science Direct, Elsevier Ltd. Available at: The theriac in antiquity – The Lancet (accessed 26 January 2022).
 Karamanou, M. and Androutsos, G. (2019) Chapter 12 – Theriaca Magna: The Glorious Cure-All Remedy, Editor(s): Philip Wexler, In History of Toxicology and Environmental Health, Toxicology in Antiquity (Second Edition), Academic Press, pp. 175-184. Available at: Theriac – an overview | ScienceDirect Topics (accessed 26 January 2022).
Mayor, A. (2019) Chapter 11 – Mithridates of Pontus and His Universal Antidote, Editor(s): Philip Wexler, In History of Toxicology and Environmental Health, Toxicology in Antiquity (Second Edition), Academic Press, pp. 161-174, ISBN 9780128153390. Available at: Theriac – an overview | ScienceDirect Topics (accessed 26 January 2022).
Nutton, V. (2012) ‘Galen and Roman medicine: or can a Greek become a Latin?’, European Review, vol. 20, no. 4, pp. 534–42 [Online]. Available at (Accessed 26 January 2022).
Nutton, V. (2014a) ‘Avoiding Distress: translation’ in Singer, P.N. (ed.) Galen: Psychological Writings, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, pp. 77–99.
Nutton, V. (2014b) ‘Avoiding Distress: introduction’ in Singer, P.N. (ed.) Galen: Psychological Writings, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, pp. 45–76.

Quarantine in the Ancient World

by March 18, 2020

Written by Edward Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

The World Health Organization has declared the COVID 19 outbreak a pandemic. This has caused something of a global panic and has led to a great deal of economic dislocation. This has led to many governments imposing an obligatory system separating many people that may be carrying the virus. People have been obliged to self-isolate in case they inadvertently spread the influenza-like virus.

Quarantine is a series of measures that are taken to isolate those who may be carrying a communicable disease. The concept of social distancing was known to the ancients, and they were aware that it was potentially hazardous to come into contact with infected people. They knew that some diseases are contagious and that measures were needed to protect the healthy population from those who were infected.

Lack of Medicine 

The Greeks and the Romans made many scientific advances. However, they were extremely limited in their medical knowledge. They had no real concept of what a virus is or what was bacteria. They were aware that many diseases such as plague were highly infectious.


The Plague of Athens, Michiel Sweerts, c. 1652–1654

The Greeks and later the Romans believed that plagues and epidemics came from miasmas (an unpleasant or unhealthy smell or stench) that came from the ground. However, they were also aware that humans could spread these diseases.

There is evidence that ancient cities practiced some form of quarantine. Since they did not have the advanced medicine that we benefit from today, they could only rely on prevention. All ancient societies were aware of the need to separate the healthy from the sick.

In the Ancient World, the population, especially in urban centers, was very prone to epidemics. There are many recorded instances of plagues in the Classical World. The Plague that devastated Athens during The Peloponnesian War, in 430 BC., killed, up to 25 % of the inhabitants. Then the great Antonine Plague in the late 2nd century AD devastated the population and gravely weakened the Roman Empire.

Greek and Roman Quarantine

While there is evidence that city leaders in the ancient world used their powers to enforce quarantines, there is little documented evidence on the exact practice of quarantine. These ancient peoples did not have hospitals as such as they only emerged with Christianity. Civil leaders in Athens and elsewhere would prohibit strangers from entering the city walls. This included traders, merchants and other travelers.


Asclepius with his serpent-entwined staff, Archaeological Museum of Epidaurus.

The sick would often be ordered to ‘self-isolate’ and would be expected to stay in their home. As a result, many people would die in their home. However, some communities may have helped to feed the ill in their homes.  The need for the quarantine may have been limited by the fact that many people fled the cities when there was a pandemic or outbreak of diseases.

Many Ancient Greeks and Romans, during epidemics, may have sought sanctuary in temples and shrines. Many would flee to the Temple of Asclepius, the Greek God of Medicine, for his protection.  Moreover, it is believed, that many people would often receive basic healthcare at these sites. The sick would congregate in these and that helped to quarantine them and keep them separate from the healthy population.

The Ancient quarantines were not only aimed at preventing people from spreading the disease. Goods and products were also believed to have been spreading illnesses. Galen, in the first medical work on Epidemics, believed that bad cereals and grains caused plagues and other infectious diseases. As a result, it seems likely that the civic governments prohibited many foodstuffs and other goods into a city. This may have been effective in some instances, however it may have exacerbated the economic crises that many urban centers experienced during epidemics.


Galen and Hippocrates; Galen of Pergamum, left, with Hippocrates on the title page of Lipsiae (1677), a medical book by Georgii Heinrici Frommanni. National Library of Medicine, Bethesda, Maryland

The Rise of Christianity

After Christianity became the official state religion in the Roman Empire, they developed many charitable institutions. Most historians argue that they built the first hospitals in the Classical World. Here, during epidemics, sick people were able to receive care. These hospitals, which were ubiquitous in the Roman Eastern Provinces, often helped to quarantine the sick and those infected with illnesses.

Medieval Developments

The ancient world, it appears, only practiced a limited form of quarantine. However, their medical ideas influenced other societies who practiced quarantine more rigorously. The Byzantines drew on lessons learned from the past to develop a more sophisticated way of separating the healthy from the unhealthy.

It was the Arabs who learned most from the Greeks and their ideas about separating the infected from the uninfected. The Nestorian sect of Christianity (developed and practiced in Asia Minor and Syria), for instance, translated the works of leading Greeks such as Galen. There was also the Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphate, both of which developed sophisticated quarantine systems, including public hospitals.

Islamic physician

Depicting a scene in the hospital at Cordóba, then in Al-Andalus (Muslim Spain), this 1883 illustration shows the famed physician Al-Zahrawi (called Abulcasis in the West) attending to a patient while his assistant carries a box of medicines. SHEILA TERRY / SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY

The modern system of quarantine developed in Medieval Europe, especially in Italy, and was influenced in part by the ancients. The idea of isolating people for 40 days was based on ideas derived from Galen in his investigations, but the term quarantine comes from the Italian word “Quaranta”, meaning 40.

The history of quarantine is a long and fascinating one. As we hunker down and self-isolate, let’s keep in mind the ancient wisdom behind the very idea of doing so.

The Humours of Hippocrates: Which one are you?

by July 10, 2019

The Four Humors Illustration

Four Humors Drawing by Granger

If you had assumed that the theory of ‘humours’ had been unanimously relegated to the ‘didn’t work’ shelf of ancient philosophy, then… perhaps you’d be wrong. It appears that Hippocrates’ concept of a four chemical system that affect behavior is enjoying a bit of a revival.

Recently the New York Times posted an article called, “Could Ancient Greek Philosophy Help You Work Smarter and Better”, advocating “Humourism” and apparently it’s making the rounds. For those who want a recap, Humourism or humoralism, conceives that there are four basic fluids in the body; blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile, and that different levels of these fluids, or humors, affect our personalities.

While Hippocrates (460 – c. 370 BC) is usually credited with the theory, the concept has more ancient roots, including ancient Egypt and perhaps even Mesopotamia. Specifically, the medical theorist Alcmaeon of Croton (C. 540–500BC) outlined the idea, though with many substances, and the Pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Empedocles (c. 494 – c. 434 BC) believed that there were only four temperaments composed of natural elements like water, air, fire and earth.

It was ‘Hippocrates’ (or his school) that described the four ‘humours’ as bodily fluids which caused sickness or health (as discussed in our previous webinar).

Bust of Hippocrates

Engraving by Peter Paul Rubens, 1638, courtesy of the National Library of Medicine.

Hippocrates, and later Galen (129–201 AD), suggested that if there is any imbalance in these fluids, then temperament is affected. Moreover, The imbalance of humors, or dyscrasia, was thought to be the direct cause of all diseases. The qualities of the humours, in turn, influenced the nature of the diseases they caused. For instance, Yellow bile caused warm diseases and phlegm caused cold diseases. The diseases were all combinations of hot/cold and wet/dry.

It’s important to note that while today we associate temperament with just psychological dispositions, the ancients felt it also referred to bodily dispositions. Indeed, a person’s emotional and behavioral inclinations determined their susceptibility to particular diseases.

The Hippocratic Bench

A drawing of a Hippocratic bench from a Byzantine edition of Galen’s work in the 2nd century AD

One of the treatises attributed to Hippocrates, On the Nature of Man, describes the theory as follows:

“The Human body contains blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile. These are the things that make up its constitution and cause its pains and health. Health is primarily that state in which these constituent substances are in the correct proportion to each other, both in strength and quantity, and are well mixed. Pain occurs when one of the substances presents either a deficiency or an excess, or is separated in the body and not mixed with others.”


Table outlining the temperaments

So, what are the exact four temperaments caused by these unfortunate unbalances? These include:

Blood was believed to have come from the liver, exclusively. Too much of it resulted in a sanguine nature, which is described as enthusiastic, active, social and extremely talkative. ‘Sanguines’ tend to be extroverted, enjoy being part of a crowd and find being social, outgoing, and charismatic easy to accomplish.

Yellow bile/Choleric
Too much yellow bile resulted in a ‘Choleric’ nature, which was believed to produce aggression. On the positive side, ‘Choleric’ temperaments are described as independent, decisive, goal-oriented, and ambitious. In Greek, Medieval and Renaissance times, they were thought of as violent, vengeful, and short-tempered, though apparently they also make natural leaders… who would have thought?

Black bile/Melancholic
The excess of Black bile was believed to cause depression, and indeed, the word “melancholy” derives from Greek μέλαινα χολή (melaina kholé) meaning ‘black bile’. As a temperament description, Melancholics have a predisposition to be deep thinkers, feelers, analytical and detail oriented. They can be introverted, anxious and reserved… as well as a perfectionist.

Phlegm was thought to be associated with apathetic behavior, as can be seen in the word “phlegmatic”. On the upside, they are considered relaxed, peaceful, quiet, easy-going, as well as empathetic. Interestingly, the phlegm of humorism is far from the same thing as phlegm as it is defined today…

Illustration of four temperaments

18th-century depiction of the four temperaments, Phlegmatic and choleric above, Sanguine and melancholic below

This individualistic system of describing human behavior and temperament was hugely influential. It was not only adopted by the Greeks, but also by Roman and Islamic physicians. In fact, this theory dominated Western medical thinking for more than 2,000 years and dictated the view of the human body among European physicians until at least 1543, when it was first challenged. However, the underlying belief in it continued right through the eighteenth century, as evidenced by practices such as bleeding a sick person or applying hot cups. (Tactics that are still employed in many places in the world even today.)

So, perhaps with that in mind, it isn’t so surprising that folks are looking at this theory of human behavior again.

Lifecoach and author of the aforementioned Times article, Elizabeth Grace Saunders, explained how understanding your own temperament can help your work flow…and goes so far as to provide tips on how your temperament can be best ‘harnessed’.

Sanguines, for instance, need to break projects into bit-sized chunks. Cholerics should trust more in their co-workers and exercise patience. Melancholics are instructed to limit the time they take on each task while phlegmatic are advised to partner with other temperaments…

There is even a quiz that you are welcome to take here before reading her suggestions.

While the description of the personalities, and perhaps even the advise on how to best navigate them, seem quite alluringly accurate, it may be an indication of the Barnum Effect (one of the biases we described not too long ago). That is for you to decide.

Either way, the fact that these ideas have persisted so long may indicate that the Greeks did an excellent job of understanding human personalities…even if the science behind it may not be quite as convincing.