De Materia Medica (Latin name for the Greek work Περὶ ὕλης ἰατρικῆς, Peri hulēs iatrikēs, both meaning "On Medical Material") is a pharmacopoeia of herbs and the medicines that can be obtained from them. The five-volume work describes many drugs known to be effective, including aconite, aloes, colocynth, colchicum, henbane, opium and squill. In all, about 600 plants are covered, along with some animals and mineral substances, and around 1000 medicines made from them.
The work was written between 50 and 70 AD by Pedanius Dioscorides, a Greek physician in the Roman army. It was widely read for more than 1,500 years until supplanted by revised herbals in the Renaissance, making it one of the longest-lasting of all natural history books.
De Materia Medica was circulated as illustrated manuscripts, copied by hand, in Greek, Latin and Arabic throughout the mediaeval period. From the sixteenth century on, Dioscorides' text was translated into Italian, German, Spanish, and French, and in 1655 into English. It formed the basis for herbals in these languages by men such as Leonhart Fuchs, Valerius Cordus, Lobelius, Rembert Dodoens, Carolus Clusius, John Gerard and William Turner. Gradually such herbals included more and more direct observations, supplementing and eventually supplanting the classical text.
Several manuscripts and early printed versions of De Materia Medica survive, including the illustrated Vienna Dioscurides manuscript written in the original Greek in sixth-century Constantinople; it was used there by the Byzantines as a hospital text for just over a thousand years. Sir Arthur Hill saw a monk on Mount Athos still using a copy of Dioscorides to identify plants in 1934.
Between 50 and 70 AD, a Greek physician in the Roman army, Dioscorides, wrote a five-volume book in his native Greek, Περὶ ὕλης ἰατρικῆς (Peri hules iatrikēs, "On Medical Material"), known more widely in Western Europe by its Latin title De Materia Medica. He had studied pharmacology at Tarsus in Roman Anatolia (now Turkey). The book became the principal reference work on pharmacology across Europe and the Middle East for over 1500 years, and was thus the precursor of all modern pharmacopoeias.
In contrast to many classical authors, De Materia Medica was not "rediscovered" in the Renaissance, because it never left circulation; indeed, Dioscorides' text eclipsed the Hippocratic corpus. In the medieval period, De Materia Medica was circulated in Latin, Greek, and Arabic. In the Renaissance from 1478 onwards, it was printed in Italian, German, Spanish, and French as well. In 1655, John Goodyer made an English translation from a printed version, probably not corrected from the Greek.
While being reproduced in manuscript form through the centuries, the text was often supplemented with commentary and minor additions from Arabic and Indian sources. Several illustrated manuscripts of De Materia Medica survive. The most famous is the lavishly illustrated Vienna Dioscurides (the Juliana Anicia Codex), written in the original Greek in Byzantine Constantinople in 512/513 AD; its illustrations are sufficiently accurate to permit identification, something not possible with later medieval drawings of plants; some of them may be copied from a lost volume owned by Juliana Anicia's great grandfather, Theodosius II, in the early 5th century. The Naples Dioscurides and Morgan Dioscurides are somewhat later Byzantine manuscripts in Greek, while other Greek manuscripts survive today in the monasteries of Mount Athos. Densely illustrated Arabic copies survive from the 12th and 13th centuries. The result is a complex set of relationships between manuscripts, involving translation, copying errors, additions of text and illustrations, deletions, reworkings, and a combination of copying from one manuscript and correction from another.