Ancient medicine, herbs and herbal practice

By Vicki Pitman, medical herbalist  & herbal researcher.

Blog image 1
Figure 1. Tombstone of Jason, an Athenian physician, 2nd c. AD (no. 00194065001,

The aim of this blog is to provide students and researchers of herbal medicine history and practice with details of websites providing free, downloadable primary sources related to ancient medicine. For this period there are few free accessible digital archives of primary sources in English, probably because the works have to be translated and thus carry a copyright restriction. For this reason a list of selected books that I have found helpful is also included. Many of these texts include selected translations of passages from the Greek or Roman source. Some are digitised but not all of them unfortunately, and some are not freely available online. These can only be searched physically in libraries or purchased as hard copies.

A bit of background
Ancient Greece constituted not only the country we know of today but included Greek peoples living all over the Mediterranean, including Italy, Sicily, and the western edge of modern Turkey. Similarly, the Hellenistic and Roman empires included peoples from many different geographical locales and customs which influenced medicine in the period. The medicine and healing practices of ancient Greece and Rome were primarily based on using herbs, foods and diet as therapeutic tools, though animal products, minerals and clays, wines were also used. Even before the writings of the Hippocratic Corpus (c. 450-350 (BC)), references to healing with herbs either by gods or by mankind are found in the Homeric epics and Homeric Hymns from the 8th century BC, with oral traditions from a much earlier date. Evidence of plants in Greek culture is also found in physical artefacts from sites such as palaces, burial chambers, pottery, vases and wall frescos etc.

Blog image 2
Figure 2. Verbascum thapsus. Verbascum (Mullein) species are recorded in: Hippocrates Diseases III, Internal Affections and in Dioscorides Materia Medica IV,103 (Photo V. Pitman at Ancient Pergamum)

Writers of the Hippocratic Corpus were part of an already thriving milieu of thinkers exploring Nature, in Greek phusis (hence ‘physician’ and ‘physics’). The earliest ‘nature philosophers’ included some whose extant works show they were healers and/or interested in the ‘nature’ of the human body. Important among these is Empedocles, I feel. The Corpus reflects the ideas and practices of a discrete group of literate medical men who were developing ‘the art of medicine’, exploring how the body was constituted, how disease came about, and what local plants, foods and diet (herbal medicine were often combined with dietary therapy), and surgery could be used to relieve suffering. The Corpus mentions about 300 plants or foods. Even as this more ‘rational’ medicine was developing, healing practices within folk or religious contexts continued, especially in the cult of Asclepius. It is thought the two sometimes were used together or overlapped. Greek medicine continued to develop during the Hellenistic period, 323-31 BC and within the Roman Empire, from 31 BC. Its next most prominent doctor was Galen, a Greek, from Pergamon (now in Turkey), who practised in Rome, becoming physician to the Emperor, and was prodigious both in developing medicine and writing about what he learned. He had a profound influence on medicine up to the 19th century.

Academic studies and accounts are important and necessary to understand ancient medical thought, pharmacology and practice. The majority of writers, though by no means all – because of the influence of the ‘scientific revolution’ – tend to discredit herbal medicines or dietary methods as having any efficacy (exceptions include plants with strong alkaloids, e.g. poppies). Oral history and the history of practitioners who were not male, or literate or left no written documents is largely missing from the record unless recorded by an artefact (e.g. statue) or by an ancient author, which does happen in, for example Pliny, Galen and others. Women were known to have healing roles, as midwives, a few as doctors.

Blog image 3
Figure 3. The Louvre Museum, Paris: A medical consultation shown on Attic Red-Figure Aryballos, c.480 – 470 BC ( red-figure- aryballos).

There are many websites on ancient medicine, especially for the Hippocrates example, but though well intentioned, few are grounded in a scholarly approach, so while useful as background they can also be misleading and/or limited if not drawing on a secure evidence base. Relatively few ancient medical texts in English translation are available online. Those available are often from older out of copyright editions which, while valuable, lack modern advances with critical scholarship. The following 10 websites are ones I have found useful.



(1) antiqua

University College London. Click on ‘Hypertexts’ for the texts. ‘Essays’ has some excellent introductory material. ‘Internet Resources’ is also valuable.

Hippocratic Corpus. Translated by Francis Adams. A more modern translation by W.H.S. Jones in Volumes I, II, IV can be found at the Tufts University Perseus site below.

Galen: Commentary on Hippocrates’ The Nature of Man and

On the Natural Faculties, On the Elements According to Hippocrates, Exhortation to the Study of the Arts especially Medicine: To Menodotus; On Diagnosis From Dreams

Homer: The Iliad, The Odyssey

Plato: He refers to medicine and physicians in some works, rather like the Buddha, taking medicine as an analogy for ideas about the soul, love, man’s nature. See Charmides 156 b,c; Symposium 186-188; Timeus, Phaedrus 270; Republic Book II.


The Tufts University Perseus site

Hippocratic Corpus – Volumes I, II and IV, translated by W.H.S. Jones (most recent English translation). Other books are translated by Charles Darwin Adams. The way the text is displayed is unusual. You click on the blue arrow to left of author’s name to view drop down menu of the translated works. Go along the top menu to Collections & Texts then Greek and Roman materials, then scroll alphabetically to Hippocrates, etc.

Also see here Celsus, De Medicina and the Homeric Hymns


The Hathi Trust digital library and the Online Books Library (University of Pennsylvania).

Hippocrates, The Genuine Works of Hippocrates. Translated by Francis Adam.


A non-profit library aiming to archive knowledge with free access. This site can be searched by entering the author name at the top right.

Theophrastus, Enquiry into plants and minor works on odours and weather signs. Translated by Sir Arthur Hort.

Paul of Aegina, The Medical Works of Paulus Aeginita, the Greek physician. Translated by Francis Adams.


Google Books has many texts online, not all fully readable.

Soranus, Gynecology. Introduction and notes by Oswei Temkin.


The Internet Classics Archive lists works related to Hippocrates and other classical literature.


The Wellcome Images Library,

Images of medical practice and of artefacts of medical practice: many are free to use for educational purposes.


British Museum

More images, over 200 if you search for ‘ancient Greece’.




Professor John Scarborough, an authority on ancient medicine and pharmacology, has – very generously – placed many of his papers online. His knowledge of ancient medicine (see Roman Medicine in reference list below) is vast. Reading his online papers will give a flavour of the topics, issues and debates within the study of ancient medicine, as well as a wealth of detail and references to further sources.


Laurence Totelin has provided several useful online resources:

A blog on ancient recipes:

An online article giving a thorough overview of ancient pharmacy and includes a bibliography as well as images of artefacts which vividly show some ancient practices:


Printed Sources

The library catalogue of the Wellcome Library can be searched online ( and catalogues of university libraries in the local area with departments of ancient history or classics can often also be searched online to find books and articles in journals. These may be available, online in some cases if you can obtain a membership (membership of the Wellcome Library is free). Start a search with e.g. ‘ancient medicine’ or by author.




De Materia Medica, Dioscorides Pedanius of Anazarbos (2017). Translated by  L. Y. Beck. New York: Olms-Weidmann.

Galen, Selected Works (1997). Translated by P.N. Singer. Oxford: Oxford University Press and World Classics.

Hippocratic Writings (1983). G.E.R. Lloyd, ed. London: Penguin.

Empedocles, The Extant Fragments, (1995). trans. M.R. Wright. Bristol: Bristol Classical Press.



I suggest the following works. The bibliographies in these books should be referred to for further reading.

Edelstein, L., (1967).  Ancient Medicine. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University.

Guthrie, W.K.C., (1962-1981).  A History of Greek Philosophy, Vols. I-VI. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (A good background in Nature Philosophers, Plato and Aristotle).

Grant, M., (2000). Galen on Food and Diet. London: Routledge.

Hardy, G. and Totelin, L., (2016). Ancient Botany. London: Routledge.

Hornblower, S., Spawforth, A., Eidinow, E., eds., (2012). The Oxford Classical Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (Very useful for authoritative synopses of authors and subjects. Earlier editions also useful)

Jackson, R., (1998). Doctors and Diseases in the Roman Empire. London: British Museum Press.

Jashemski, W.F. and Meyer, F.G., eds., (2002). The Natural History of Pompeii and the other Vesuvian Sites. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (Shows how archeology, e.g. using carbonised remains of plants and other techniques, can reveal information about plants and their uses).

King, H., (1998). Hippocrates’ Woman: Reading the Female Body in Ancient Greece. London: Routledge.

Longrigg, J., (1993). Greek Rational Medicine. London: Routledge.

Nutton, V., (2004). Ancient Medicine. London: Routledge. Most authoritative survey of the period.

Riddle, J., (1985). Dioscorides on Pharmacy and Medicine. Austin: University of Texas. (includes quotes from Dioscorides – as yet there is no English version online)

Scarborough, J., (1969). Roman Medicine. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Singer, C., (2012). The Herbal in Antiquity and Its Transition to Later Ages. Journal of Hellenistic Studies 47, pp. 1-52.

Von Staden, H., (1989). Herophilus. The Art of Medicine in Early Alexandria. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wilkins, J. M. and Hill, S., (2006). Food in the Ancient World. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

[Figure legends]

Figure 1. Tombstone of Jason, an Athenian physician, 2nd c. AD (no. 00194065001,

Figure 2. Verbascum thapsus. Verbascum (Mullein) species are recorded in: Hippocrates Diseases III, Internal Affections and in Dioscorides Materia Medica IV,103 (Photo V. Pitman at Ancient Pergamum).

Figure 3. The Louvre Museum, Paris: A medical consultation shown on Attic Red-Figure Aryballos, c.480 – 470 BC (