By Penny Bouloutza
From simple syrups, eye drops, balms and pills to suppositories combining a multitude of ingredients, pharmaceutics has been a precision science since antiquity.
Used through the ages to cure a vast variety of ailments and diseases, pharmaceutics has its roots in the combination of medicinal plants and roots. In fact, Hippocrates’ (ca 460 - ca 370 BC) writings mention at least 250 medicinal plants in his studies, while Galen of Pergamon (AD 129-199), the most accomplished of antiquity’s medical researchers, described in his so-called Galenic Formulations medicines that combine up to 100 different ingredients each.
In AD 1300, the Byzantine physician Nicholas Myrepsos compiled a compendium of more that 2,200 medicines, many of which concerned mixtures of three to five different ingredients.
This knowledge has been passed down from antiquity and remains very much alive in the present day, being used by researchers the world over in groundbreaking discoveries, while it was also the subject of a recent symposium organized by the International Hippocrates Institute of Kos on the southeastern Aegean island.
According to the institute’s president, Professor Stefanos Geroulanos, the ancients mostly used herbs and other plants in their concoctions, but also minerals and animal matter such as ivory, lions’ teeth and even feces.
Among the most renowned medicinal ingredients during antiquity was the so-called “Limnia Gi” or Earth of Limnos, an export product used to heal wounds which was mined from a spot almost in the center of the northeastern Aegean island and mixed with animal blood. The mixture, which contained high levels of iron, was packaged and sealed with wax.
In many cases, ancient medicines worked by virtue of their placebo effect, according to scientists. Such was the case with gold, which in recent years has been hailed as a treatment for rheumatism, though conclusive studies have yet to be confirmed.
In ancient times, gold dust was mixed in food and, according to Geroulanos, was the signature ingredient in the famous Viennese schnitzel, a recipe that was a closely guarded secret in the kitchens of the Palaiologos court that made its way to Vienna via Spain through wedlock. The Byzantine schnitzel owed its color to the gold dust in the crust in which the pork was cooked, while later the gold was replaced by more mundane ingredients.
However, many of the healing plants and herbs of antiquity continue to be used today either in conventional pharmaceutics or in homeopathic remedies. Among these are the arbutus berry, extracts of which are still used as an anticoagulant and which Hippocrates suggested as a cure for thrombophlebitis.
The European yew, or Taxus baccata, contains one of the sources of a drug used in certain types of cancer treatments, as does the periwinkle flower. Another plant that has made a comeback is wormwood, which is used to tackle malaria, as well as white willow, which Hippocrates used as an analgesic.
“The best medicine for a sore throat,” according to Geroulanos, “is camomile tea with honey and lemon, a concoction that dates back to the ancients, who made a variety of syrups based on honey.”
According to the professor, they used honey mixed with water, vinegar or plant or herbal extracts. Meanwhile, another treatment that has survived from antiquity is a balm for liver spots made of warmed olive oil, beeswax and mastic gum.