Theriaka & Alexipharmaka, Nicander

Theriaka & Alexipharmaka, Nicander

The physician, poet and grammarian, Nicander of Colophon, lived in the 2nd century BCE, in the court of Attalus III, king of Pergamum. His Theriaka concerns the bites of poisonous insects, snakes and wild animals, and his Alexipharmaka, other poisons of plant and mineral origin along with the necessary precautions and appropriate antidotes. His magic formulae consisting of 50 - 60 substances were increased by Mitridates, above all with the addition of opium and aromatic herbs, and by Crito, Trajanus’s physician, and particularly Andromache, Nero’s physician.

The extant writings in this Parisian manuscript are two poems belonging to what is known as the didactic genre characterised by having a scientific content made more understandable (or at least easier to remember) by being in verse. The Theriaka are useful information about dealing with poisoning caused by snakes, scorpions and other sea, air and land animals with a poisonous bite or sting. This information can be divided into three main categories: the physical and ethological description of the poisonous animals, the symptoms of their bites and stings, and finally remedies for poisoning. 

The Alexipharmaka consist of 630 verses about twenty-one oral poisons (unlike those in the Theriaka absorbed through the skin) of all types: animal, vegetable and mineral. They are studied on the basis of the specificity of their toxic effects and, therefore, of their remedies. The Alexipharmaka are well structured, there being a systematic, three-part entry on each poison: the physical description of the solution in which the poison was mixed, the symptoms arising from the poisoning and a list of the specific remedies. 

"The miniatures have contributed greatly to the fame of this manuscript. It is the only extant, illustrated example of Nicander’s work and, furthermore, the elegant human figures accompanying the zoological and botanical images endow this small book with its characteristic charm and originality. Forty of the forty-eight folios in the codex feature miniatures that illustrate the treatises about poisons and their antidotes. As was usual in ancient times, the images, without frames or decorative surrounds, interrupt the texts. They are quite faithful to the general structure of the poem containing a mixture of descriptions of animals, antidote formulae based on plants or minerals and digressions evoking mythological tales."

Grégoire Aslanoff
Author of the iconographical study

Theriaka Alexipharmaka (Monografía - Dto. especial)
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