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Health and wellbeing in the ancient world
Health and wellbeing in the ancient world

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3.4 Ancient tonics: antidotes

Many people take vitamins on a daily basis, as part of a health regime. The closest thing the ancients had to vitamins were ‘antidotes’, which were originally meant to protect people against the dangers of poisons. They became very popular at the courts of Hellenistic kings (the Greek-speaking kings who ruled in the Mediterranean world after the conquests of Alexander the Great), where poisoning a political rival was a common occurrence. To be effective – or allegedly effective – antidotes had to be taken on a daily basis. King Mithridates (see Section 2 Introducing Pompeii and the Vesuvian sites), the king of Pontus (a very important kingdom in the first century BCE), apparently took a daily antidote that he had himself invented:

When the mighty king Mithridates had been overcome, Cn. Pompeius found in a private note-book in his cabinet a prescription for an antidote written in the king’s own hand-writing: two dried nuts, two figs, and twenty leaves of rue were to be pounded together with the addition of a pinch of salt; he who took this fasting would be immune to all poison for that day.

(Pliny, Natural History, 23.149)

Mithridates’ antidote was so effective that, when he tried to overdose on poison instead of being killed by the Romans who had defeated him, he failed. He had to ask one of his men to kill him by the sword.

Ornate medicine jar with the word ‘Thyriaca’ written across the front.
Figure 13 Jar used for storing ‘theriac’, a type of medicine made from exotic ingredients

With time, antidotes evolved. First, they included an increasing number of ingredients; some antidotes had 100 different ingredients, many of which were expensive and exotic. Second, antidotes started to be used in the treatments of all sorts of diseases, ranging from fevers to epilepsy and tetanus.

Marcus Aurelius, whom you met in Week 1, was a great consumer of antidotes. His favourite was the antidote called ‘theriac’. It had been invented by a doctor named Andromachus, physician to yet another emperor, Nero. It included over 50 ingredients, but its most significant one was the flesh of vipers, which made it particularly suitable to treat snake bites.

Galen tells us that Marcus Aurelius took theriac every day to keep in good health, changing the dosage of the antidote according to his need. According to Galen, rich men also started to imitate the emperor: he had created a fashion for the drug. These wealthy people, however, were not as knowledgeable as the emperor and instead of getting the antidote prepared by esteemed physicians, they bought it from street peddlers. Some of these merchants were rather dishonest and replaced expensive ingredients with cheaper ones, but still sold theriac at a premium price.

Mithridates’ antidote and theriac remained in use for centuries. Pharmacists kept the expensive preparations in ornate jars, such as those in the image above.