Juliana Anicia Codex
The Juliana Anicia Codex, colloquially known as “Vienna Dioscurides”, which refers to its modern location in the Austrian National Library in Vienna, and the author of its primary text, Pedanius Dioscurides of Anazarbus, is an important and rare example of a late antique scientific text.
The manuscript was created in the early 6th century and is one the most important pharmacological treatises of the work of ancient Greek authors to survive from late antiquity. It stands in stark contrast to common clichés about Byzantine art as merely depicting spiritual themes.
The illustrations are highly detailed and depict the plants in various stages of growth and development, as well as the parts of the plants that are used for medicinal purposes. The illustrations are accompanied by descriptive text that provides further information on the plants and their medicinal properties.
The manuscript was created c. 512 C.E. in Constantinople, during the reign of Emperor Justinian I (527-565 AD). It was likely commissioned by Anicia Juliana, a member of the wealthy Anicii family who were known for their patronage of the arts and sciences. Juliana was the daughter of the famous Roman general Flavius Anicius Olybrius and the granddaughter of Emperor Valentinian III. She was also a devout Christian and was involved in numerous philanthropic activities, including the establishment of a hospital in Constantinople.
Dioscurides of Anazarbus
Pedanius Dioscurides was a Greek physician who served as a medical practitioner in the Roman army in the first century C.E. He wrote a book called De Materia Medica (On Medical Matters), which was one of the most influential medical texts of the ancient world.
His work outlined the therapeutic properties of hundreds of plants and animals. On Medical Matters was popular and influential for 1,500 years until the Renaissance, and enjoyed wide circulation through the nineteenth century.
The Vienna Dioscurides was based on this earlier work and was intended to provide a comprehensive guide to the plants and herbs used for medicinal purposes during the 5th century AD. Although several manuscripts of this text survive, the Vienna Dioscurides is the oldest illustrated version.
The Texts of The Vienna Dioscurides
The Vienna Dioscurides manuscript contains a wealth of information on the plants and herbs used for medicinal purposes during the 5th century AD. The manuscript consists of 191 folios containing more than 400 pictures created in a naturalistic style. It measures 37 by 30 cm.
The text is divided into seven sections, which cover a range of topics including plant identification, medical uses, and dosage information.
The first section of the manuscript contains a list of plants arranged in alphabetical order. Each entry includes a detailed description of the plant, including its appearance, habitat, and medicinal properties. The descriptions are accompanied by detailed illustrations that show the plant in various stages of growth and development.
The second section of the manuscript provides a list of plants arranged by their medicinal properties. This section includes information on the plants that are used to treat specific medical conditions such as fever, pain, and digestive disorders.
The third section of the manuscript provides information on the preparation and administration of medicinal plants. This section includes details on how to prepare different types of medicines, including infusions, decoctions, and powders. It also includes information on the correct dosage for each type of medicine.
The fourth section of the manuscript contains information on the properties and uses of animal-based medicines. This section includes information on the use of animal products such as honey, milk, and eggs for medicinal purposes.
The fifth section of the manuscript contains information on the properties and uses of mineral-based medicines. This section includes information on the use of minerals such as lead, mercury, and sulfur for medicinal purposes.
The sixth section of the manuscript provides information on the medical properties and uses of different types of wines and vinegars. This section includes information on the use of different types of wines and vinegars as remedies for various medical conditions.
The final section of the manuscript contains a collection of recipes for different types of medicines and remedies. These recipes include instructions on how to combine different plants, minerals, and animal products to create specific medicines for different ailments.
The manuscript only covers a limited range of plants and herbs, and many of the recipes are specific to the cultural and historical context of the Byzantine Empire. Furthermore, some of the plants and herbs described in the manuscript are difficult to identify, as they are described using local names and dialects that may no longer be in use.
Also included in the Vienna Dioscurides are:
- an anonymous poem that provides an overview of sixteen healing herbs (Carmen de viribus herbarum)
- prose paraphrases of poems on poisonous animal bites, poisons, and their antidotes (Nicander of Colophon’s Theriaca and Alexipharmaca)
- a poem on fish (Oppian’s Halieutica). Illustrations for this were never begun, and the reserved spaces were left empty (many illustrated manuscripts were left incomplete due to limited time, budget, and/or availability of artists or materials).
- a prose paraphrase of a poem on bird-catching (Dionysius of Philadelphia’s Ornithiaca)
Dioscurides (the first-century Greek physician the volume is named for) also appears on other pages. In one image he takes a recognizable author portrait pose, seated in profile, much as the four evangelists do in Byzantine and Western medieval Gospel books. Dioscurides points to a personification of Discovery, who is depicted against an atmospheric blue sky. The image suggests the process of gathering fresh specimens outdoors.
The Afterlife of the Manuscript
The Vienna Dioscurides remained in Constantinople (today Istanbul) until the late 1560s. Plant names written in Greek minuscule, Latin, Old French, Hebrew, and Arabic reveal its continued use as it passed through the hands of those controlling Constantinople over the 1000+ years following its creation. It was copied many times and restored in 1406 when it resided in the Monastery of St. John Prodromos.
The Vienna Dioscurides was eventually acquired by Moses Hamon, a Jewish physician close to the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. The Holy Roman Empire’s ambassador to the Ottoman court in the 1550s saw the manuscript while in Constantinople and encouraged its eventual purchase by Emperor Maximilian II, noting the contents, illustrations, and old age of the manuscript. In 1592 it was deposited in the Imperial Library in Vienna, which later became the Österreichische Nationalbibliothek (Austrian National Library), where the Vienna Dioscurides currently resides.
The Vienna Dioscurides is one of the most significant surviving documents from the Byzantine Empire and is an invaluable resource for historians, botanists, and medical researchers. The manuscript is also significant from an artistic and cultural perspective. It was placed on UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register in 1997.
The illustrations in the Vienna Dioscurides are highly detailed and provide a fascinating insight into the art and culture of the Byzantine Empire.
The Vienna Discourides has had a significant impact on the development of medicine and pharmacology and its knowledge has been transmitted to later generations, playing a key role in the development of modern medicine.
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