On the Camels of the Aorsi: Dioscorides and the Medicine Trade of the Bosporan Kingdom. Part I. The “Soldier’s Life” of Dioscorides

Publication type Article
Status Published
Affiliation: University of Exeter
Address: Exeter, UK
Journal nameVestnik drevnei istorii
EditionVolume 81 Issue 2
AbstractWe know only a little about the life of Dioscorides, a medical botanist who wrote in the first century AD or so. His reference to his “soldier’s life” has been important in reconstructions of his activities, often linked with campaigns in Armenia under Nero. However, a “soldier’s life” was a common enough metaphor in the first century AD for a life of hard work, which need have no connection at all to military service. His work shows scant knowledge of the Caucasus. The evidence for his dates makes it likely that he wrote after AD 77, when Pliny the Elder completed his Natural History, in which Dioscorides’ important work is not mentioned. Therefore, his remarks on the Bosporan Kingdom were made after AD 77.
KeywordsDioscorides, ancient pharmacology, ancient botany, medicine, Corbulo, Ephesus, Laecanius
Publication date28.06.2021
Number of characters40413
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1 Among the most influential creations of the ancient world is Dioscorides’ book on plants and minerals useful in medicine (written in Greek, but usually known by its Latinized name, De materia medica). For obvious reasons it has been studied almost exclusively by scholars concerned with ancient medicine. In the present discussion I have two principal concerns: both have been rather marginal to a great deal of that medical scholarship, but they seem to me to be of prime importance to the history of the Black Sea region. My first concern here is the biography of Dioscorides himself, about which we know little that is not in his own book. This matters for many reasons, but my principal interest is to get a better sense of the research methods and contexts of our author, not least with regard to the Black Sea and Caucasus. I shall seek also to refine his dates: while there is general agreement that he wrote in the first century AD, I argue that a date towards the end of that century is to be considered and preferred. My second concern, to be pursued on that basis in the second part of this article, will be to examine his comments on the Bosporan kingdom, in particular, and more generally on the northern Black Sea region as a source of medical materials, both from local sources and from as far afield as the Caspian Sea and even India. For Dioscorides shows us that there was a “spice trade”1 in the Bosporus, involving goods brought across the steppe that stretches between the Black and Caspians Seas north of the main range of the Caucasus. This neglected aspect of Bosporan trade demonstrates that grain was by no means the only export from the kingdom, while it also suggests that “spices” probably played a part in the Bosporans’ dealings with their non-Greek neighbours. 1. I retain the familiar term: here, as usual, it embraces much more than food flavourings, as we shall see.
2 Dioscorides addresses his work to a certain Arius. We know Arius as a pharmacological specialist of Tarsus; our author evidently expects his readers to know the great man2. Arius moved in the highest circles, for he was connected with an important family in his world. In his Preface Dioscorides holds forth on the close relationship of mutual friendship between Arius and a Laecanius Bassus: thanks to Galen we know that Arius had his Roman citizenship through the Laecanii, so that in Roman terms he was (C. ?) Laecanius Arius3. The Laecanius Bassus mentioned by Dioscorides is usually identified as the consul ordinarius of AD 64, the momentous year of the great fire in Neronian Rome (Tac. Ann. 15. 33. 1). Fortunately, the identification is of only marginal interest for the present discussion, since it is hardly as secure as often imagined. Among other possibilities there was the father of that consul, with the same name, who himself held consular office in AD 40 (ILS 6102). The family remained at the top under the Flavians, where we know of another Laecanius Bassus. This was C. Laecanius Bassus Caecina Paetus, who had been adopted by the consul of 64. He became proconsul of Asia and left his mark at Ephesus in AD 80/81, where he apparently constructed an enormous nymphaeum, with abundant sculpture to adorn it4. Ephesus was one of the great cities of the Roman world, with many attractions for doctors and other men of culture5. In any event, Arius had a powerful associate, though we need not take all Dioscorides’ words at face value. For, while the patron-client relationship was usually couched in the language of mutual friendship, in this particular relationship the complete superiority of his Laecanius Bassus was beyond doubt6. 2. Scarborough 2008.

3. Galen gives the nomen (De comp. med. gen. 13. 840 K).

4. On the many Laecanii, who came from Pola (Istria), where their amphora production has received close attention, see Tassaux 1982; cf. Eck 1982 on C. Laecanius Bassus Caecina Paetus, a Flavian proconsul of Asia, with Thomas 2014, 75–77 on his great fountain at Ephesus; cf. Rathmayr 2011 on its sculptures. Earlier, the elder Pliny twice mentions a consular Laecanius Bassus died in a way that suggests a lack of medical support (NH 26. 5, with 36. 203), but we do not know which one: the consul of AD 64 is usually imagined (e.g. Scarborough 2008, 129), possibly correctly. Galba’s possible killer is a still more elusive Laecanius: Plut. Galba 27. 2.

5. For doctors and medicine there, see Nutton 2008, 140–143; Zimonyi 2014.

6. Cf. Saller 1982.
3 The same may be said of Dioscorides’ relationship with Arius, who is often (and possibly rightly)7 understood to be Dioscorides’ teacher at Tarsus. The fact that our author dedicates his book to Arius confirms their bond, while his treatment of Arius makes it clear enough that Dioscorides had benefited from Arius’ support and, in some sense, patronage. Of particular interest is Dioscorides’ mention of the time he spent in the company of Arius and Laecanius Bassus, where he claims to have observed their mutual friendship (which might entail their residence together, perhaps at the house of Bassus, whether in Rome, Ephesus or elsewhere). Of course, such an observation was very much to the benefit of Arius, and so very welcome to the dedicatee, while at the same time our author shows himself among the exalted. For we have here a chain of patronage, which we may express in a fashion that ancient manners would have tended to avoid: this was a hierarchy of patronage, with Dioscorides as client of Arius, and Arius as client of Bassus. While Dioscorides locates himself in the extended circle of mighty Bassus, he makes no claim to any direct connection with the great man: his association is through Arius, at least as far as the Preface of his book is concerned. We can only guess where the three had been together, for how long and under what circumstances, most likely in Rome or Asia Minor. After all, Dioscorides claims to have travelled extensively in his quest for a knowledge that came from autopsy and experience, not only from the written word and received wisdom. Clearly, our travelling author did not stay in his native Cilicia, neither at Anazarbus his birthplace nor at Tarsus, probably his place of education in medicine. 7. One might have wished for some clear indication of Arius as teacher in the Preface.

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