On the Camels of the Aorsi: Dioscorides and the Medicine Trade of the Bosporan Kingdom. Part II. Dioscorides on the Bosporan Kingdom: Beavers, Rhubarb and Indian Trade

Title (other)На верблюдах аорсов: Диоскорид и торговля лекарственными средствами в боспорском царстве. Часть II. Диоскорид о боспорском царстве: бобры, ревень и индийская торговля
Publication type Article
Status Published
Affiliation: University of Exeter
Address: UK, Exeter
Journal nameVestnik drevnei istorii
EditionVolume 81 Issue 3

This paper discusses the brief comments of Dioscorides about the Black Sea region, especially on the goods traded there from the Volga region and northern India. Three particular medical materials are at issue. First, beavers and their testicles, which were a favourite theme of Roman culture and were strongly associated with the Pontic regions from the fifth century BC onwards. Second, wild rhubarb from the Volga region, which was important in ancient medicine and was traded via the Bosporan kingdom. Third, cardamom from the Himalayas, brought via Central Asia as far as the Bosporan kingdom. In economic terms, we glimpse a network of exchange and movement which stretched from northern India to the Volga region and westwards to the Bosporan kingdom in the later first century AD, when Dioscorides was writing. These were light, high-value goods, which were part of a wider set of merchandise - carried by way of the northern steppe above the main Caucasus range, on the camels of the Aorsi, who derived wealth and power from these goods, as Strabo earlier indicates. This route was evidently far more important than the much riskier route that might have been tried through the centre of the mountains and Iberia into Colchis. While there has been much consideration of the markets of the Colchian coast, we must also consider the profits made in the Bosporan kingdom from the medical materials and other light items that were traded there.

Abstract (other)

В статье обсуждаются краткие сообщения Диоскорида о Причерноморском регионе, в особенности о товарах, попадавших туда из Поволжья и Северной Индии. Три лечебных средства находятся в центре внимания. Во-первых, это бобры и их яички – излюбленная тема римской литературы, ассоциировавшаяся с Понтийским регионом еще с V в. до н.э. Во-вторых, это ревень из Поволжья, который был важным препаратом античной медицины и приобретался через Боспорское царство. В-третьих, это кардамон из региона Гималаев, поступавший в Боспорское царство через Центральную Азию. С экономической точки зрения в конце I в. н.э., когда писал Диоскорид, мы можем наблюдать сеть обмена товарами, простиравшуюся от северной Индии до Поволжья и Боспорского царства. Эти легкие, но при этом дорогие предметы были частью более широкого набора товаров, перевозившихся на верблюдах через степи к северу от Кавказа аорсами, которым, согласно более раннему сообщению Страбона, эта торговля доставляла власть и богатство. Этот маршрут был, очевидно, гораздо более важным, чем более рискованный, хоть и возможный, путь через горы и Иберию в Колхиду. В то время как возможная прибыль от сбыта товаров на колхском побережье уже достаточно исследована, следует учесть и выгоду продажи медицинских и других легко транспортируемых товаров в Боспорском царстве.

KeywordsDioscorides, Sextius Niger, Pliny the Elder, Bosporan kingdom, beavers, castoreum, medical materials, India, Volga, rhubarb, rhaponticum, Aorsi, cardamom
Keywords list (other)Диоскорид, Секстий Нигер, Плиний Старший, Боспорское царство, бобры, кастореум, лечебные вещества, Индия, Волга, ревень, рапонтикум, аорсы, кардамон
Publication date16.09.2021
Number of characters55702
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1 Dioscorides provides valuable information about medical substances that were traded in the Bosporan kingdom, and elsewhere around the region. By examining his short statements we can enhance significantly our understanding of trade in the region, especially in goods that were brought to the Bosporus from the Caspian region and further afield. If we date his work around AD 80, as argued in Part I, his evidence is all the more interesting, because it offers rare insight into the continuity in economic activity in the region that seems to have accompanied the emergence of a major new political entity there, the Alans, who are first mentioned in classical texts in the reign of Nero, and who became a major factor on this frontier in the decades that followed him, when Dioscorides’ work was probably published1. It should not be imagined that our author has much close knowledge of the region. We have seen that Heraclea Pontica might have drawn him there, but there is no word about Olbia and very little about the west or east coasts. His two mentions of the Bosporan kingdom are in that sense all the more notable, while his general references to Pontus are inevitably ambiguous, as we have seen. In looking more closely at indications of Bosporan trade, in particular, we shall be concerned with an unusual set of materials, as was Dioscorides himself, which offer a substantial picture, when brought together: namely, beaver products (especially beaver-oil, castoreum), rhubarb, and cardamom. 1. See in general Bosworth 1977, with further comment below.


3 As we might expect from Dioscorides’ stern remarks in the Preface, his apparent distaste for mythology embraced also a dislike of erroneous notions of other kinds. We may be sure that plant lore contained an abundance of notions which were inaccurate and potentially even dangerous. For example, his account of the mandrake, a magnet for such notions2, is remarkable for its sobriety and restraint. The determined seriousness of Dioscorides immediately emerges from the merest glance at the various absurdities presented on medical materials in Pliny’s Natural History, though not all there is nonsense of course3. The beaver is a good case in point, whether the much-vaunted Pontic beaver or its cousins in Italy and elsewhere4. In setting out its uses, Dioscorides takes the trouble to denounce the absurd notion that the beaver bites off its own testicles to escape the hunter (2. 24. 2): 2. Engstrom 1965.

3. See further, Kitchell 2015, 125–151.

4. There are only two kinds of beaver, the Eurasian and the North American: here the former is of course at issue throughout. See Kitchell 2014, 14–15.
4 But the story that the animal when pursued tears off its testicles and throws them away is utter nonsense. For it is impossible for it to reach them, since they lie flat like the hog’s. After cutting open the skin, you must remove the honey-like liquid with the membrane that surrounds it, and thus dry and store.(Translation by L. Beck)
5 Our author’s fulmination here is very unusual in his work, though perhaps concordant with his concern for precision. Moreover, there was scant need for him to hold forth in this way, closing an account of beaver’s parts which was as sober as usual in the work. The habits of the beaver were of no direct relevance to his theme, which was the purchase and use of the parts, under whatever circumstances they had been obtained. Two factors should be considered in explanation of his outburst here. First, there was a significant tradition in Roman culture about the (supposed) remarkable behaviour of hunted beavers in this regard, so that Dioscorides was addressing a topic which, however marginal to his theme, was at least familiar to his readers. This was not the abstruse detail that it might seem to be. Second, the whole subject of testicles was of course important to a medical man. Aside from beavers, Dioscorides mentions testicles no less than twenty times as medical material (including hippopotamus testicles, no doubt from Egypt) and as the medical problem to be treated, where testicular inflammation occurs with notable frequency. In that sense, testicles are a recurrent theme in the work and in Dioscorides’ attention5. Moreover, the beaver is often treated in Roman culture as especially a Pontic creature6. The specialness of castoreum from Pontic beavers is well illustrated by Scribonius Largus, who often mentions the substance, but specifies the Pontic variety only once, when describing a mixture plastered on the empress Livia herself7. From another perspective, we should also bring to bear the particular concern with testicles in accounts of the Black Sea region and its environs. In general culture, we should include in particular the self-castration of Attis, which tends to be located around Bithynia, especially as the key point in the beaver-story is that beavers also castrate themselves. With that in mind, one might consider Attis himself to have been hunted – by Cybele and the beasts of prey that serve her8. In a medical context, Dioscorides will have been aware of the Hippocratic account of the Scythian lifestyle and climate, as well as the Enarees9. Of course, Dioscorides will also have had some knowledge of the botany of Scythia, though we have no reason to think that he went there, while his silence on Olbia and much more suggests that he probably did not (Diosc. 3. 5). The key topic of milk also recurs, for him as for the Hippocratics, but without explicit reference to Scythia10. 5. 1.103.3; 2.3 (hippopotamus); 2.104; 2.105.2; 2.158; 2.169.2; 3.40.1; 3.45.3; 3.59.2; 3.60.2; 3.63; 3.102,3; 4.68.4; 4.78.2; 4.96.2; 5.3.3; 5.109.4; 5.150; 5.153.3; 5.156.2. Further passages might be added, both for the beaver and for the use of testicles to describe other things.

6. E.g. Plin. NH 8. 109. They first appear in classical texts in regions north of the Black Sea: Hdt. 4. 108–109, where nothing is said of this supposed behaviour.

7. Largus 175, which appeared under Claudius; on Livia here, see Baldwin 1992, 74–75.

8. Attis’ relevance is noted by Larmour 2005 (albeit marginal to the Pontus); further, Harrison 2004.

9. See Airs, waters, places; cf. Hdt. 1. 105.

10. On milk-products, where he omits mention of Scythia, see Diosc. 2. 71.

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