I am a great invention of the physician Philo of Tarsus

ha – you thought I’d be writing this next post about Judah Loew ben Bezalel didn’t you?

Not until it’s wanted.

This one  is about ways to encipher/encode pharmaceutical recipes.

The information mainly taken from Svetlana Hautala’s paper ‘ Addresses to the Reader in Greek and Latin [pharmaceutical] poetry’, published as Chapter 10 of  ‘Greek’ and ‘Roman’ in Latin Medical Texts: studies in cultural change and exchange in ancient medicine, edited by Brigitte Maire and published by Brill.  And separately available through academia.edu

Hautala first regrets that so many modern writers on the history of pharmacy fail to appreciate that the old, rhymed receipts were so popular for so long because poetry, being memorable, may (and did) last longer in circulation than prose versions would have, or even inscriptions on metal or stone.

Fact is, poetic allusions are a way of restricting, and sort-of encoding information, examples cited in Hautala’s paper serving to shed light, too, on why late medieval alchemy came to use language and imagery so oblique it now seems bizarre.

To begin from the simple:

For this problem of the vulnerability of pharmacological texts, Galen saw two possible solutions: either write the numerical quantities in full… or… put the recipes in verse.  ..the transcription of pharmaceutical recipes in verse was meant to protect the contents against any distortion: the metrical requirements did not permit an easy modification of the specified dosage… poetry could also facilitate the memorisation of pharmaceutical recipes….

some pages later, Hautala gets to Philo of Tarsus…

Anonymity and elitism

Philo … does not speak of himself in his poems, but this modesty is deceptive since it is his very recipe, speaking in the first person, to present Philo:

I am a great invention of the physician Philo of Tarsus for mortals, against numerous pains caused by illness … I am written for the wise; a man of no little knowledge will have me as a gift. The unlearned I do not want to enter.

(note: Ph.Tars. 1-2, 11-12, Lloyd-Jones/Parsons).



After making these promises and challenging the reader by declaring clearly that he who can read the prescription will have the medicine as a prize, and consequently, that he who cannot read it will be a confirmed dunce, there follows a description of the composition of the antidote in which every ingredient and its dosage is not named directly, but is worded like a riddle to solve, for example:

Put the blond fragrant hair of one equal to the gods, whose blood is shining in the fields of Hermes. Put of crocus so many drams as are the phrenes of a man. As a matter of fact it is not obscure.*

The phrenes here means the senses, of which there are five, so one must take five drams of saffron, according to Galen’s explanation, without whom we probably would never have known the answers to Philo’s enigmatic composition.  A detailed analysis of these riddles deserves more than a few pages; since the focus of this paper is on the ways the reader is addressed in pharmacological poetry.. p,192.

* shades of ‘Things I wish I’d said first’


Hautala goes on to discuss the disdain expressed for Philo’s custom by the Roman Quintus Serenus who wrote a verse himself as a way to dismiss Philo’s work. Here, what is interesting for us, as Voynicheros who have read and re-read Marci’s letter to Kircher, (havent we all?) is that Serenus typifies his own receipts as  ‘prescriptions for the ordinary man‘. (right?)

Quid referam multis conposta Philonia rebus,

Quid loquar antidotos uarias? dis ista requirat,

At non pauperises precept dicamus amica.

the given translation for which is:

What can be said of Philo’s recipes of many components and the various antidotes? Let the rich be interested in them, here I will deal with prescriptions in favour of the poor.

Great stuff, isn’t it?

I do wish a little more attention had been paid by the Latin translator to Serenus’ use of the term rebus, because in medieval times rebus could also describe a cleverly constructed image or (to use the alternative term) ‘device’ aimed particularly at aiding memory.

And loyal readers may recall how, in analysing  the botanical images in MS Beinecke 408, I’ve noted that almost all of them contain one – at least one – such device.

Hmm.  But  Philo’s name is not rarely taken, by older sources, to refer to the same Herennius Philo of Byblos, a Phoenician, who lived 1st-2ndC AD, and is sometimes described as a Greek and at other times as a Jew. The Pharmacologist did live close in time to that historian (1stC AD), but today the two writers are  distinguished.


from a List of ‘Philonic Nomenclature’ in David T. Runia, Philo and the Church Fathers: A Collection of Papers (p.27)

Herennius Philo of Byblos, historian (1-2nd C AD) excerpts extant (in RE see under Herennios (2), but often just called Philo.  A Phoenician.

Philo Of Tarsus (1) Doctor/Pharmacologist (1stC AD) = RE (47) fragments extant.

Philo of Tarsus (2) a deacon. He was a companion of Ignatius of Antioch, and accompanied the martyr from the East to Rome, A.D. 107. He is twice mentioned in the epistles of Ignatius (Ad Philadelph. c. 11; Ad Smynaeos, c. 13). He is supposed to have written, along with Rheus Agathopus, the Martyrium Ignatii, for which SEE IGNATIUS. See Cave, Hist. Litt. page 28 (ed. Geneva, 1720).



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