Return to Aconite

Nicander of Colophon

"Apollo, Chiron, Asclepius, and Hippocrates. After these Nicander won high praise."

Greek Anthology (IX.211)

Nicander of Colophon (fl 130 BC) is the author of two treatises on poison, the oldest extant works on the subject to survive from antiquity (both of which are thought to derive from Apollodorus, who wrote on poisons early in the third-century BC). Theriaca (a theriac is an antidote to poison) deals with the bites of venomous snakes, spiders, and scorpions, and how to remedy them. Intended more for the country than the city dweller (indeed, Cicero says that Nicander wrote "with distinction on rural affairs, using something of a poet's skill," De Oratore, I.16.69), Theriaca describes more than a dozen snakes (including the amphisbaena, which has a head at both ends of its body) and the effects of their poisons. Written in hexameters, the same verse used by Homer, after whom he styled himself (Colophon claiming to be the birthplace of both), the poem may have been dedicated to Attalus III, king of Pergamum, whom Galen ranked (with Mithridates) as an experimenter with poisons, which he administered to criminals to test the efficacy of antidotes. Justin relates that the king "employed himself in digging and sowing in his garden, mixing noxious herbs with harmless ones, and sending them all indiscriminately, moistened with poisonous juices, as special presents to his friends" (Epitome, XXXVI.4).

Remedies for snake-bite include a prophylactic (98ff), consisting of the flesh of mating snakes, stag's marrow, wax, rose and olive oil to be applied to the skin; root of centaury (500ff), a bitter herb named after the centaur, Chiron, who was supposed to have used it to cure himself of a poisonous wound; as well as a general panacea (935ff) compounded of more than two dozen ingredients.

Alexipharmaca is a companion piece, in which Nicander enumerates additional animal, vegetable, and mineral poisons, including aconite, white lead, hemlock, and opium, together with their symptoms and specific remedies. The cures are almost always herbal and often include olive oil as an emetic to induce vomiting.


The illustration is from Theriaka y Alexipharmaka de Nicandro (1997) edited by Alain Touwaide, Christian Förstel, and Grégoire Aslanoff, a facsimile edition of an illuminated tenth-century Byzantine manuscript in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (Paris).


Reference: Nicander: The Poems and Poetical Fragments (1953) edited by A. S. F. Gow and A. F. Scholfield; A Hellenistic Treatise on Poisonous Animals (The "Theriaca" of Nicander of Colophon): A Contribution to the History of Toxicology (1991) by Peter K. Knoefel and Madeline C. Covi; Cicero: On the Orator (1942) translated by E. W. Sutton and H. Rackham (Loeb Classical Library); Greek Anthology (1916-) translated by W. R. Paton (Loeb Classical Library); Marcus Junianus Justinus: Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus (1853) translated by the Rev. John Selby Watson.

Return to Top of Page

Email