The Best Doctor Is Also a Historian
The Rootcutter's inaugural essay series aims at exploring connections between ancient and modern medicines—and not only the connections we make, but also why we make those connections and what impact they have on how we think about and conduct modern medical practices, both as healthcare experts and as service users. This series has been generously funded by the Society for Classical Studies Ancient Worlds, Modern Communities grant.
A Clinical Herbalist Attempts to Make Ancient Greek Herbal Wine
April 11, 2022
Modern herbalist Maria Christodoulou chronicles her experiment recreating an ancient recipe for medicinal wine infused with the herb thyme.
As Pliny the Elder lamented, “there is no topic more difficult to handle, or more full of detail, seeing that it is hard to say whether wine does good to people rather than harming them” (Natural History 23.19). I would add that there is no topic more difficult to emulate. Wine is an exact craft, with the guiding forces of nature−soil, water, grapes, air, and time−determining the flavor and acidity of the final bottle. My experiment comes at the risk of complete failure, not only because the tools for herbal winemaking have changed since antiquity, but because Dioscorides does not provide clear, step-by-step instructions. This is likely because his intended audience of literate physicians inherently knew the process. They had a shared, tacit knowledge that enabled them to fill in the blanks. For me, not having prior knowledge in ancient (or modern!) winemaking or even being a connoisseur of wine makes the experiment that much more prone to challenges.
“Bind one hundred ounces of pounded sifted thyme in a linen cloth, put it into nine gallons of must for three months, and then jar it.”
Dioscorides, De materia medica 5.59
Recipe for Grape Must with Thyme
I decided to start my herbal winemaking journey by recreating a recipe involving thyme (Thymus vulgaris), which has been a familiar and easily accessible herb in the Mediterranean since antiquity. Thyme is native to the Mediterranean region and has a wide range of health benefits that are applied in Western herbalism, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), and Ayurvedic medicine.
The herb offers a variety of healing properties, primarily as a respiratory remedy for coughs, asthma, pneumonia, and sore throat, and as a digestive remedy to relieve bloating and gas. Modern herbalism identifies thyme’s herbal actions as follows: expectorant (reduce phlegm), antitussive (relieves coughs), antispasmodic, antimicrobial (antibacterial, antifungal, antiviral), carminative (soothes digestion), anthelmintic (kills worms), antioxidant, diuretic (stimulates bladder), mild diaphoretic (induces sweating), and astringent (strengthens cellular walls). Additionally, the essential oil is known to have emmenagogue (stimulates menstruation) and abortifacient (causes abortion) properties. Externally, the herb can be applied for fungal infections, wounds, and neuralgic pain. In TCM, thyme is known for its ability to strengthen qi (“chi”), our vital energy, by helping to promote circulation, disperse cold (be warming), expel wind (relieve flatulence and spasms), and resolve phlegm (dry it out). Similarly, in Ayurveda, thyme stimulates both rajasic, our innate drive or passion for activity, and prana, our life force.
Dioscorides recommended thyme wine for slightly different purposes than the herb itself: “digestive difficulties, lack of appetite, dysentery, disorders of the nerves, and hypochondria [nervous gastric disorder]; for winter shiverings, and for poison from venomous creatures [bites] that chill and putrify” (Dioscorides, De materia medica 5.59). These ancient herbal applications are fascinating to compare, as they demonstrate how the plant can benefit the body differently based on its preparation and mode of delivery; i.e. water, vinegar, honey, or wine.