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

Maria Christodoulou

April 11, 2022

Modern herbalist Maria Christodoulou chronicles her experiment recreating an ancient recipe for medicinal wine infused with the herb thyme.

Image: Thyme (Thymus vulgaris L.): entire flowering plant with separate floral segments. Coloured etching by M. Bouchard, 1775. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Public Domain Mark.

It is a curious cultural phenomenon that while the ancient Greeks used wine regularly as medicine, modern herbal practices practically exclude this medium. Ancient authors, from Homer in the 8th century BCE to Galen in the 2nd century CE, promoted the therapeutic benefits of wine for both the body and the mind, and wine infused with medicinal herbs was recommended by many ancient physicians to heal a variety of internal and external ailments. Today, however, this practice has all but disappeared. Exploring wine as a lost medium and the herbs that were once infused in it may help uncover ancient knowledge applicable to modern herbal medicine.

As a clinical herbalist trained at the ArborVitae School of Traditional Herbalism in New York, I focus on supporting clients by creating herbal formulas based on Western materia medica. Through this lens, I explore the uses of medicinal plants in Greek antiquity to gain a greater understanding of the plants themselves, as well as to honor the traditions of my heritage.

In the experiment I will describe here, I attempted to recreate herbal wine infused with thyme, using instructions provided in the five-volume text De materia medica by Pedanius Dioscorides (c. 40–90 CE), a Greek medical botanist and physician. This collection of ancient herbal knowledge describes approximately six hundred plants and more than one thousand traditional medicines. The text also includes a chapter on herbal wine, indicating the beverage’s important role in treatment.

Transmitted for centuries through hand-written copies, Dioscorides’ celebrated herbal reference would become the basis of European and Western pharmacopeia. My work explores potential applications of ancient Greek herbal remedies using the same plants that Dioscorides wrote about. Through this exploration, I also aim to explore to what extent the modern uses of these treasured plants demonstrate a sense of historical continuity in a valuable healing tradition.

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.

As an herbalist, I work with a variety of mediums, including water for herbal infusions and decoctions, vinegar and honey for oxymels, and alcohol for tinctures. Most commonly, herbalists make, use, and recommend herbal tea blends and herbal tinctures to extract the therapeutic benefits from plants. These extractions can take as little as fifteen minutes, as in the case with tea infusions, or as long as three months, as in the case when making an herbal tincture. By definition, tinctures are concentrated herbal extracts made by infusing fresh or dried herbs in a high-concentration alcohol, usually vodka. After six to eight weeks, the alcohol has absorbed the phytoconstituents of the plant and the plant material is removed. The resulting alcohol is used in low doses for the purposes that the plant is known for. Because there were many varieties of ancient herbal wines, there were also countless ways to make them.

According to Dioscorides, herbal winemaking involved harvesting the plant part and infusing it in wine jugs with other ingredients between ten days and three months, depending on the herb. Similar to tinctures today, these long-term infusions helped break down the plant structure to absorb the phytoconstituents that would benefit a specific ailment. While his chapter offers insightful descriptions of how to make various herbal wines and the physical ailments that could be treated by them, the over-simplified instructions pose an obvious challenge.

To begin, I purchased seedless green grapes from the local farmers market in my neighborhood in Athens. September and October are grape harvesting months and the grapes here are sweet and crisp. Taking Dioscorides’ cue from his summary of herbal winemaking, the first step to making wine is making grape must. Because his instructions are unclear, I turned, therefore, to modern Greek recipes for moustos in order to formulate my own recipe.

“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


    • 2kg (4.5lbs) green September grapes, with stems

    • 1 clean and crushed eggshell (or 1/3 cup wood ash)

    • 2 tbsp thyme herb, dried


  1. Remove stems, thoroughly rinse grapes, and soak in water for 30 minutes to ensure they are clean. Dry the grapes out on a towel and pat dry.

  2. Put a strainer inside a big pot and press the grapes by fist to squeeze out the juice. Repeat the process by straining with a linen cloth to ensure all juice is squeezed out. Pass the collected juice through a fresh cloth to make sure there are no remaining seeds or residue.

  3. Boil the juice on low heat for 15 minutes with crushed eggshells, or until the amount is reduced by half. Skim off the foam that rises to the top. Add 2 tbsp dried thyme leaves and flowers.

  4. Cool and cover, storing in the fridge.

  5. As a side experiment, combine the leftover grape pulp with dried herb. Cool this mixture and store it in a glass jar in the fridge for up to 1 month.


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.

"Everyone knows thyme."

Dioscorides, De materia medica 3.44

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.

But for what purposes did the ancient Greeks use thyme, and specifically thyme wine (oinos thumites)? Dioscorides recommend thyme for various ailments and in more creative ways than herbalists use the herb today:

"Taken as a drink with salt and vinegar it is able to drive out phlegmy matter through the bowels. A decoction with honey helps orthopnea [form of asthma] and the asthmatic, expels worms and the menstrual flow, is an abortifacient, expels the afterbirth, and is urinary. Mixed with honey and taken as a linctus [syrup] it makes matter come up [vomitory]. Applied with vinegar it dissolves new swellings and clots of blood, and takes away thymos [hormonal glandular enlargement] and hanging warts. Applied with wine and polenta it is good for hip pains. Eaten with meat it is good for poor vision."

Dioscorides, De materia medica 3.44

The Herbalist Explains

“Phlegmy matter through the bowels” likely refers to undigested fats, a condition called steatorrhea, indicated by a white slimy presence on feces. To remedy this, herbalists typically recommend eating less meat, drinking bitter herbs, and taking probiotics to improve gallbladder function and stimulate more bile production.


Thymol, the main constituent in the essential oil of thyme, is known to be stimulating to the uterus, and thus it may cause abortions. The essential oil is never recommended for direct contact on skin or for internal use as it can cause severe burns.

Image of thyme (CCO)

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.

When we compare the primary medicinal uses of thyme across central Eurasian traditions, we find that, while the vocabulary differs, the similarities are extraordinary. Each tradition applies the herb to alleviate conditions of the respiratory, digestive, nervous, and immune systems:

The same information as below (different medical systems and their uses of thyme) laid out as a table.

Respiratory System

Ancient Greek Medicine: asthma

Western Herbalism: coughs, sore throat, bronchitis, pneumonia, asthma, colds, flu

Traditional Chinese Medicine: tonifies and warms the lungs, resolves phlegm

Ayurvedic Medicine: lung tonic, decongestants

Digestive System

Ancient Greek Medicine: digestive difficulties, lack of appetite, dysentery

Western Herbalism: relieves flatulence and bloating

Traditional Chinese Medicine: expels wind

Ayurvedic Medicine: relieves digestive issues, improves appetite, spleen tonic, supports detox

Nervous System

Ancient Greek Medicine: nervous disorders, hypochondria, digestive nervousness

Western Herbalism: relieves neuralgic pain

Traditional Chinese Medicine: anxiety, depression, brain fog

Ayurvedic Medicine: rajasic—stimulates desire or nervous energy

Immune System

Ancient Greek Medicine: relieves winter shiverings, antidote to poisonous bites that "chill"

Western Herbalism: kills bacteria, fungus, and worms

Traditional Chinese Medicine: strengthens qi (vital energy), warms the body

Ayurvedic Medicine: increases prana (life force), kills bacteria, fungus, and worms

In antiquity, the circulation of medicinal plants and knowledge of their uses across ancient Eurasia played a significant role in influencing medicine used by both physicians and the general public. De materia medica, in particular, was referenced for more than a thousand years after its publication and subsequently translated into Latin, Arabic, Italian, German, Spanish, and French, indicating its broad influence on European and Islamic pharmacologies. From the Mediterranean to the Nile to the Indus, medicinal plants and their medicinal applications were shared freely over vast distances and time. We can see this through the similar uses of thyme across the different traditions.

Based on both ancient and modern uses of thyme, I would consider using thyme-infused herbal wine for many of the same purposes: paired with heavy meals to aid digestion, to ease a phlegmy, stubborn cough, and as a warming beverage in winter. The dosage would vary accordingly, and the safety precautions would generally be minimal (except for cases of alcoholism, when wine would not be recommended at all). Externally, if I had no other antiseptic to choose from, I would dab thyme wine on scratches and bug bites. As an herbalist, knowing the appropriate dosage and application of an herbal medicine can support the body in all its needs, for both pain and pleasure.


My herbal wine experiment did not result as hoped. The grape juice and thyme infusion grew moldy in the fridge after two weeks, likely as there was too much air entering the container. I did, however, store some of the thyme-flavored grape juice in the freezer, and upon defrosting it found the (unfermented) juice to be quite delicious. Meanwhile, a side experiment combining the leftover grape skins and dried herb did indeed ferment in the fridge. When I opened the jar, I was unpleasantly surprised by the strong yeasty and fruity aroma of fermentation, even with less than a cupful of liquid inside. There was nothing appealing about this, particularly the awaiting bacteria, so I discarded it.

Some Further Reflections

Crafting wine is an art and a science. While I had the best ingredients—freshly harvested grapes directly from a farmer—a let’s-see-what-happens approach was perhaps not the most effective technique. I certainly could have approached a vendor at the local farmers market who sells his own wine in tall plastic bottles and inquired about his methods. But it was the lure of Dioscorides’ simple instructions that had me believe that the process could be as simple as an herbal infusion.

Nonetheless, my efforts will not end here; I will continue hands-on experimentation guided by vague ancient recipes to learn more about historical uses of plants and perhaps find new ways to apply them today. As an herbalist, I recognize the complexity of historical plants and welcome the surprises that arise when I experiment with them. It’s my hope that this example with thyme will spark the reader’s curiosity to explore how herbs can heal the individual body, which is, of course, the true aim of any herbalist.


Fors, H., Principe, L., & Sibum, H. (2016). From the library to the laboratory and back again: Experiment as a tool for historians of science. Ambix, 63:2, 85-97.

Garran, T. (2008). Western herbs according to Traditional Chinese Medicine: A practitioner's guide. Vermont: Healing Arts Press.

Hardy, G. & Totelin, L. (2016). Ancient botany. New York: Routledge.

Kuriyama, S. (1999). The expressiveness of the body and the divergence of Greek and Chinese medicine. New York: Zone Books.

Lloyd G. & Sivin, N. (2002). The way and the word: Science and medicine in early China and Greece. New Haven: Yale University Press.

McIntyre, A. & Boudin, M. (2021). Dispensing with tradition: A practitioner’s guide to using Indian and Western herbs the Ayurvedic way. Anne McIntyre and Michelle Boudin.

Riddle, J. (1985). Dioscorides on pharmacy and medicine. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Riddle, J. (2013). Folk tradition and folk medicine: Recognition of drugs in classical antiquity. Pharmacy in History, 55(2/3), 64-87.


The Recipes Project is a collaborative, international blog that showcases research on recipes across history and across different cultures and societies.

The Making and Knowing Project explores the intersections between artistic making and scientific knowing, in particular through recreating the techniques and crafts of early modern Europe.


  1. Christodoulou notes the particular difficulty posed by the extremely simple instructions provided by Dioscorides, especially in terms of making wine grape must. She explains this difficulty in terms of tacit knowledge: the things an audience already implicitly understands on the basis of shared experiences and practices (e.g. an existing knowledge about how to make wine). What are some examples of tacit knowledge in modern recipes, pharmacology, and drug use? What might a future healthcare practitioner or historian find baffling if they tried to recreate a present-day prescription, protocol, or practice?

  1. How might we explain the way that different cultural groups and medical traditions use specific ingredients for similar purposes (e.g. the use of thyme to aid digestion)? Does this simply reflect the objective properties of the substance? Might knowledge have circulated, for example, through trade or written texts? As modern interpreters, to what extent are we more likely to see—and so highlight—the similarities?

  1. Can practical experimentation produce kinds of knowledge that are inaccessible through studying texts and artifacts? What kinds of knowledge are involved? Are there limitations to the usefulness of this knowledge that historical experimenters should bear in mind?