By Selma Tibi
The Pharmaceutical Journal, Vol.271 (2003)
Introduction: Much of what we now know about the medicinal value of opium was already known in antiquity. Produced in Egypt, particularly in Thebes, opium was exported all over the Mediterranean world as opium thebacium and used medicinally by the ancient Egyptians, and in the Hellenistic and Roman times. With the spread of Islam in the seventh century, opium was introduced into India and, much later, in the 13th century, into China, where it was first used as a medicine.
The benefits and dangers of opium were recorded by many Greek and Roman medical authors such as Hippocrares, Dioscorides, Celsus, Galen and Paul of Aegina. They knew, as we do, that nearly all parts of the white poopy, Papaver somniferum L., are pharmacologically active, particularly the unique capsules, from which the juice or latex, opium, is extracted. The word opium is from the Latin for poppy juice and from the Greek word, opion, meaning juice of a plant. The Greek word diacodion means “the drug from the poppy capsule”. In Arabic, the word for opium, taken either immediately from Greek, or through the Persian word abyun, is afyun, while poppy is caled khashkhash – “that which rattles” referring, presumably, to seeds in a dry capsule.
Knowledge of the Graeco-Roman use of opium passed to ninth century Baghdad physicians mainly through translations of the works of Dioscorides and Galen. Dioscorides, from Anazarbus in south-east Turkey, was the first to write detailed accounts of the therapeutic uses of opium. He acquired his name, Greek for “the dendrologist of God”, from his interest in nature; he spent 40 years collecting information on over 1,000 plants, animals and minerals and recorded this in the five books of ‘De materia medica’, which became one of the most influential of medical writings, forming a database of pharmacy for generations after him.