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  4. φαρμακοθήκη

var. –

lat. pharmacotheca (modern?)


Semantically transparent compound employed to denote a portable chest or case for the storage of remedies and medical implements. The word, attested from the second or third century CE, has few occurrences: in a papyrus letter from Egypt, and in later astronomical and ecclesiastical literature. The word does not seem to have developed into a genuine terminus technicus and it very likely represented a colloquial term for an object of medical use.


1-2. Etymology – General linguistic commentary

Both constituent elements of φαρμακο-θήκη participate in a wide range of compounds. φάρμακον is often the first as well as the second component of compound-nouns and adjectives.[1] θήκη (< root of τίθημι plus a guttural morpheme[2]), denoting something suitable for containing (be it a chest, a cupboard or a room), occurs rarely as the first but is very common as the second member of compounds, in connection with a name indicating the content or the function of the container.[3] Several compounds in -θήκη are attested by papyri, particularly in documents of the Roman and Byzantine periods, when the Greek vocabulary reached an extraordinary lexical wealth, especially through the resemantization of existing terms and the formation of new words by suffixation or composition.[4] So, perhaps at the time of its earliest testimony, P.Oslo II 54 (late second-early third century CE), the noun φαρμακοθήκη was from a linguistic point of view less rare and strange than its present uniqueness might induce one to believe.

Finally, φαρμακοθήκη is listed in some Medieval and Modern Greek dictionaries with the meaning of κιβώτιον or ἑρμάριον for containing medicines,[5] but it can also denote in a more current use a little box divided into compartments holding, for instance, pills.    

There is no trace of the Latin transliteration pharmacotheca in ancient sources, but it seems that the term – perhaps a reminiscence of the Greek word or a late Latin coinage on the model of the compounds in -theca borrowed from Greek (e.g. bibliotheca, oporotheca, pinacotheca, zotheca) – was in use in modern times (XVI-XIX centuries) to indicate the «pharmacy», the “room” in which drugs and medicines were prepared and sold.[6]


3.  Abbreviation(s) in the papyri

No abbreviated form had appeared, as yet.

[1] For the etymology and a list of some compounds, see CHANTRAINE, DELGII 1178 s.v.; FRISK, GEW II 992-3 s.v.; BEEKES, EDG II 15554 s.v.

[2] Cf. CHANTRAINE, FN 384.

[3] Cf. BRÜMMER 1985, 15: «der Begriff Theke kann gelegentlich zur Bezeichnung von Truhenbehältern benutzt werden, jedoch geschieht dies nur in Verbindung mit einem vorgesetzten Nomen, das den Inhalt bzw. die Funktion des Behälters definiert».

[4] Cf. PALMER 1945, 65; DARIS 1995, 78-9; MONTEVECCHI, Pap. 76-9; PRUNETI 1998-9, 149 ; BONATI 2016, 338-40. On Graeco-Latin hybrid compounds, see FILOS 2010, 221-52. On word-composition, see MAYSER, GGP I/3 153-77.

[5] Cf. e.g. DIMITRAKOS, ΜΛ XV 7573 e ΝΛ 1397 s.v.; STAMATAKOS, ΛΝΕΓ III 2829 s.v. φαρμακοδήκη.

[6] An example is the following inscription painted above a door of the old pharmacy of St. John the Evangelist in Parma: «aditus ad pharmacothecam iuvandis aegris ex medicorum praescritione dicatam».



B. TESTIMONIA - A selection of representative sources

1.     P.Oslo II 54,5-9 – II/III CE

π̣έμψο̣ν̣ |μ̣ο̣ι̣ τὴ̣ν̣ φ̣α̣ρ̣μακοθήκη̣ν̣ | αἰτήσας̣̣ π[αρ]ὰ τοῦ ἰατροῦ | φάρμακο̣ν̣ δακνηρὸν | κα̣ὶ̣ ἕ̣τε̣ρο̣ν ἡ̣δύτερον.

Send me the medicine-chest and ask the doctor for a type of biting remedy and another much milder one.[1]


2.     (Palchus?) Cat.Cod.Astr. I 104,26-30 Olivieri – V CE

εἰσελθόντες δὲ εἰς ὅρμον, μεταβαλόντες τὸν γόμον εἰς ἕτερον πλοῖον, ὅτου ἧλθον φέροντες μεθ’ ἑαυτῶν, στρουθία δῆτα πτερωτὰ καὶ χάρτην λιτὸν διὰ τὸ τὸν ‘Ερμῆν ἀφαιρετικὸν εἶναι καὶ σκεύη μαγειρικὰ διὰ τὸν Σκόρπιον καὶ φαρμακοθήκην πεπληρωμένην διὰ τὸν ʼΑσκληπιὸν καὶ ʽΥγείαν.                  

Entering a harbour they reloaded the freight, which they had brought with them, onto another ship, i.e. winged sparrows and coarse papyrus on account of Hermes being retrograde, and the cooking equipment on account of the rise of Scorpio and a medicine-chest full of content on account of the rise of Asclepius and Hygeia.


3.     Proclus, Oratio XVIII in laudem apostoli Pauli (PG LXV 817D-820A Migne) – V CE

πάντα βλέπει τοῦ Παύλου τοὺς ἄθλους· […] τοῦ ἀθλητοῦ τάς πάλας· τοῦ πύκτου τὰ στίγματα […] τοῦ ἰατροῦ τὴν φαρμακοθήκην.

The entire universe watches Paul’s achievements: […] the athlete’s wrestling, the boxer’s marks […], the physician’s case [...].  


4.     [Hesychius ?], Homilia XXI in sanctum Lucam 5,8-9 (942,4 Aubineau)  V CE

θέλεις ἰδεῖν αὐτοῦ τὴν φαρμακοθήκην; βλέπε τὴν χειρουργίαν τῶν ἰουδαϊκῶν γλωσσῶν.

Do you want to see his doctor’s case? Behold (his) surgery of Jewish tongues.


5.     Sophronius, Narratio miracolorum sanctorum Cyri et Joannis 10,56-7 VI-VII CE

ὡς οἶμαι γὰρ τὸ ἀρμάριον φαρμακοθήκη μειζόνων νοσημάτων ἐτύγχανεν.

The cupboard was, I believe, a medicine-chest for more serious diseases.


6.     Neophytus, Πανηγυρικὴ βίβλος XII-XIII CE

II 5-6 ὁ τὴν θείαν ἔχων φαρμακοθήκην φαρμάκων θείων ὡς ἀληθῶς.

... who [sc. St. Mamas] owns the divine medicine-case with truly divine remedies.


III 234-6 ὡς τὴν θείαν φαρμακοθήκην σου ἀκεσωδύνων φαρμάκων διαπαντὸς ὑπεργέμουσαν

... your [sc. of archangel Michael] divine medicine-case being always full of remedies to allay pain.


XII 3 οὗ ἡ φαρμακοθήκη φαρμάκων πλήρης ἐκ τῆς ἄνωθεν χάριτος.

... whose [sc. of Theosebius] medicine-chest is full of remedies derived from the divine Grace.


XVIII 38-40 φαρμακοθήκην φέρεις πεπληρωμένην φαρμάκων θεοπρεπῶν.

... you [sc. the glory of St. Cosmas and Damianos] carry the medicine-chest full of divine remedies.


XXVI 1081-3 φαρμακοθήκην ἔχων πεπληρωμένην φαρμάκων θεοπρεπῶν.

... whose [sc. St. Nicholas] has the medicine-chest full of divine remedies.

[1] Italian translation in ANDORLINI-MARCONE 2004, 190-1; German translation in JÖRDENS 2010, 346.


1.     φαρμακοθήκη and its sources

The earliest witness for the noun, P.Oslo II 54,6 ([1]), is a private letter on papyrus from Egypt, the handwriting of which dates it sometime in the second half of the second or the first half of the third century CE. The letter, the exact provenance of which is unknown (but likely coming from the Oxyrhynchos area), is addressed by certain Horeion to his father, Apollonios. Horeion is sending by letter 908 silver drachmae, asking his father to send him the (obviously portable) medicine-chest (π̣έμψο̣ν̣| μ̣ο̣ι̣ τὴ̣ν̣ φ̣α̣ρ̣μακοθήκη̣ν̣) and two remedies of opposite qualities (φάρμακο̣ν̣ δακνηρὸν| κα̣ὶ̣ ἕ̣τε̣ρο̣ν ἡ̣δύτερον)[1].

The next two witnesses take us to the fifth century. The word occurs in Cat.Cod.Astr. I 104,29 Olivieri ([2]) in a καταρχή, a forecast concerning an undertaking datable to ca. 480 CE. The text contains a series of astrological predictions concerning a sea-voyage. In this forecast, attributed to the fifth cent. astrologer Palchus, the position of stars and constellations (conveyed by a prepositional construction with διὰ + accusative) determines the artefacts to be taken on board for a sea voyage. A ‘full’, ‘well-equipped’ first-aid kit forms part of the freight, its inclusion associated with the rise of the constellations Asclepius and Hygeia (φαρμακοθήκην πεπληρωμένην διὰ τὸν ʼΑσκληπιὸν καὶ ʽΥγείαν). Earlier the observation of Asclepius, i.e the constellation Ophiuchus, rising beside Selene, the moon, makes the astrologist advise that medical equipment should be had on board (ll.21-2 ἑωρακὼς δὲ ὅτι τῇ Σελήνῃ παρανατέλλει ὁ ᾿Ασκληπιὸς, εἶπον ὅτι καὶ ἰατρικὰ σκεύη φέρουσι μεθ’ ἑαυτῶν). It appears likely that φαρμακοθήκη forms part of the ἰατρικὰ σκεύη.

The term occurs otherwise exclusively in works of Christian authorship, employed chiefly in a figurative sense. In the encomiastic sermon In laudem apostoli Pauli 1 (Hom. XVIII) Proclus consecrated Archbishop of Constantinople in 434 CE, compiles a long list of things to which St. Paul’s certamina may metaphorically be compared, one among which is “the physician’s medicine-case” (PG transl.: medici medicamentorum narthecium) ([3]). The term is probably used here because of its etymological transparency.

In another homiletic text dating from approximately the same period, the apocryphal In sanctum Lucam ([4]) ascribed in some of the manuscripts (BKLS) to the presbyter and exegete Hesychius of Jerusalem but probably written later,[2] St. Luke is presented as an itinerant doctor sent to heal the morally ailing humanity. The evangelist, a physician described by St. Paul as ὁ ἰατρὸς ὁ ἀγαπητός (the «beloved doctor», Cl. 4,14), is here presented as a ψυχικὸς ἰατρός («a physician of the soul») in metaphorical possession of a φαρμακοθήκη. The case seems to be used for the storage and transport of surgical tools, as it is connected with the surgery practised symbolically on the tongues of the Jews, i.e. on the doctrines of Judaism.

In [5], a passage from the Narratio miracolorum sanctorum Cyri et Joannis by St. Sophronius, Patriarch of Jerusalem (560-638 CE), the scene is set in Alexandria in the church of St. Cyrus and St. John. A woman, who has resorted there desperate to find a cure for her daughter suffering terrible pains at teething, dreams of meeting St. Cyrus in the guise of a monk. He orders her to search the place and drip whatever ingredient she may chance upon into the girl’s ears. She looks around, discovers a small niche (θυρίδα μικράν) – literally a ‘window’ – with a cup of honey which she uses as instructed, and her daughter is then healed. The niche is described as ἀρμάριον, a “cupboard” used as φαρμακοθήκη, a storage-space for medicines.

Finally, the compound occurs five times in as many panegyrics of the Πανηγυρικὴ βίβλος ([6]) by the hermit and Byzantine writer from Cyprus Neophytus ὁ ῎Εγκλειστος (1134-1220 ca.). The saints – or the personified concepts – praised are presented according to the model of the πνευματικὸς ἰατρός, the «spiritual physician»: like in the previous cases, each of them is equipped with a θεῖα φαρμακοθήκη containing divine remedies. Having lost the connection with the actual object, the word seems to be employed to achieve a rhetorical effect, producing a figura etymologica in juxtaposition with φαρμάκων.

The noun φαρμακοθήκη appears to denote the professional’s medicine-case, although admittedly always in figurative contexts, i.e. always in metaphorical connection with physicians. In most cases the chest contains remedies, exceptions being [4] where its implicit content consists of surgical tools and [3], involving both remedies (PG LXV 817C.8) and surgery (PG LXV 820A.7). However, the absence of the term from medical texts is significant. It might suggest that, even if the compound φαρμακοθήκη indicates an exclusively medical container, it never entered the technical vocabulary of the discipline. It probably served as early as the time of the Oslo papyrus as a lay synonym for the physician’s tool-case[3] in common language, e.g. in practitioners’ everyday conversations with their patients, instead of more official and technical terms for similar objects, used among professionals. It may thus be considered as a medical term in so far as it refers to a technical accessory, but not a genuine terminus technicus.


2.     φαρμακοθήκη word and object

The extant written sources do not provide information illuminating the material side of the object. The presence of -θήκη in the second part of the compound does not add any information either, since compounds in -θήκη denoted both small containers (e.g. μυροθήκη, a «receptacle for unguents», μυστροθήκη, literally a «spoon-box», and λιβανοθήκη, an «incense-case») and bigger ones, like cupboards or chests (e.g. σκευοθήκη, a chest suitable for all kinds of «equipment»), as well as containers lato sensu, like rooms or closed spaces (e.g. ἀποθήκη, the «magazine», χορτοθήκη, the «barn»).

The general impression is that the φαρμακοθήκη is a portable case. An exception is represented by the passage by St. Sophronius ([5]) where the φαρμακοθήκη is described as ἀρμάριον (< Lat. armarium), term denoting an object variable in size and shape according to its content, e.g. books, money, weapons, clothes etc.[4] So, taking into account that the θυρίδες were ‘windows’ built in the walls of churches and monasteries, the φαρμακοθήκη of [5] may be not portable but a fixed built-in-cupboard used as storage space for remedies. In this respect it differs from all the others and the compound is probably used in a broader sense. This context could be interpreted as a “precursor” of the modern Greek word φαρμακαποθήκη, a «storage room for medicines»[5].  Despite the objective difficulty of connecting verba and Realien, as objects usually come without words and words without objects, archaeological evidence may provide a starting point for forming a hypothesis about the physical appearance of φαρμακοθήκη.

A considerable number of cases for storage and transport of drugs and medicines and/or surgical instruments have been uncovered in excavations, sometimes with residues of the medicinal contents inside. Although subject to deterioration, these traces – as a rule powders or pills – have been successfully identified by scientific analysis on more than one occasion,[6] often confirming what we know from medical writers.

A characteristic type of case is rectangular in shape (on average 12 x 6-7 x 2-3 cm), equipped with a sliding outer lid and divided into several internal compartments, each with its own hinged cover in order to store together different medical substances without risking their contamination. So, if it is at all possible to assume a terminological and typological superposition between the φαρμακοθῆκαι mentioned in the sources and any of the archaeological boîtes médicales, we may perhaps hypothesize that the compartmentalized rectangular type with sliding lid was the most suitable shape for the domestic pharmacy chest, associating the almost intuitive term – literally a case for medicines – with the most common type of container with that function in professional and non-professional contexts. Archaeological evidence has provided several specimina dating back to the Roman period, therefore contemporary with P.Oslo II 54. Often very well preserved, some of these surely derive from a professional context, but their household counterpart was in all likelihood analogous to them.

Some characteristic examples follow below:[7]



This rectangular copper alloy box (11x 6.4 x 2.1 cm), no. 296 in BLIQUEZ 1994, 69 and 191 (ills. 189-90), was recovered in the Casa del Medico dei Gladiatori in Pompeii (V 5, 1.2). It has a sliding lid held in place by a catch, four compartments inside, each covered by a little lid with a handle (one is lost). Each compartment still preserved residues of grayish pills «shaped like the eraser on a pencil». Several other similar boxes were preserved in the National Archaeological Museum of Naples but are now missing.[8]  Of the three specimensreproduced below,[9] two are equipped with a handle for carrying them around:[10]


National Archaeological Museum, photo no. C844 of 1926.



Details of a photo of the Victor Deneffe collection in Museum Wetenschap en Techniek, Ghent.


Another interesting specimen (I-III CE) is described in KÜNZL 1996, Abb. XXXIV. It was extracted «aus einem großen Sammelfund aus Kleinasien» and it is now preserved in the Deutsches Klingenmuseum of Solingen (inv. 65.8). The case is internally compartmentalized. Two of these compartments has hinged lid with handle (one lost), whereas the open central one contains a glass ampulla with traces of substances. Material residues have survived also in the right one. These contents have been analyzed and it has been discovered that they were lead carbonate (PbCO3), i.e. ψιμύθιον or cerussa, a mineral drug widely attested in the ancient pharmacopoeias and in the medical papyri, as it was used especially during the preparation of remedies for external application, such as ointments and salves.[11] On the other side, the widespread use of this substance also for the preparation of cosmetics, especially pigments to whiten the skin of the face, as well as the diffusion of similar ampullae in that field, raises the possibility that the use of the chest was in connection with cosmetics.



Noteworthy is the sophisticated pharmacy case (11 x 7.5 x 3 cm) of the late third or early fourth century described in REBER 1909-1910, 369-75. This pharmacie de poche was found, covered with dust and forgotten in a corner of the archive room, in the Church of Notre-Dame-de-Valère in Sion (Switzerland). Probably sent from Rome to the local bishop «en guise de cadeau», it was reused as a reliquary. At the time of its discovery it still contained relics wrapped in silk. The chest, constructed from a single piece of ivory, was divided into eleven compartments of variable size. The dimensions of the compartments lead to suppose that they were intended to store small medicines (pastilli)or dried sticks in the longest central one. The sliding lid is engraved in high-relief with a depiction of Asclepius – gripping the snake-entwined staff in the left hand and perhaps a bunch of medicinal herbs in the other one – and Hygeia, gods of medicine and health.[12] The cross engraved between the heads of the divinities seems to belong to the time of the reuse, marking out the process of resacralization from the pagan to the Christian religion. The connection between this pharmacy box and the image of Asclepius and Hygeia reminds us of the φαρμακοθήκη πεπληρωμένη suggested by the astral interpretation of the two gods in the καταρχή of the Catalogus Codicum Astrologoruum (I 104,29 Olivieri) [2].



An extraordinary archaeological finding provides elements for a further exemplar of ancient physician’s bag: the so-called Pozzino shipwreck dating back to about 140-130 BCE. The shipwreck, discovered in 1974, sank off the coast of Tuscany (Italy), near the Etruscan city of Populonia, and was excavated between 1989 and 1990. The excavations yielded many remarkable artifacts. Among them several medical implements and containers were discovered, such as many wooden vials equipped with their covers and numerous tin pyxides (see s.v. πυξίς C 2). They were probably the personal equipment of a physician traveling by sea. Interestingly, these objects were found in close proximity to an iron lock from a wooden chest that had been completely destroyed. This seems to suggest that the medical items were probably the contents of the chest and that the chest itself was the medical bag of the physician traveling on the ship (see GIACHI et al. 2013, 1193).


[1] For a discussion of the papyrus and its vocabulary, see BONATI 2016b, 659-75.

[2] Cf. AUBINEAU 1980, 619-20 and 902-35.

[3] Defining some features of the technical language SCHIRONI 2010, 338 states: «seldom used – though possibly understood – by the non-specialist. For this reason, technical terms often have lay synonyms in common language; this is particular evident in medicine where technical and lay terminology coexist [...] and often physicians use the latter in order to be understood by the patients».

[4] It is said variarum rerum receptaculum, cf. TLL II 603,46-604,27 s.v. and HOFMANN, LG 32 s.v. The word is also attested in an ostrakon of the II-III cent. CE containing a list of household items, P.Brook. 84,10 (= SB I 4292,10).

[5] Cf. DIMITRAKOS, ΜΛ XV 7571 s.v.; BABINIOTIS, ΛΝΕΓ 1870 s.v.

[6] On this subject, see some bibliographical references in MARGANNE 2004b, 118.

[7] See also, for instance, the wooden chest of a Coptic physician found in Hermonthis, described by DARESSY 1909-10, 254-7 with Pl. I e II. Other examples in JACKSON 1998, 74-5 with ill. 18 and REBER 1909-1910, 372-3.

[8] Bibliographical references and descriptions in BLIQUEZ 1994, 2 (F) and 66 (m).

[9] Cf. DENEFFE 1893, 37-8 with Pl. 2, ills. 1 and 6 as well as MILNE 1907, 172-3 with Pl. LIV.

[10] Reproductions of the complete photos in BLIQUEZ 1994, Pl. XXIV and XXV, ill. 1. More uncertain is the use of case no. 297 in BLIQUEZ 1994, 69 and 191 (ills.191-2), found at Pompeii in a non-medical context, the House of M. Memmius Auctus (VI 14, 27). It is a rectangular box of copper alloy (7.7 x 5.5 cm) with a sliding lid surmounted on one side with a decorative cornice and having a round opening on the side with the catch which holds the lid in place. It is not compartmentalized and does not contain traces of drugs or medicines. It is probable that it had nothing to do with the medical field and that it was destined to other kind of products like cosmetics or coins and jewels.

[11] Cf. GAZZA 1956, 105.

[12] Occasionally, images of Asclepius with the snake, which is attribute and symbol of the healing power of the god, or of Asclepius and Hygeia are figured on surgical or pharmaceutical items, as well as on lids of boxes like in this case, cf. BLIQUEZ 1994, 67 and 102.


1. Lexicon entries

LSJ9 1917 s.v.; DIMITRAKOS, ΜΛ XV 7573 and ΝΛ 1397 s.v.; STAMATAKOS, ΛΝΕΓ III 2829 s.v.


2. Secondary literature

GHIRETTI 2010, 113-4 and 202; BONATI 2016, 185-95 s.v. and 2016b, 663-7.

E. DDbDP reference(s)

P.Oslo II 54,6


Isabella Bonati

Accepted term: 08-Sep-2014