The Reinvention of Theriac. Pharmacy, State, and the Market in Italy (1490-1640)

Date of Award

Fall 10-1-2021

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


History of Science and Medicine

First Advisor

Bertucci, Paola


This dissertation examines the role of Galenic pharmacy in early modern Italy through the history of an exceptional medicine, theriac. I argue for the effectiveness of theriac as a social, political, and economic tool in shaping the existing social order, showing how changes in one of these realms affected the others. I draw my evidence from documents such as scientific treatises, apothecary prints, literary sources, correspondence among scholars, as well as from medical regulation, official tariffs, and apothecary records, using both qualitative and quantitative analysis. Because theriac was at once a scientific object and a commodity it is especially well suited to unveil how scientific, medical, commercial, and regulatory practices interacted. The dissertation follows the transformations theriac underwent between the end of the fifteenth and the mid-seventeenth centuries. At first, learned apothecaries and physicians studied and experimented on theriac to elevate their position in society. This elite group reinvented theriac creating “true theriac” and claimed that this was a medicine comparable to the original theriac created in the first century. During the Renaissance, in several polities, public officials and rulers dedicated time and efforts to theriac showing that this medicine was relevant to the state, though for different reasons: in Venice, because of its commercial value, in other cities because medical and political authorities sponsored theriac as a way of asserting political prestige presenting it as a state measure of public health against the plague. Subsequently, building on the renewed prestige theriac acquired, apothecaries transformed theriac into a commercial success. Apothecaries and physicians produced theriac publicly in the streets, and created a new urban health ritual. Through the extensive use of new apothecary publications directed to a vast audience, apothecaries acted as brokers of medical knowledge. Finally, theriac became so successful that it was exported all over the globe as a medicine especially suited to project the status of those who were in power. While according to our modern standards, theriac’s effects on the biological body were minimal, it held transformative powers on the social body: it confirmed the political and medical hierarchy, it reassured patients, it elevated physicians, it made apothecaries richer. In early modern Italy, the social power of theriac suggests that Galenic pharmacy was a relevant practice not just medically or economically but also politically.

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