The Center for Tebtunis Papyri logo


This is an archived exhibit of The Bancroft Library, University California, Berkeley.

Bancroft Library logo

Medical Texts


medical text fragmentIn Tebtunis, as elsewhere in the Roman world, aspects of what is now considered religion, magic and even cosmetology were indistinct from medical practice. Priests frequently played the role of physicians; medical prescriptions often include spells to be recited; kohl used to line the eyes protected against certain eye diseases.

Fourteen medical texts used in Roman Tebtunis have been published to date, three of which are in Egyptian language. The published papyri witness the kinds of medical texts residents of Tebtunis may have found useful in the I–III centuries CE. Berkeley's collection contains six Greek medical texts dating to the II century and offers a fascinating glimpse of medicine in the historical moment before the writings of Galen became ubiquitous. At least three were certainly discovered in the temple enclosure (P.Tebt. II 676, 677, 679) suggesting that medical practice was among the functions of the temple priests.

In the Italian excavations of Tebtunis undertaken in the 1930s, objects interpreted by the excavators as useful in the preparation and administration of medicaments, were found in the temple precinct:

"In the houses of the priests, who were also doctors, there were found many medical prescriptions and wood pots for medicines, one still closed and full of seeds. Adjoining were tablets on which medical prescriptions were written."

—Carlo Anti, Illustrated London News, 30 May 1931

The great number of spoons and spatulas, glass bottles and wooden containers excavated at Tebtunis in the 1899/1900 season may have been used to mix and apply powders and oils used as medicaments or cosmetics.


Anonymous therapeutic manual Anonymous therapeutic manual
II century CE

This manual focuses on the practical application of medicine and pharmacology against lung diseases. Fragments of this same papyrus text are now in at least four different international collections, poignantly illustrating the confusion wrought by multiple official and unofficial excavations over the course of the last century. Isabella Andorlini was able to identify fragments of at least eight columns of the text on display (P.Lund. I 6 + P.Mil.Vogl. I 16 + P.Tebt. II 677 +PSI inv. 3054).

P.Tebt. II 677


Herodotus Medicus, On remedies Herodotus Medicus, On remedies
II century CE

Written on the back of an undated account, the contents of this fragment concern the treatment of thirst. An excerpt containing the same passage has survived in the work of Oribasius (Collectiones medicae 5.30.6–7), where he cites Herodotus Medicus as the author.

P.Tebt. II 272v


Anonymous treatise of astrological medicine Anonymous treatise of astrological medicine
II century CE

References to premature birthing (ômotok ..., line 11) and embryotomia (line 14) indicate the medical content of this unedited text; the presence of the planet Venus (Aphrodeitê, line 9) signals its astrological character.

P.Tebt. II 676


Illustrated medical text Illustrated medical text
II century CE

This is the earliest example of the genre of illustrated herbals to survive from the ancient Mediterranean world. Each section is prefaced with the name of a plant followed by a color illustration and a description of its medical properties and those medicinal preparations that might be made from it. Fragments now in Oxford also belong to the same roll (P.Tebt.Tait 39–42).

P.Tebt. II 679


Wooden box with lid and three bronze instruments Wooden box with lid and three bronze instruments
I–III centuries CE?

Courtesy of the Phoebe Apperson Hearst Museum of Anthropology, Berkeley, and the Regents of the University of California. Photographed by Madeleine Fang. Inv. 6–20378a and b, 6–20478, 6–20476, and 6–20474


A glass vessel and spoon A glass vessel and spoon
I–III centuries CE?

Courtesy of the Phoebe Apperson Hearst Museum of Anthropology, Berkeley, and the Regents of the University of California. Photographed by Madeleine Fang. Inv. 6–21374 and 6–20537


Papyrus amulet against fever Papyrus amulet against fever
III century CE

An inverted triangle is formed by a magical word, like modern abracadabra) repeated with the successive omission of the first and last letters, reading the same across or down one side and up the other. The text below the triangle asks a deity called Kok Kouk Koul to save a woman named Tais "from every shivering fit, whether coming every third day, fourth day, daily, every other day, or coming at night, or of other type(?)." Recent studies have correlated the variety of fever symptoms (described by this and other amulets) to different strains of malaria in an effort to discern mortality patterns and causes of death in Roman Egypt.

P.Tebt. II 275


Five faience Bes amulets Five faience Bes amulets
I–III centuries CE

Representational amulets were another means of defense against medical (and other) dangers for the residents of Roman Tebtunis. The Egyptian god Bes was the preeminent protector of children and pregnant women.

Courtesy of the Phoebe Apperson Hearst Museum of Anthropology, Berkeley, and the Regents of the University of California. Inv. 6–20539