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For the radiation therapy machine involved in several accidents, see Therac-25.

Theriac or theriaca was a medical concoction made of opium, flesh of viper and a large number of other ingredients. It was originally invented as an antidote against snake venom and later used as a preventative panacea.

The word theriac comes from the Greek term theriaka, which refers to ancient bestiaries about dangerous beasts and their bites. Hence the antidote against animal bites came to be called a theriac, and it later became the English word treacle, via Middle English triacle.[1]



According to legends, the history of theriac begins with the king Mithridates VI of Pontus who experimented with poisons and antidotes on his prisoners. His numerous toxicity experiments eventually led him to declare that he had discovered an antidote for every venomous reptile and poisonous substance. He mixed all the effective antidotes into a single one, mithridatium or mithridate. Mithridate contained opium, myrrh, saffron, ginger, cinnamon and castor, along with some forty other ingredients.[2] When the Romans defeated him, his medical notes fell into their hands and Roman medici began to use them. Emperor Nero's physician Andromachus improved upon mithridatum by bringing the total number of ingredients to sixty four, including viper's flesh.[2] This medicine, called Theriaca andromachi or Venice treacle, was considered especially efficacious against snakebite. The Venice treacle became the traditional Theriac.

Greek physician Galen devoted a whole book Theriaké to theriac. One of his patients, Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, took it on regular basis.

In 667, ambassadors from Rûm presented the emperor of Tang with a theriaca. The Chinese observed that it contained the gall of swine, was dark red in colour and the foreigners seemed to to respect it greatly. The Tang pharmacologist Su Kung noted down that it had proved its usefulness against "the hundred ailments". Whether this panacea contained the traditional ingredients such as opium, myrrh and hemp, is not known.[3]

Traditional theriac

The production of a proper theriac took months with all the collection and fermentation of herbs and other ingredients.It was supposed to be left to mature for years. It was also expensive and hence available only for the rich.

Patients would use theriac for bites but also as a preventative against any kind of poisoning and eventually against just about anything. It was used in salves and plasters or just eaten in chunks.

Theriaca andromachi or Venice Treacle contained 64 ingredients. In addition to viper flesh and opium, it included cinnamon, agarics and gum arabic. The ingredients were pulverised and reduced to an electuary with honey.

By the time of the Renaissance, the making of theriac had become an official ceremony, especially in Italy. Pharmacists sold it as late as 1884.


  1. ^ Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary: treacle. Merriam-Webster. Retrieved on 2007-02-28.
  2. ^ a b (Hodgson 2001, p. 18)
  3. ^ (Schafer 1985, p. 184)


  • Hodgson, Barbara (2001), , Firefly Books, ISBN 1552975401.
  • Majno, Guido (1991), , Harvard University Press, 413-417, ISBN 0674383311.
  • Schafer, Edward H. (1985), , University of California Press, ISBN 0-520-05462-8.

Further Reading

  • Griffin, J. P., Venetian treacle and the foundation of medicines regulation, British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology 58:3, Pages 317-325. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2125.2004.02147.x
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Theriac". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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