Two lead caps from Theriac ampules discovered in Sadovo in Southeast Bulgaria. Both are from the early 19th century, the left one is from Venice, and the right is from Trieste. Photos: archaeologist Milen Nikolov, Burgas Regional Museum of History
Theriac is a legendary heal-all from the Antiquity and the Middle Ages, whose panacea effects seem doubtful, including because it was often forged, but which nonetheless made a supposedly “successful" appearance in 1323, in one of the last episodes of the seven-century-long wars between the Bulgarian Empire and the Byzantine Empire.
Lead caps from ampules containing real or fake Theriac have been discovered by archaeologists at a number of locations all across Bulgaria.
The latest such discovery is a cap from a Theriac ampule from Venice, Italy, in a grave from the Bulgarian Christian necropolis of a miners’ settlement from the end of the 15th – beginning of the 16th century in the Kremikovtsi Monastery in Sofia, at a time when the remnants of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185 – 1396/1422) had long been conquered by the Ottoman Empire.
Regardless of the multiple Theriac cap finds in Bulgaria, few are aware that the mythical medical concoction is connected with a little known moment from the history of the Second Bulgarian Empire and Byzantium, archaeologist Milen Nikolov, Director of the Regional Museum of History in the Black Sea city of Burgas, has told the Desant magazine.
He is also the lead archaeologist for the Rusocastro Fortress, the largest medieval (Bulgarian and Byzantine) fortress in today’s Southeast Bulgaria, whose 6th century AD Byzantine fortress walls were demolished by the Second Bulgarian Empire in the 13th century to make them twice as massive.
Nikolov reminds that two lead ampule caps from the legendary medicine Theriac were discovered several years ago near the town of Sadovo, Sungurlare Municipality, Burgas District, in Southeast Bulgaria.
He points out that while Theriac was deemed a heal-all, it was actually invented as an antidote because of Theriac’s precursor, the Mithridatum (Mithridatium, Mithridaticum, or Mithridate), which is named after the ancient ruler who sponsored its invention.
The original mythical medicine, or antidote, was developed in the court of Mithridatus VI (r. 120 – 63 BC), King of the Kingdom of Pontus in Anatolia (Asia Minor), who fought numerous wars with the Roman Republic.
Mithridatus VI used prisoners to try out various poisons and antidotes but is also said to have tested some on himself, Nikolov notes, adding that, before that, in the 2nd century BC, Ancient Greek poet and physician Nicander of Colophon wrote a poem on poisons and antidotes addressed to Attalus III, King of Pergamon, an Ancient Greek polis on the Aegean coast of Anatolia.
The Theriac recipe was developed further in the 1st century AD by Andromachus the Elder, physician to Roman Emperor Nero, and in the 2nd century AD by Galen (Clauduis Galenus), physician to Roman Emperors Marcus Aurelius and Commodus.
“This medicine was extremely expensive for its time. Its precise ingredients were more than sixty. During the Middle Ages, Theriac was spread throughout Europe through Byzantium and by the Arabs from the Caliphate of Cordoba. That is why it is no wonder that after the 12th century, it was already produced not just in Constantinople and Cairo but also in Milan, Genoa, Padua, and Bologna. Yet, Venice was the largest center for its production," Nikolov explains.
The archaeologist emphasizes, however, that Theriac’s high price often led to its forging, and its efficiency in many cases was blamed precisely on fake ingredients.
That was why Venice used to hold a Theriac Festival every year on August 24, the Day of St. Bartholomew, during which pharmacists would present publicly the original ingredients for the production of the coveted panacea concoction.
Those included opium, the body of a male European viper killed at full moon, black pepper, cinnamon, ginger, anise, dill, reddish seeds, geranium, iris, centaury, St. John’s wort, cypress, bay tree, parsley, Greek wine, and “many others".
Similar medieval Theriac festivals were held in other European cities as well; for example, the Theriac festival in Nuremberg, Germany, organized by the local authorities lasted for two-and-a-half months.
The making of Theriac in Strasbourg in 1531. Photo: CC via archaeologist Milen Nikolov
Nikolov stresses that the real Theriac was supposed to mature for 12 years, after which it could be used to heal every disease, or at least the people in the Antiquity and the Middle Ages, and all the way to the Modern Age believed so.
Theriac was used by many European monarchs, including English Queen Elizabeth I (1558 – 1603), while French King Henry IV (1589 – 1610) showed interest in its production, the archaeologist points out.
“Almost unknown is the fact that Theriac had a direct relation to a very important moment of Bulgarian history," Nikolov says, referring to an episode from the Bulgarian – Byzantine Wars revealed in “History" by Byzantine Emperor John VI Cantacuzenus (r. 1347 – 1354), who later became a monk and a historian.
The wars between the Bulgarian Empire and Byzantium (the Eastern Roman Empire) began in the 7th century AD, with the inception of the former as it quickly began to encroach upon the domain of the latter.
In 1018, Byzantium succeeded in destroying and conquering what become known as the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680 – 1018), only to see a rebellion in 1185 give birth to the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185 – 1396/1422), after two earlier rebellions in 1040 and 1072 came close to doing so.
In spite of occasional periods of piece sometimes spanning for some 20-30 years, the Bulgarian – Byzantine Wars were incessant. They did not stop even when Constantinople was conquered by the Western European Crusaders from the 4th Crusade in 1204, and Byzantium technically ceased to exist – as two of its three successor states, the Despotate of Epirus, and the Empire of Nicaea, kept on the on-and-off wars with the Second Bulgarian Empire.
With the Nicaean Empire eventually managing to restore the Byzantine Empire in 1261 by reconquering Constantinople and destroying the Latin Empire of the Crusader knights, and the Second Bulgarian Empire already in decline, including thanks to Mongol (Tatar) attacks from the northeast, the Bulgarian – Byzantine Wars got a new impetus.
They continued way into the 14th century, all the way until both formerly great medieval powers had been conquered by the invading Ottoman Turks ushering into the five-century rule of the Ottomans over the entire Balkan Peninsula.
The last major victory of the medieval Bulgarian Empire against the Byzantine Empire was achieved in the Battle of Rusocastro, in 1331, a full 651 years after the first – that in the Ongal Battle of 680.
The historical episode in which the ancient heal-all Theriac played a role, according to Byzantine Emperor and historian John Cantacuzenus, supposedly came in 1323, in the last decades of Bulgarian – Byzantine Wars before the Ottoman Turks started to invade the Balkan Peninsula, respectively Europe.
Archaeologist Milen Nikolov explains that, according to Cantacuzenus, Despot Voysil, a major Bulgarian feudal lord with large estates in today’s Central South Bulgaria and younger brother of a former Bulgarian Emperor, Tsar Smilets (r. 1292 – 1298), was supporting Byzantine Emperor Andronicus III Palaeologus (r. 1328 – 1342) in his war against the new Bulgarian Tsar, Mihail III Shishman (r. 1323 – 1330).
Voysil had actually become allied with the Byzantines much earlier, and had also fought against the two previous Bulgarian Tsars, Todor (Theodore) Svetoslav (r. 1300 – 1321), and Georgi II Terter (1321 – 1323).
He made a comeback to his estate following Georgi Terter’s death, with the aid of Andronicus III, after a 23-year-long exile.
Andronicus III himself first rebelled against his grandfather, Byzantine Emperor Andronicus II Palaeologus (r. 1282 – 1328), was crowned Co-Emperor of Byzantium alongside him as a result, and managed to depose him in 1328.
“The episode in question most probably occurred in 1323," Nikolov says, elaborating that, following an unsuccessful siege of Philipopolis (today’s city of Plovdiv in Central South Bulgaria), the then still wannabe Byzantine Emperor Andronicus III set up camp in the town of Potuka (believed to have been located in the Kazanlak Valley in Central South Bulgaria).
Before that, however, he send out his Bulgarian ally, Despot Voysil, to gather more troops from his feudal estates around his main town, Kopsis (today’s Anevo Kale Fortress near Sopot in Central South Bulgaria).
Kopsis, the main town of Despot voysil, also known as the Anevo Kale Fortress, in Central South Bulgaria. Photos: Wikipedia, Wikipedia
Nikolov explains that Andronicus III intended to have a major battle with the Bulgarian Tsar Mihail III Shishman, whose camp was a day’s ride away from the Byzantine forces.
Unexpectedly, however, a few days later messengers arrived in Andronicus III’s camp bringing the news that Voysil had died.
The news scared off the Byzantine leader, leading him to retreat southeast all the way to Andrianople (Ordin, today’s Edirne in Turkey), since his army was smaller than Mihail III Shishman’s forces, and Voysil was supposed to contribute 3,000 troops, the archaeologist says.
“Eight days later, another messenger from Kopsis came to Adrianople revealing that Voysil had eaten poisonous mushrooms, and that he had spent three days in such a lethargic and torpid state that everybody thought he had been dead," Nikolov says.
According to Cantacuzenus, the messenger told Andronicus III that Voysil had made a full recovery but only after he had been given the medicine Theriac.
While Voysil’s failure to bring reinforcements to Andronicus III did hamper the offensive plans of the Byzantine leader against the new Bulgarian Tsar, the Despot’s recovery attributed to the Theriac medicine, does not seem to have made a positive difference for Byzantium in the conflict.
Tsar Mihail III Shishman advanced on Voysil’s main town, Kopsis, besieged it, and captured it, and regained all of his estates for the Second Bulgarian Empire up until the area was conquered by the Ottoman Turks several decades later, under Tsar Ivan Shishman (r. 1371 – 1395).
Voysil, however, had managed to escape from Kopsis beforehand, and flee to his ally, Byzantine Emperor Andronicus III. Subsequently, is known to have participated in the civil war in Byzantium in 1341 – 1347 on the site of John Cantacuzenus.
Tsar Mihail III Shishman’s rule over the Second Bulgarian Empire, however, proved short-lived as in 1330, he was wounded and died as a result during the Battle of Velbazhd (today’s Kyustendil in Western Bulgaria) where he had carelessly left his army to search for food when it was attacked and wiped out by the Serbian army.
The Second Bulgarian Empire, Byzantium, and Serbia ca. 1330, at the end of the reign of Tsar Mihail III Shishman. Map: Wikipedia
After putting forth the episode in which Theriac played a role in the last Bulgarian – Byzantine Wars, archaeologist Milen Nikolov points out that the alleged panacea was in use all the way until the second half of the 19th century.
“However, it was expensive and thus affordable only to the rich," he says, adding that several Venetian pharmacies – “At the Golden Head", “The Two Moors", “At the Emperor’s Cedar" – had specialized in the production of Theriac in the 17th – 19th century.
“In order to guarantee the quality of their medical concoctions, these pharmacies would seal their ampules with special lead caps featuring their company logos," Nikolov notes.
He reveals that the two Theriac ampule caps discovered in Sadovo in Southeast Bulgaria are from the early 19th century.
One is a cap from a Theriac ampule produced by the “At the Golden Head" pharmacy in Trieste, Italy, and the second is from the “At the Golden Head" pharmacy in Venice.
“Both lead ampule caps feature a laurel wreath on the right, and a two-headed eagle, the coat of arms of the Austrian imperial family. This shows that the caps are from ampules produced after 1797 when the cities in question became part of the Austrian Empire. Both of the caps found in Sadovo are original, unlike many fakes discovered in a number of locations in Bulgaria," says the Director of the Burgas Museum of History.
He adds that several Bulgarian archaeologists such as Todor Gerasimov (1903 – 1974), Yordanka Yurukova (1946 – 2012), and Valentin Pletnyov (1962 – 2017) have identified numerous caps from forged Theriac from among those discovered in Bulgaria.
“The fake caps were made unskillfully, and feature unclear or very coarse images. An especially large number of [caps from ampules with fake Theriac] has been found in Istanbul, Turkey, which shows that the city was one of the centers for the production of fake Theriac," Nikolov explains.
He points out that six caps from ampules with fake Theriac have also been found in the Bulgarian Black Sea city of Varna, which leads to the assumption that fake Theriac might have been produced there as well.