The book contains more than 1,100 pharmacological recipes, the vast majority of them from the Historia naturalis of Pliny the Elder. Other sources include Celsus, Scribonius Largus, and Dioscorides. Most of the recipes contain a limited number of ingredients, and in contrast to more expansive and thorough collections such as the De medicamentis liber of Marcellus Empiricus, precise measurements in drachmae, denarii or other units are specified for only a few formulations.
Perhaps because Pliny's name was attached to it, the book enjoyed great popularity and influence, with many manuscript versions from the Middle Ages. It was often used as a handbook in monastic infirmaries.
The collection is also referred to as Medicina Plinii Secundi or Plinii valeriani, and its authorship is sometimes noted as “Pseudo-Pliny.” It was a major source for the Physica Plinii, a 5th- or 6th-century medical compilation.
The ingredients and methods in the Medicina Plinii are typical of Latin pharmacological handbooks. Materials may be botanical, animal-derived, or metallic; processes include decoction, emulsification, calcination and fermentation. Preparations may be applied topically, or consumed. Magic, perhaps to be compared with faith healing, was a regular feature of the manuals.
Following is a prescription for bloodshot eyes:
Use the blood of a dove or pigeon or partridge or turtledove as drops. Apply a decoction of spleenwort in honey and a wool bandage soaked with oil or wine. An application of rue root also makes it better.
Several treatments are listed for quartan fever (quartanis, probably malaria). The first requires a nail that was used in a crucifixion, which is to be bound to the head with a strip of cloth, or a rope from a cross, then sprinkled with carbonized cow manure. In the eight sentences of remedies — involving, among other substances, dill seed, hare's heart, a boy's urine, and a frog boiled in oil, not to mention the capture, ear-clipping, and release of a live mouse — the absence of syntactical transitions makes it less clear than in the work of Marcellus whether a sequence of treatment is meant or a series of alternatives offered. The chapter concludes with a charm and careful instructions to the practitioner:
You write the following on a virgin sheet of papyrus, which the patient is to wear fastened on his right wrist: "Back off from this person Gaius Seius, Fever, Solomon pursues you." In the same manner, bind bread and salt in linen suspended from a string and tie around a tree with a string and adjure the bread and salt three times: "My guests are to arrive tomorrow, watch out for them." He is to say this three times.
The sympathetic magic employed here (tree = person) is similar to arboreal healing charms in Cato the Elder and Marcellus. The name "Gaius Seius" (or "Gaius Lucius") was the Latin equivalent of John Doe; the patient's name was to be substituted. Magico-medical spells and inscriptions, as on amulets, frequently personify and apostrophize the ailment (here, "Fever"). The reference to Solomon is a perhaps unexpected but not unusual reminder of the syncretistic, international character of Hellenistic magic.
As Calvert Watkins has pointed out, “magical, carminative medicine was in Indo-European culture and society a manifestation of the power of the spoken word,” and was one of the three modes of healing: surgery, botanical pharmacology, and formulaic magic. As recipients of this tradition, Greek and Roman medical writers offered magical, verbal therapies along with theoretical and empirical approaches. From the perspective of modern medicine, the irrational element can perhaps be overemphasized; it should be noted that many remedies in the Medicina Plinii, such as a topical cream for sores made from bear fat and red clay, or any number of potent herbal preparations, are typical of traditional medicine and contain active ingredients with demonstrated effect.
Önnerfors, Alf. Plinii secundi iunioris qui feruntur de medicina libri tres. Corpus Medicorum Latinorum 3. Berlin 1964.