Roman remedy books?

By Helen King

If you know anything about food history, you’ll know about the ancient Roman writer, Apicius. His recipe book was reprinted in 2006 and is even available in an English translation; and you can get a pdf of the full text of 64 of the recipes at https://prospectbooks.co.uk/samples/CookingApicius.pdf

Elaine Leong’s recent post, http://recipes.hypotheses.org/367, reminded me about another sort of Roman book: the remedy books. Of course, as anyone on this blog knows, there is not much of a line between recipe and remedy…  Alun Withey’s post, http://recipes.hypotheses.org/59 about ‘what is a recipe collection?’ then made me think about this some more. So, here are some thoughts concerning collections in the ancient world.

Traditional Roman medicine is still something of a mystery. It seems to have been overshadowed by the medicine of the Greeks – despite the fact that the Romans conquered the Greeks in the second century BC. In this case, and in contrast to modern colonial history, it was the medicine of the conquered people that won the battle of the body; as the Roman poet Horace wrote, in many cultural fields Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit, ‘Captured Greece took captive her savage conqueror’.

So what was Roman medicine like before Greek medicine took over? We know that in around 160 BC, Cato the Elder (also known as Cato the Censor, 234-149 BC), wrote a book for the farmer and head of the household to use, called De agri cultura (On agriculture,  literally On the cultivation of the fields). The text survives. It includes recipes – for pudding, for porridge, for purges. In his Life of Cato, the Greek historian Plutarch later referred to a book written by Cato that does not survive: a recipe collection. Plutarch writes, ‘[Cato] himself had compiled a notebook (hypomnema) of recipes and used them for the diet or treatment of any members of his household who fell ill’. So, other than what we have in De agri cultura, what was in this book and how did it come into being? Perhaps, like early modern remedy collections, it was a ‘commonplace book’ of remedies Cato had picked up based on books he had read, or suggestions made by friends and family. Plutarch also tells us that Cato ‘never made his patients fast, but allowed them to eat herbs and morsels of duck, pigeon, or hare’ (Life of Cato 23). Sounds good so far!

We have a second source for this recipe/remedy collection. Here, in the Roman writer Pliny, it is called a commentarius, a word meaning treatise, notebook or memo. We find that it was kept by the head of household: Cato used it to treat ‘his son, servants, and household’. While Plutarch says Cato ‘himself’ compiled it, Pliny simply says that Cato ‘had’ such a book. Cato was rapidly anti-Greek. He warned against the dangers of Greek doctors, although in fact he uses enough Greek technical terms to make it clear that he had read Greek medicine for himself. So were some of the remedies in his collection taken from Greek books? And did other Roman heads of household own, or compile, collections like this one? And how did they organise them?

For that last question, we have one tantalising hint. The reason why Pliny tells us about the collection is that he says it is the origin of the recipes he gives in his Natural History. That collection of knowledge is organised in a very complicated way – it is nothing like a modern encyclopedia with an A-Z structure. Pliny implies that he has taken apart Cato’s notebook and put the recipes wherever they best fit for his purposes. So does that mean that they were arranged in some sort of structure by Cato? Cato would most likely have been writing on papyrus scrolls, so he may have just written down recipes as he acquired them, or he may have had a reorganised copy made. Perhaps, picking up an idea Elaine Leong explored, he wrote an index? The ancient world raises so many questions – and has so few answers!

Helen King is Professor of Classical Studies at the Open University; her interests range from ancient to early modern, and focus on gynaecology and obstetrics

On Pliny: Aude Doody, ‘Pliny’s Natural History’, Journal of the History of Ideas 70 (2009): http://jhi.pennpress.org/PennPress/journals/jhi/sampleArt1.pdf

Cato the Elder:


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2 thoughts on “Roman remedy books?

  1. What a fascinating post and a great image of Cato. Thanks Helen! I also look forward to reading the piece by Doody.

  2. Pingback: Carnivalesque #91 « Dr Kate Ash

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