Flower power: Cato’s medicinal recipes

By Jane Draycott

Marcus Porcius Cato (234-149 BCE) is often presented as the archetypal example of the ancient Roman head of the household taking charge of his family members’ health, the result of claims made by Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE) in his encyclopaedia Natural History:

For [Cato] adds the medical treatment by which he prolonged his own life and that of his wife to an advanced age, by these very remedies in fact with which I am now dealing, and he claims to have a notebook of recipes, by the aid of which he treated his son, servants, and household. 

[Pliny, Natural History 29.8.15]

A bucolic scene featuring a walled garden, Red Room, Villa of Agrippa Postumus, Boscoreale
A bucolic scene featuring a walled garden, Red Room, Villa of Agrippa Postumus, Boscoreale

The Greek historian Plutarch (c. 40-120 CE) offers more detail in his Parallel Lives, describing Cato’s theories, methods and practices, which show strong parallels with those utilised by the period’s physicians:

[Cato] had written a book of recipes, which he followed in the treatment and regimen of any who were sick in his family. He never required his patients to fast, but fed them on greens, or bits of duck, pigeon, or hare.  Such a diet, he said, was light and good for sick people, except that it often causes dreams. By following such treatment and regimen he said he had good health himself, and kept his family in good health. [Plutarch, Life of Cato the Elder 23.4]

Both Pliny and Plutarch offer Cato’s longevity as proof of his medical capabilities, at least in respect of himself (his wife and one of his sons predeceased him). Unfortunately, Cato’s book of recipes has not survived. What has is his treatise On Agriculture, the very first such work to be written in Latin, which dates to around 160 BCE. The treatise was directed at a very specific audience: young men who, thanks to Rome’s recent triumph in the Second Punic War, were in a position to purchase fertile agricultural land in central Italy, along with sufficient slaves to enable them to cultivate grapes and olives in order to produce wine and oil for sale, but who were not in possession of sufficient knowledge or experience as to how to proceed beyond that. The priority is economic self-sufficiency and investment potential, with as much as possible being produced on the estate, for use on the estate, hence the prominent place the garden takes in Cato’s list of requirements: a garden can be used to grow fruit, vegetables, flowers, and herbs not only for food, but also for medicine.

The prescriptions and recipes found in On Agriculture indicate that, in addition to acting as a healer for the human members of his household, Cato also acted as a veterinarian for his livestock (oxen, cattle, and sheep are all mentioned specifically), and recommended that others do the same. Throughout the text the authority of the master – which, it is made clear, results from a combination of knowledge and experience – is emphasised, as is the importance of drawing upon the resources immediately to hand, those grown on the estate, predominantly in the garden. Of Cato’s numerous prescriptions and recipes for the treatment of both humans and animals, the ingredients required are all those which he either explicitly states were cultivated within his garden, or were likely to have been.

Pomegranates, Garden Room, Villa of Livia, Prima Porta
Pomegranates, Garden Room, Villa of Livia, Prima Porta

In conjunction with Cato’s recommendation that, if an estate is located near a town, the garden should be used to cultivate flowers for garlands, he lists those he considers to be the most suitable: ‘white and black myrtle, Delphian, Cyprian, and wild laurel, smooth nuts, such as Abellan, Praenestine, and Greek filberts’ (On Agriculture 8.2). Elsewhere in the treatise, laurel leaves appear in a recipe for a tonic for oxen, while black myrtle is a main ingredient in a recipe for indigestion and colic (On Agriculture 70 and 125). In a remedy for indigestion and strangury, he includes pomegranates, instructing his reader to ‘gather pomegranate blossoms when they open’, thus implying that these plants were within easy reach (On Agriculture 127). Pomegranates also appear in a recipe for ‘gripes, for loose bowels, for tapeworms and stomach-worms, if troublesome’ (On Agriculture 126). The wine and oil produced on the estate are also frequently enlisted in Cato’s medicaments, both as primary and secondary ingredients. With regard to wine, the addition of black hellebore is recommended to make a laxative, while that of juniper is recommended to treat the retention of urine, and gout, while the amurca that results from the production of olive oil is enlisted (along with wine) as a treatment for scab in sheep (On Agriculture 114, 115, 122, 123, 96).

It would appear that in respect of domestic medical practice, Cato very much practiced what he preached!


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