Wild Thyme, Bitter Almonds, and Extract of Beavers – The Medicinal Recipes of Scribonius Largus

By Ianto Jocks

Written in the mid-first century CE, the Compositiones medicamentorum (The Composition of Remedies, sometimes simply translated as Recipes) of Scribonius Largus falls into the same historical context as the more famous works of Celsus, Pliny the Elder, and Dioscorides, but have – undeservedly – received much less attention. Scribonius provided an account of his practical medical knowledge, obtained during the reigns of Roman emperors Tiberius and Claudius, in form of a pharmacological recipe book written at the behest of his patron Callistus. It includes a preface discussing medical ethics and pharmacotherapy, and 271 recipes providing practical instructions for the composition and administration of remedies against various complaints. While the recipes are intriguing in their own right, the Compositiones furthermore make for a fascinating study as Scribonius tends to supplement his practical instructions with comments on medical ethics, contemporary life, or other medical practitioners.

The Compositiones indicate the continuity of human concerns for their health, covering treatments of potentially life-threatening ailments, such as tumours and fevers, as well as those less dangerous but nevertheless detrimental to well-being, such as disfiguring scars and various aches. One recipe from the latter category provides a good example of Scribonius’ approach to pharmacotherapy and recipe formulation:

V. Against headache, when it is of long standing, this composition acts favourably:

1 denarius[1] of myrrh
2 denarii of saffron
2 denarii of bitter almond
3 denarii of green/ fresh rue
1 denarius of cow parsnip
1 denarius of panax
3 denarii of laurel berries
2 denarii of wild thyme
1 denarius of castoreum

These all are ground with vinegar and pastilles are made. When there is need, they are diluted with vinegar and rose (oil) to the consistency of honey, and then the forehead and temples are coated (with this).

Some of the ingredients entering the composition of Scribonius Largus' headache remedy
Some of the ingredients entering the composition of Scribonius Largus’ headache remedy

This recipe (chapter 5) is included in one of the eleven chapters dedicated to the treatment of headaches. Scribonius shows little interest in theorising about the nature of disease, but instead provides practical instructions for the creation of remedies. As demonstrated here, he generally gives precise weights and measures for the individual components, but occasionally leaves matters to expertise – vinegar and rose oil quantities are to be added based on the consistency of the final product. In terms of the ingredients, Scribonius’ recipe uses a variety of botanical components, as well as one animal remedy (castoreum is an extract from the scent glands of beavers; although no longer medicinally used, it is still encountered in perfumes and occasionally as a food additive). As such, this recipe provides an example of polypharmacy, the use of multiple drugs to compose a single remedy, which is frequently encountered in ancient pharmacology. Here Scribonius’ use of nine initial components constitutes a rather modest example – the most famous remedies, particularly antidotes such as Theriac and Mithridatium (which drew additional popularity and legitimacy from their traditional attribution to king Mithridates VI of Pontus), could include more than fifty ingredients, many of them expensive and complicated to obtain.

It may come as a surprise that many of the drugs used by Scribonius can still be easily purchased today, even though the internet will nowadays often take the role of the drug peddlers (pharmakopolae) of Scribonius’ days. While they are less frequently encountered in a medicinal context, we still use them as culinary herbs and spices, as ingredients for herbal or medicinal teas, or as resins and oils to be burned or cosmetically used for their pleasing smells. Others, however, remain elusive; while access to a few ingredients is now restricted (opium is the obvious example), the problem is more frequently that we do not exactly know what plant or substance Scribonius means. For example, the Oxford Latin Dictionary provides six different identifications for the plant panax alone, one of them simply ‘an unknown plant’. As such, the study of ancient pharmacological texts is always fascinating and rewarding, but occasionally poses questions to which there is no clear or definite answer.

Medical treatment has changed much over the centuries, but in the study of pharmacological recipes we can find a degree of continuity. People were and are plagued by headaches, and a vast range of different remedies was and is available. Scribonius describes how to make pills against headache, but they are not to be taken internally, but dissolved again and rubbed into the temples. While painkillers to be ingested are the most common modern form of treatment, this is reminiscent of the use of lavender oil or other soothing ointments available as alternative treatments today. As such, there is much of modern relevance and interest to be found in this first century recipe book.

[1] A denarius is both a Roman coin and a unit of weight estimated at around 3.9 g


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