A Scent of Luxury, or Reading Aetius of Amida’s “Libri medicinales” in a New Context

By Zofia Rzeźnicka

Dealing with the consequences of perspiration in the Roman period has already been discussed on the blog by Cari Casteel, who, referring to Latin source material, showed that unpleasant bodily smell was perceived as a pressing social problem at that time. Little wonder, then, that the Romans were familiar with the production of various deodorising preparations able to arrest or attenuate unpleasant bodily odour, which is, for instance, testified by Pliny’s Naturalis historia.

A figure lounges in a bath, while a clothed attendant washes their left arm.
Fig. 1. Detail from Lawrence Alma-Tadema, “A Favourite Custom,” 1909. Tate Gallery, London. Public Domain.


I would like to return to this topic, though on a different literary corpus, and for a slightly different purpose than Cari Casteel. I will instead focus on a fragment found in Libri medicinales by Aetius of Amida (6th c. AD) – which the author took from the lost treatise Cosmetica penned by Criton of Heraclea (2nd c. AD) – in order to prove that medical literature contains important data on both social and economic history.

To those wishing to eliminate excessive perspiration, Aetius of Amida recommends fragrant pills called katapásmata,[i]the strength of which, as we can assume from the chapter, was adjusted to the season. For instance, in summer, when the problem of intensive sweating was especially troublesome, the physician recommended the so-called theriná, i.e. the most effective deodorants for the hottest time of the year.[ii]

One of them was a preparation termed euódes therinón, made from a combination of dried roses, cassia-cinnamon, cardamom, costus, nard and the styptic agent called styptería (most probably alum). According to the recipe, the ingredients were mixed with a fragrant and long-matured wine, and the resultant paste was shaped into pills which were left to dry in a shaded place. Before application, they were crushed and sieved, and the obtained powder was sprinkled over the body and rubbed into the skin during a bath to be finally rinsed off with cold water.[iii]

Three nude figures bathe beneath a spouting fountain.
Fig. 2. Lawrence Alma-Tadema, “Strigils and Sponges” (1879). Public domain, care of WikiMedia Commons.

Let us note that each of the above ingredients had its specific function; styptería was to close skin pores,[iv] while substances such as roses, cassia-cinnamon, cardamom, costus and nard were included to provide the body with a pleasant scent. Since the fragrant components (except for roses) were not native to the Mediterranean, they would have had to be imported from far-flung regions of the Greco-Roman civilisation (which undoubtedly meant that the cost of their transportation was high).[v] Their inclusion in the recipe would have considerably increased the price of the cosmetic, and, consequently, made it only accessible to those who were affluent. This conclusion seems to be corroborated by Aetius’ remark that the preparation was carefully massaged into the body in a bath-house, because it suggests that this sort of care products were produced for people with enough leisure time to regularly afford such a visit, i.e. that their everyday life was not filled entirely with professional duties. As bath-houses were mainly located in urban areas it seems that the discussed cosmetic was usually made use of by city dwellers. Last but not least, despite reading in the introduction to the passage on katapásmata that they were used both by men and women, the fact that Aetius’ narration mentions women first, and that the noun “women” is preceded by the phrase “not only” suggests that the latter applied them more frequently. Thus, it seems that in Antiquity and later in the Byzantine period, women were more concerned with the impression they made on other people than men.

The above data is merely a sample of how the ingredients of medical prescriptions recommended by physicians reflected social and economic divisions in the Empire. Hopefully, further analysis of medical works will complement our knowledge of certain economic and social aspects of everyday life.


Dr. Zofia Rzeźnicka is an assistant professor at the Ceraneum Centre, University of Lodz, Poland and is interested in ancient and early Byzantine pharmacopeia and food history.


[i] Aetius of Amida, Libri medicinales, VIII, 7: II 410, 23 – 412, 16 Olivieri (1950).

[ii] Aetius of Amida, Libri medicinales, VIII, 7: II 410, 24 – 411, 4 Olivieri (1950).

[iii] Aetius of Amida, Libri medicinales, VIII, 7: II 411, 4–9 Olivieri (1950).

[iv] Cf. Dioscorides, De materia medica, V, 106, 1–6: III 75, 13 – 77, 12 Wellmann (1914) (styptic properties of styptería – V, 106, 4: III 76, 15).

[v] Even though we do not possess any accurate data on the prices of the mentioned substances in the time of Aetius of Amida’s professional activity, in the chapter devoted to hair thinning preparations (Aetius of Amida, Libri medicinales, VI, 65: II 211, 22 – 212, 15 Olivieri [1950]), the physician writes expressis verbis that ‘the rich’ can enhance the aroma of the medicaments inter alia with nard, cardamom and costus, see Aetius of Amida, Libri medicinales, VI, 65: II 212, 9–12 Olivieri (1950). Cassia-cinnamon is also listed as one of the ingredients of a medicament for the rich in the chapter on ointments for oral cavities, see Aetius of Amida, Libri medicinales, VIII, 47: II 467, 21 – 469, 7 Olivieri (1950) (cassia-cinnamon – VIII, 47: II 468, 6–7).


Cite this blog post
Jess Clark (2023, September 1). A Scent of Luxury, or Reading Aetius of Amida’s “Libri medicinales” in a New Context. The Recipes Project. Retrieved June 17, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/vvby

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