Thinking and trying the experiment in the study of Roman pharmacy

By Ianto Jocks

In continuing my investigation of Scribonius Largus, the first century CE author of a recipe book I have previously written about, I am frequently puzzled by some of the practical aspects of his recipes. This is in part because I am approaching a practical manual written for contemporaries who had personal familiarity with Roman medicine – as both doctors and patients – from a theoretical and unfamiliar perspective. Drawing inspiration from more hands-on approaches to historical recipes, such as the Making and Knowing Project or the recreation of one of Scribonius’ toothpastes by A. E. and M. Singer [1],  I decided to acquire some first-hand experience with Roman medicine myself.

One of the puzzling recipes is the very first remedy in Scribonius’ work, opening the section on headache cures. It reads:

For headache, even when <the patient is> feverish, a quarter pound (ca. 82 g) of wild thyme and a quarter pound of dried rose work well in the first days. These are boiled with two sextarii (ca. 1094 mL) of vinegar, until it has been reduced to half <its volume>. From this a cyathus (ca. 46 g or mL) is taken and mixed in two <cyathi> (ca. 92 g or mL) of rose [or rose oil] and from this the head is often healed: for when what has been spread on has grown warm, it harms, unless something fresh should be added there.

While the instructions for doctor and patient are reasonably clear, questions remain about the practicalities. What consistency does the vinegar reduction have – is it still reasonably liquid, or do the quantities of herbs make it more of a herb paste? What about the second occurrence of ‘rose’? In the ancient world, rosa can refer to both the parts of the flower and the oil produced by steeping rose petals in olive (or another) oil. Usually, terms such as arida – dry – are used to qualify and clarify the material required. However, this addition, which would be highly useful for me, is frequently not considered important by Scribonius. In accordance with the advice of 18th century surgeon and scientist John Hunter – “Why think, why not try the experiment?” [2] – I proceeded to resolve the issues of consistency and rose vs. rose oil, which I had been unable to do by thinking alone, from a practical perspective.

Rose, thyme, and vinegar (here represented by water) quantities required by Scribonius' recipe
Rose, thyme, and vinegar (here represented by water) in the quantities required by Scribonius’ recipe

In comparison to other Scribonian recipes, this headache remedy is a good candidate for experimentation. It uses four locally available ingredients in relatively conservative quantities – by contrast, other remedies in Scribonius’ work include up to 41 ingredients, many of them imported, expensive, and required in large quantities. Conveniently, my ingredients came from a pharmacy, ready-dried and quality-controlled, so I did not need to consult Scribonius’ near-contemporary Dioscorides for information on how to harvest and dry plants and how to spot adulteration. As the quantities of thyme and rose on my kitchen table were still quite large, however, I opted for only using a quarter of the original recipe.

1/4 of Scribonius' measures, used for the experiment
1/4 of Scribonius’ measures, used for the experiment

I made similar concessions to modern practicalities when selecting ingredients and preparation methods. My vinegar came from the supermarket rather than being the product of domestic wine consumption, and both my scales and my source of heat were electric rather than mechanical or requiring open fire. But by making my modern version of a first century remedy, I nevertheless learned a lot about the practical side of Scribonius’ work. Furthermore, I got a much better idea of the preparation process, consistency, and smell of a first century headache cure than I had previously gained from studying the text alone.

In the end, even in my well-ventilated modern kitchen the remedy produced rather than cured a mild headache due to the strong smell of boiling vinegar. Scribonius was evidently more concerned with the comfort of the patient than than that of anyone else involved in preparing remedies.

One dose (1 cyathus of the remedy mixed with 2 cyathi of rose oil) of Scribonius' headache cure
One dose (1 cyathus of the remedy mixed with 2 cyathi of rose oil) of Scribonius’ treatment for headaches

The remedy itself turned out to be a not necessarily unpleasant-smelling mixture of predominantly thyme and vinegar, somewhat overpowered by the smell of the olive oil I used to make my version of rose oil. The practical experimentation confirmed my suspicion that the second rosa has to be the oil rather than the petals, otherwise the two components couldn’t be mixed, let alone applied. I was nevertheless left with further questions – was the initial mixture to have that high a herbs-to-vinegar ratio? Is the final mixture supposed to be that runny, or are my measurements incorrect? Are there tips and tricks which Scribonius assumed the reader knew and leaves unmentioned which other historical writers do include in their work? Here theoretical exploration and experimental practice can be used together to gain further insights into the practical aspects of first century Roman pharmacy – or, to adapt Hunter’s words, to think AND try the experiment.

[1] Singer, A. E. and M. Singer, M. “An Ancient Dentifrice,” The Classical Weekly 43 (1950): 217–18.
[2] Letter to Edward Jenner, August 2, 1775

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