All posts by iantojocks

I am a PhD student in Classics at the University of Glasgow where my research is concerned with the pharmacology and reception of Scribonius Largus; I am furthermore working towards an English translation of the Compositiones Medicamentorum. My background includes both sciences (chemistry, anatomy) and humanities (history, classics), and as such I try to approach medical history from an interdisciplinary angle. Beyond the history of pharmacology and chemistry (in theory and practice), I am interested in 19th and 20th century military surgery, anatomy past and present, and the use of modern technology to increase accessibility and impact of medico-anatomical museum collections

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

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