Something old – something new: Greek and Roman recipes in focus

By Laurence Totelin

A Roman coin showing the god Janus. Source: http://www.livius.org/ja-jn/janus/janus.html
A Roman coin showing the god Janus. Source: http://www.livius.org/ja-jn/janus/janus.html

The double-faced Roman god Janus presided over transitions: transitions from war to peace, from month to month, and from year to year. The Romans celebrated him on the Kalends of January, the first day of the year. The festivities are described most fully by the poet Ovid (first century CE) in his Fasti, where the offerings to Janus are described as wine, frankincense, cakes and meal sprinkled with salt (Book 1, lines 75, 128, 172). Later in that same poem, Ovid indicated that the offering of such simple products as cakes, meal and salt harked back to a past when imported and luxury products were not available:

Of old the means to win the goodwill of gods for man were spelt and the sparkling grains of pure salt. As yet no foreign ship had brought across the ocean waves the bark-stilled myrrh; the Euphrates had sent no incense, India no balm. And the red saffron’s filaments were still unknown.

(Ovid, Fasti 1.337-342; translation: James Frazer).

The cake offered to Janus was called “janual” (Festus, s.v. janual). According to Cato the Elder (second century BCE), author of a famous work On Agriculture, heaps of such cakes were sacrificed to the god before the harvest (On Agriculture 134). Unfortunately, we do not have any recipe for the janual, but Cato transmits a couple of recipes for cakes used for sacrificial purposes – the libum and the placenta – which may have been somewhat similar (On Agriculture 75-76).

The Recipes Project cannot offer you cakes to celebrate the Kalends of January 2015, but it can present you this series about Greek and Roman recipes instead. Helen King and I have devoted several Recipes Project posts to these ‘old’ recipes, but for the series we have enrolled three brand new bloggers: Jane Draycott, Ianto Jocks and David Leith. Their posts will demonstrate – if there was any need – how much there is still to study about ancient recipes.

Jane opens the series with Cato the Elder, who is familiar to all classicists, but whose recipes are still understudied. She shows how Cato exploited the produce from his ideal farm, and in particular from its garden, in his medicinal and veterinary recipes. Ianto turns to Scribonius Largus (first century CE), one of the most neglected of classical writers, the author of the wonderful Compositiones (Compositions of Remedies). Ianto focusses more particularly on a recipe to cure a headache which includes, among other ingredients, castoreum. The ancients believed that substance to originate from the testes of beavers (in fact, it comes from a gland located near the anus) – we are here far from the hearty garden produce praised by Cato, that great admirer of cabbage. David discusses recipes preserved on a papyrus dating to around 400 CE, but which may originate from a much earlier period.

A medieval miniature representing a beaver biting off his testes to avoid been killed by a hunter for its castoreum. Source: http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2012/11/beavers-on-the-run.html
A medieval miniature representing a beaver biting off his testes to avoid been killed by a hunter for its castoreum.
Source: http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2012/11/beavers-on-the-run.html

There are particular issues surrounding the study of ancient Greek and Latin recipes. Many texts are not translated into any modern language. In the case of Scribonius’ Compositions of Remedies there is no complete English translation. Translators have avoided that arduous task partly because it is sometimes impossible to identify ingredients listed in ancient recipes. It is important, however, not to use this obstacle as an excuse to neglect texts that are a rich source for social, economic, and medical history. As our bloggers show, one can still study an ancient recipe even though not all its ingredients are identifiable.

Studying ancient recipes can also be difficult when one is faced with fragmentary evidence, which is particularly the case for recipes preserved on papyrus. In antiquity, texts were copied onto papyrus, a very fragile material that survives only in certain climatic conditions. The climates of Greece and Rome are not favourable to the preservation of papyrus. However, the Greek and Roman worlds extended well beyond modern Greece and Italy, and included (from the end of the fourth century BCE onwards) one country in which papyrus survives quite well: Egypt. This explains why the Greek-language papyrus studied by David in his post was found in that country.

We hope you will enjoy our ‘Janual’ series on Greek and Roman recipes and that you will join in the discussion! Salve as they say in Latin.

You’ll thank me later

In my previous post, I presented a comic parody of an ancient eye-remedy. That recipe, created by the comedian Aristophanes, was too horrid to be true. Yet eye-remedies were far from pleasant in the ancient world. Witness the achariston, the ‘thankless’. There are various recipes for acharista (that’s the plural of achariston) preserved in ancient medical writings. The following one, transmitted by Galen, is representative of this lovely (not) type of medicament:

Oculist stamp  Roman Britain, 1-4 century CE, Kenchester  Herefordshire This stamps bears the inscription: 'Titus Vindacius Ariovistus',  Source: British Museum
Oculist stamp
Roman Britain, 1-4 century CE, Kenchester
Herefordshire
This stamps bears the inscription: ‘Titus Vindacius Ariovistus’,
Source: British Museum

The so-called ‘thankless’ against persistent flows of tears. Physicians who used it, in Egypt only, were succefsul, especially when using it on rustics: cadmia, 16 drams; acacia, 8 drams; burnt, washed copper, 8 drams; opium, 4 drams; seed of tree heath, 4 drams; myrrh 4 drams; gum, 16 drams. Take up with water. Use with woman’s milk.  (Galen, Remedies according to Places 4, 12.749 Kühn).

It is fair to say that this remedy, before curing any flow of tears, would have made the eye cry some more. Each of the ingredients, taken separately, might have had a beneficial effect on the eye, but this remedy just goes for the rather brutal approach of accumulating as many unpleasant ingredients as possible. Thankfully, perhaps, the remedy had to be applied with woman’s milk,a very mild product, which midwives still recommend today for a baby’s sticky eyes.

These ingredients were crushed in a mortar, mixed with a small amount of water, then moulded into ‘lozenges’ and dried. These lozenges were light and easy to carry around. When a physician needed to apply the medicament, he (or the patient) crushed one of the lozenges and mixed it with a liquid – here woman’s milk. The remedy was then applied to the eyelids. Not that this particular recipe specifies any of this… One needs to have read quite a few ancient eye recipes to fill in the gaps left by Galen.

This recipe, on the other hand, gives some interesting and unusual details. The remedy was used ‘in Egypt only’. Eye-ailments seem to have been common in the land of the Nile, and eye-remedies are recorded in hieroglyphs on papyri from the Pharaonic period, going as far back as the second millennium BCE. By the time of Galen (second century CE), Egypt was a Roman province, whose elite spoke Greek (yes it’s all rather confusing). The ‘physicians’ mentioned in the recipe above were probably Greek-speaking, although it is not possible to exclude the possibility of Egyptian-speaking physicians.

Eye-shaped votive. Roman period.  Source: Wellcome images
Eye-shaped votive. Roman period.
Source: Wellcome images

The recipe also specifies that the remedy was particularly successful when used on ‘rustics’. The ancients believed that ‘rustics’ and members of the elite required different types of medicaments. Where peasants could cope with harsh, but very effective remedies, rich people, softened by their luxurious ways of life, needed milder concoctions.

Thankless eye-remedies did not just exist as texts in recipe books; they are also attested archaeologically. Ancient oculists used stamps to mark their medicines (the ‘lozenges’ I described above). Numerous stamps have been preserved. Some of these carry the inscription ‘acharistum’ (the Latin form of the Greek word achariston). One can just imagine a mother telling her reluctant child suffering from an eye disease: ‘You will thank me later’… or perhaps not!

‘One does not learn remedies through books’ (Aristotle)

By Laurence Totelin

My first love: Pellaprat's classic cookbook
My first love: Pellaprat’s classic cookbook

I love reading recipes. I guess that won’t come as a surprise; after all I have been working on the history of pharmacology for over ten years now. But this passion goes very far indeed. My first favourite book was Pellaprat’s Cuisine familiale et pratique (1974), which I dutifully pored over – and tore apart – from the age of one. When I read a recipe book, I feel myself surrounded, at times assaulted, by imagined smells, tastes, and visions (of sugarplums). Of course, I could not have this type of experience without growing up in a family of great cooks; I did not learn culinary skills through books, but through observation and experimentation. Most of my memories of my grand-mother are culinary in nature; and I spent hours sat on a chair in our kitchen watching my mum cook.

When I read the philosopher Aristotle’s statement whereby one cannot learn remedies through reading, I can’t help but agree:

Indeed one does not appear to become skilled in the art of medicine through books. And yet they attempt to describe not only the cures, but also how they might cure and how it is necessary to treat each individual, distinguishing his condition. But while these things seem useful to men of experience, they are useless to the inexperienced.

[Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics10.9, 1181b2-6]

Reading practical literature is useful for those who already have experience, but pointless for others; this does pose an issue when teaching ancient pharmacology in the modern classroom. Still, I believe written recipes, for all their dryness, can offer a very good entry point into a variety of topics. One of my favourite example here is a recipe found in a play by the great comedian Aristophanes. The god of healing, Asclepius, is treating patients who have come to his sanctuary in Athens. One of them is the corrupt politician Neocleides, whom Asclepius is not willing to cure:

Stele from Oropos (near Athens) showing a healing hero (Amphiaros) healing a patient. Fourth century BCE. Image courtesy of www.HolyLandPhotos.org
Stele from Oropos (near Athens) showing a healing hero (Amphiaros) healing a patient. Fourth century BCE. Image courtesy of www.HolyLandPhotos.org

First of all, for Neocleides, a remedy:

Asclepius undertook to knead a plaster, throwing in

Three heads of Tenian garlic. Then he crushed them

In a mortar, mixing them together with verjuice

And mastic. Then he soaked the mixture with Sphettian vinegar,

And he plastered it on, turning out the man’s eyelids,

To make him suffer more.

[Aristophanes, Plutus 716-721]

All three ingredients in this ‘remedy’ (garlic, verjuice and mastic) would have hurt the eyes. However, this recipe is not so far from the ancient medical reality. The ancients did use very strong ingredients to treat the eyes, but applied them outside the eyelid, not inside. Also, Greek medical authors, like Aristophanes, called their ingredients by their place of origin (Tenian garlic comes from Tenos, an Aegean island; Sphettian vinegar comes from Sphettos, a district of Athens). Clearly, Aristophanes was well-versed in ancient medicine. This short recipe, thus, offers a point of entry into the study of temple medicine; political satire; and the transmission of ancient medical ideas in the ancient world.

Dired rose, myrrh, orris (iris) root:  the three ingredients in my 'Greek' deodorant
Dired rose, myrrh, orris (iris) root: the three ingredients in my ‘Greek’ deodorant

Despite finding Aristophanes’ recipe fascinating, I appreciate that it needs much explication, as most ancient recipes do. I cannot expect every student to understand how painful this remedy would have been for Neocleides. I cannot expect them all to know what mastic is. Indeed, I cannot expect them all to have used a mortar and pestle. For these reasons, I have started to bring my experiments with ancient remedies to an audience near you. Recently, at a conference for teachers held at Cardiff University, I have replicated my attempts at producing an ancient deodorant made from iris root, myrrh, dried rose and wine. Passing the ingredients through the group allowed us to discuss our perception of these products; what memories they evoked; what we knew of their culture; etc. I learnt a lot – I hope the audience did too. They certainly left the room with a smile on their face. It remains for me to expand this experiment and re-create remedies with undergraduate students. I know that I will have to fill in health and safety forms, but I believe that it will be worth it. Here is an opportunity to appeal to various types of learning, and I would be a fool not to grab it!

Sweet as Honey

By Laurence Totelin

Yesterday I read some press releases about a fascinating Welsh research project (based at my University: Cardiff University) that will screen Welsh honey for antibiotic properties.  The aim is to find the Welsh answer to Manuka honey, by driving bees to flowers with the highest antibiotic properties. This project, if successful, will no doubt have significant positive medical, ecological, and economic implications. The press release mentions the use of medicinal honey since the Middle Ages. One should never take press releases too literally, but the history of employing honey medicinally goes much further than the Middle Ages. I will focus here on the Greek and Roman periods of antiquity, but honey was used in many cultures well before the Greeks started using writing.

A coin from ancient Ephesus, representing a bee. Source: wildwinds.com
A coin from ancient Ephesus, representing a bee. Source: wildwinds.com

Honey is one of the most common ingredients in Greek and Roman pharmacopoieias. It was taken orally as well as applied to the body.  What interests me here is the great care the ancients took to differentiate between types of honey. In particular, ancient recipes frequently and consistently ask for Attic honey. For instance, the Hippocratic text Internal Affections (end of the fifth, beginning of the fourth century BCE) has the following recipe for a ‘hip-disease’:

If this [previous treatment] does not help, purge with the following remedy: crush half a kotyle of cumin; chop into pieces an entire gourd, of the small and round variety, in a mortar; sprinkle with the finest red Egyptian natron, in the amount of a quarter of a mina; roast; pound finely; put these ingredients in a pot; pour in a kotyle of oil, half a kotule of honey; a kotyle of sweet white wine, and two kotylai of juice of beet. Boil these [ingredients] until they have the right consistency; pass them through a cloth; add to them a kotyle of Attic honey, if you do not want to boil they honey together with the other ingredients. If you do not have Attic honey, use some of the best honey and heat up in the mortar. If this clyster preparation is too thick, add the same wine to the recommended thickness. Use this as a clyster. [Hippocratic Corpus, Internal Affections 51]

Several interesting things here: first, the Attic honey is not the only ‘ethnic’ ingredient in this recipe: it also contains Egyptian natron. This use of geographically-qualified ingredients is a characteristic of ancient recipes. Second, the author understands that not everyone will have access to Attic honey and suggests using the best possible honey available if that is the case. Third, the recipe recommends not to boil the honey together with the other ingredients, possibly indicating an awareness that heat destroys some of the qualities of honey.

The Hippocratic authors do not tell us what made Attic honey special, but other medical authors tell us that Attic honey (and in particular the honey of Mount Hymettus) was special because the bees fed on thyme, which was itself an important medicinal herb. Some writers produced lists of plants that produced the sweetest honey (thyme, violets, asphodel, iris), and those that should be avoided (spurge, thapsia, wormwood, wild cucumber). According to Palladius, a fifth-century CE agronomist, these plants had to be avoided because their bitter taste would prevent the creation of sweetness (1.37).

The Greeks and Romans also mention poisonous honeys. The historian Xenophon (fourth century BCE) describes the effect of a poisonous honey to be found in the land of the Colchians (East Coast of the Black Sea, modern Georgia).

And swarms of bees were numerous there, and the soldiers who ate the honeycombs all went out of their mind, vomited and suffered from diarrhoea, and none of them was able to stand up; but those who had consumed only a little appeared like those who are extremely drunk; while those who had taken a lot seemed like mad or even dying men. Thus many lied there as if there had been a defeat, and there was much despondency. But the next day nobody had died, and around the same hour as they [had taken the honey], they came back to their senses. And on the third or fourth day they got up, as if after a poisoning (pharmakoposia). [Xenophon, Anabasis 4.8.20-21].

Unfortunately, Xenophon does not tell enough about the flora of the region to make a hypothesis about the nature of the plants upon which these bees fed. Pliny the Elder also describes a poisonous honey from Heracleia Pontica (on the Black Sea, modern Turkey), this time produced from a plant called ‘the goat killer’ (Natural History 21.74). I wonder whether modern apiculturists are aware of such poisonous honeys, and whether these dangerous honeys, taken in small doses, could be used medicinally? In any case, there is much scope for honey bioprospecting, and I wish my Cardiff colleague the best of luck!