Category Archives: Series: Ancient Egyptian Studies

Wormy beer and wet nursing in the Roman Empire

Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, on a Attic black-figure amphora, sixth century BCE. Source: Wikipedia
Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, on a Attic black-figure amphora, sixth century BCE. Source: Wikipedia

As pointed out by Elaine Leong in a recent post, beer is a favourite topic at The Recipes Project. As a Belgian, I felt I should perhaps add something to the subject. As a classicist, however, I rarely encounter beer. Famously, the Greeks and Romans were wine drinkers, and considered beer a Barbarian beverage. Still, ancient medical texts do give us some information on beer. The pharmacologist Dioscorides (first century CE) describes two types of beer:

Beer (zuthos) it is prepared with barley. It is diuretic and has an effect on the kidneys and tendons. It is particularly harmful for the membranes [of the brain?]. It causes flatulence and produces bad humours, and it causes elephantiasis. Horn becomes easy to work when soaked in this drink.

The so-called kourmi is also prepared with barley; it is often drunk instead of wine. It causes headaches, is unwholesome and harmful to the nerves/sinews. In Western Spain and Britain, such drinks are also made with wheat. [Dioscorides, Materia Medica 2.87 and 88]

Clearly, Dioscorides is not selling these drinks to us. They cause all sort of troubles to those who consume them, some of which sound particularly unpleasant. While Dioscorides’ elephantiasis is most certainly not full-blown Proteus syndrome, its symptoms must have included painful swellings. In fact, the only positive property of beer according to the pharmacologist is to make horn malleable, which I guess is useful if you specialise in deer-antler carving. Interestingly, Dioscorides describes beer as a Celtic drink, omitting the fact that the Egyptians too were beer-drinkers.

Ancient Greek and Roman regimens and recipes rarely mention beer, which is no surprise when we consider Dioscorides’ view of the beverage. There is, however, one significant exception: the diet of the wet-nurse recommended by Antyllus, a second-century physician, whose precepts are preserved in the writings of Oribasius (fourth century CE). In the ancient world, arrangements between family members and neighbours to breastfeed each other’s children may have been common, but they have gone unrecorded. Paid wet-nurses, by contrast, may have been relatively exceptional, but they are well documented in written records. Hiring a wet-nurse was an expensive and difficult endeavour. Fortunately (or not, depending on one’s interpretation of the evidence), ‘experts’ were on hand to ditch out advice. Antyllus was one such expert. Here are his recommendations to deal with a wet-nurse’s insufficient milk supply:

[Recipe] to make the milk come abundantly in the breast: crush 5 or 6 worms that are found in the mud of the river, those that are called ‘the guts of the earth’; add dates, wine dregs, and rub together. Give it to the woman to drink in beer, telling her to wash herself and to fast beforehand. Give for 10 days and wonder at how abundant and good the milk is. [Oribasius, Libri incerti 34.6]

The Egyptian Nile on a Roman mosaic, Rome Palazzo Massimo alle Terme. Photo: Laurence Totelin
The Egyptian Nile on a Roman mosaic, Rome Palazzo Massimo alle Terme. Photo: Laurence Totelin

‘Yum-yum’ I hear you say. Interestingly, beer and dates remain used as galactagogues to this day, preferably without added worms. Antyllus’ recipe is almost certainly Egyptian. As already mentioned, the Greeks and Romans did not drink beer, but the Egyptians did. Date palms did not bear their fruits to maturity in Greece and Italy, but they did in Egypt. The muddy river mentioned by Antyllus must be the Nile.

At the time of Antyllus, Egypt was under Roman rule, and Alexandria in the Delta of the Nile was a famous centre of medical knowledge, perhaps one where Antyllus himself studied. As it happens, wet-nurse contracts from Roman Egypt have survived (see here for an example), although they remain silent on the nurse’s diet and never mention worms.

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
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!

The Recipes of Cleopatra

By Jennifer Park

In Robert Allott’s edited prose commonplace book, Wits Theater of the Little World (1599), he introduces a section on beauty with this line: “Cleopatra writ a booke of the preseruation of womens beauty.”[1]

Cléopâtre (étude) by Alexandre Cabanel, at the Musée des Beaux-Arts - Béziers. Image available on Wikimedia Commons.
Cléopâtre (étude) by Alexandre Cabanel, at the Musée des Beaux-Arts – Béziers. Image available on Wikimedia Commons.

Today’s post is an introductory foray into the figure of Cleopatra as an apparent source of medical knowledge in early modern England, with recipes that apparently come from the “Book of Cleopatra.” During the time when Shakespeare was believed to have been writing Antony and Cleopatra, Cleopatra’s book was mentioned in a range of early modern works. What’s fascinating about the recipes attributed to Cleopatra is that they appear in a wide range of works, from secrets to cosmetics to surgery and medicine to natural history and the natural sciences.

To provide a brief example, I’ll begin with a few recipes that dealt with the problem of hair loss, found in a work on surgery, as well as in a work on, surprisingly, insects. The first is physician Thomas Bonham’s The Chyrurgian’s Closet (1630), a posthumously published compilation of his medical work.[2] Cleopatra is listed as one of the “Authors of this Worke,” and is referenced in two brief unguent recipes to restore hair growth, a concern explored for the early modern period by Jennifer Evans and for Graeco-Roman antiquity by Laurence Totelin. The first recipe is for greater ease of hair renewal and growth:

Rx. Cort: arundinis, & Spuma nitri, ana {ounce} ss. picis liquida, q. s. f. vng. *. To restore hayre in an inueterate Alopecia [or baldness]. It will be [ B] very profitable daily to shaue the place, and to rub it with a lin|nen cloath, and then to anoint it, by which meanes the hayre will grow with more speed. Cleopatra. [3]

The other is to preserve hair from falling:

Rx. Brassicae aridae, q.s. stampe it cum aq: q.s. vnto the forme of an vng: *. To preserue haire from falling. Cleopatra. [4]

Cleopatra’s expertise in this domain also appears in Thomas Moffet’s work on insects, which was completed in manuscript form in the 1590s and posthumously published. In his section “On the use of Flies”, Moffet mentions a recipe purportedly contained in Cleopatra’s book in which flies are used to treat baldness.

Title page of Thomas Moffett's work on insects, posthumously published. Image available on Wikimedia Commons.
Title page of Thomas Moffett’s work on insects, posthumously published. Image available on Wikimedia Commons.

For Galen out of Saranus, Ascle|piades, Cleopatra, and others, hath taken many Medicines against the disease called Alopecia or the Foxes evill; and he useth them either by themselves or mingled with other things. For so it is written in Cleopatra’s Book de Ornatu. Take five grains of the heads of Flies, beat and rub them on the head affected with this disease, and it will certainly cure it. [5] 

[Nam Galenus é Sarano, Asclepiade, Cleopatra, & aliis, medicamenta contra alopeciam exscripsit: iisdénique nunc solis nunc mixtis usus est. Sic enim in libro Cleopatrae de ornatu scribitur: R. muscarum capita.g.v. contere et affrica capiti alopeciâ laboranti, & certò sanabitur.] [6]

That Thomas Bonham and Thomas Moffet, who practiced medicine around the turn of the seventeenth century, both reference Cleopatra for these hair-related remedies establishes that they took for granted Cleopatra’s perceived expertise in this area.

Cleopatra’s medical knowledge primarily passed into early modern use through the work of Galen, the Greek physician whose work on the four humors would form the foundation of early modern medical beliefs about the body. Laurence Totelin, for example, provides an example of a recipe in Galen’s work, excerpted from “Cleopatra’s Cosmetics”. The figure of Cleopatra closer to her time was, it turns out, a figure closely associated with cosmetics, gynaecology, and alchemy. That Shakespeare’s Cleopatra—Cleopatra VII, former Queen of Egypt—was probably not the actual author of these receipts seems not to have mattered much for their transmission. Totelin documents a few such Greek cosmetic recipes that used her name and convincingly reads Cleopatra in early Greek medical writings as an example of medical authors claiming famous women as an authority for gynaecological and cosmetic remedies. The attribution of Cleopatra as the author or source of recipes in the early modern period is, I suspect, the inheritance of this practice put into use in posterity. Since the beginning, then, it seems that Cleopatra’s reputation has exceeded her.

What we get is a female figure whose relationship to medicine and to recipe-culture throughout the centuries was quite different from that of the early modern woman. Rather than having to develop and prove expertise in culinary, medical, and pharmacological knowledge by experimenting with receipts, as early modern women did, Cleopatra in the early modern period was already held to be a figure of medical authority. During a time when women were carving a place for themselves in the domain of household physic, Cleopatra may have been a shining example of a woman memorialized through her recipes as evidence of her medical expertise.

[1] Robert Allott, Wits Theater of the Little World (1599),75v.

[2] Thomas Bonham, The Chyrurgians Closet, or, An Antidotarie Chyrurgicall (1630).

[3] Bonham, 283.

[4] Bonham, 283.

[5] Translation quoted in John Uri Lloyd, “Ancient Therapeutics,” The Eclectic Medical Journal 76.4 (1916), 177.

[6] Thomas Moffet, Insectorum, sive, Minimorum animalium theatrum (1634), 71.