Category Archives: Series: Ancient Roman Studies

Smelling of Roses in Ancient Rome

By Laurence Totelin as part of the perfume series

The Roses of Heliogabalus by Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1888. Source: Wikimedia

The painter Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912) had a knack for depicting the — sometimes imaginary — luxurious excesses of the Romans. In The Roses of Heliogabalus, he represented a banquet hosted by the emperor Elagabalus (218-222 CE). Vast amounts of delicate rose petals are drifting onto the banqueters, some of whom appear to be asleep, perhaps after drinking too much. Look more carefully, however, and you will note that some are inert but have their eyes wide open — they are dead, suffocated under the oppressive roses.

Alma-Tadema’s inspiration for his painting was a story preserved in a collection of emperors’ biographies called the Historia Augusta (21.5). There, the emperor is said to have smothered his guests with violets and other flowers — no roses then — released from a reversible ceiling. The guests were unable to crawl from under the roses and died; it is unclear whether the emperor had intended for this to happen. If the story is true, Elagabalus might have emulated another infamous Roman emperor, Nero (54-68 CE), who also had a reversible ceiling in his palace, which opened up to scatter flowers and spray perfume (Suetonius, Nero 31).

It would be impossible to count the flowers on Alma-Tadema’s canvas, but one would guess that they are in their thousands. Imagine a heap of a thousand fresh roses. Imagine their scent.

One thousand roses is the exact number we find mentionned in a second-century letter from Roman Egypt preserved on papyrus. Apollonios and Serapias write to Dionysia to apologise for having sent only a thousand roses for the wedding ceremony of Dionysia’s son, Serapion:

There are not yet many roses here — rather a shortage — and from all the farms and all the garland makers we had difficulty in putting together the thousand which we sent you via Sarapas, even by picking the ones which should have been picked tomorrow. We had as many narcissi as you wanted so we sent you four thousand instead of the two thousand you ordered (P. Oxy. 3313; translation John Muir)*

Cupids hanging rose garlands. Roman Fresco, end of the first century CE. Getty Centre. Source: wikimedia.

One thousand roses is also the number we find in the first-century pharmacologist Dioscorides’ recipe for rose perfume (Materia Medica 1.43). The recipe is long and complex and involves several stages. What is clear, however, is that the petals of ‘1000 unmoistened roses’ are left to steep overnight in 20 litrai 5 oungiai of olive oil (approximately 6.7 kg — equivalence between ancient and modern weights and measures is difficult to establish). The petals are then squeezed out, and the same amount of fresh petals can be added to the oil. Dioscorides notes that “the oil accepts the addition of rose petals up to the seventh insertion and no more.”

Imagine then that oil into which the petals of no less than 7000 fresh roses have been inserted. The head spins. Imagine too the feeling of that perfume on your skin. The thick oiliness of it. Let me tell you a secret: I feel queasy at the very thought of it. I can’t quite fathom the work involved in picking this extraordinary amount of thorny flowers, in detaching the petals without bruising them too much, in squeezing them out by hand. Yet that work was carried out, and in antiquity, it was probably carried out by enslaved people. Roses can be oppressive in more senses than one!

Muir, John. 2009. Life and Letters in the Ancient Greek World, London and New York: Routledge.



Theodorus Priscianus’ recipes for breast engorgement

By Louise Cilliers

We know very little about Theodorus Priscianus, only that he was a student of the famous Carthaginian physician, Vindicianus (late 4th century CE), and was thus also a native of North Africa. We can also deduce that he was a professional doctor. The work for which Theodorus is known, is the Euporiston (a book of easily obtainable remedies), which consists of four books of medical recipes, of which the fourth, the Gynaecia, contains treatments for women’s diseases. Due to its practical applicability, the Gynaecia was very popular in the later Middle Ages; it was excerpted on numerous occasions.

A carving showing a Roman midwife, Wellcome Collection. Credit: Wellcome Library.

The Gynaecia is dedicated to a midwife, a certain Victoria. In his preface, Theodorus states that he wants to “support her with his knowledge”, and he requests her to “faithfully, diligently and carefully… carry into effect the remedies for female ailments” as set out in his treatise. This knowledge was then to be disseminated among midwives and other women to help them in treating ailing women.

Theodorus’ Gynaecia comprises recipes for ten female ailments which he discusses. They are: engorgement of the breasts after parturition, swelling or contraction of the uterus, the mole, atresia, sterility, abortion, haemorrhage of the uterus, injuries to the uterus, the flux, and gonorrhoea. I will focus on engorgement of the breasts after parturition.

This is a very common problem that women experience after having given birth, and various procedures, such as poultices laid on the breasts, were followed in ancient times. Medicaments, made from vegetables and herbs used in the kitchen, were also given. Theodorus clearly has empathy with women whose breasts are taut, swollen or painful after birth. In not too serious cases, he recommends that a soft sponge soaked in a mild astringent, such as vinegar, be applied to the breast, and held in place by a light bandage. Alternatively soothing poultices, for instance, bread soaked in water-mead and oil or fresh pork fat can be laid on the breasts.

If the problem of engorgement has been resolved but the mother still wants to feed the baby, the breasts should be smeared with rush, egg and saffron, or crushed raisins mixed with the flour of beans, or pounded sesame seed mixed with vinegar and honey, or a mixture of pounded leaves of ivy and figs, or (even more directly from the kitchen) fresh pounded cheese with vinegar-honey – if these substances be made into a poultice, they would apparently have increased the fecundity of the milk.

If the patient cannot bear the weight of the poultice, the breasts must be steamed, and an even softer sponge soaked in an extract of marsh mallow, linseed and fenugreek plants be applied.

Purslane, one of the plants used in ancient breast poultices. Credit: Wellcome Library,

But if milk production should be stopped completely, alum or the seed of fleawort or coriander of purslane must be added to the aforementioned poultice, or the powder of a pounded millstone mixed with a wax salve should be applied. But if the breast has produced pus, it must be opened with appropriate aid, so that with one voiding they can be healed completely.

Throughout Theodorus warns that medicaments should be mild, and that all poultices should be applied with moderation, with consideration for the tender breasts.

Further reading:
You can find the text of Theodorus Priscianus’ Euporiston (in Latin) here.

Lizards and lettuces: Greek and Roman recipes for Valentine’s Day

As you prepare to tuck into your oysters, followed by a garlicky main course, and a chocolaty desert on Valentine’s night, spare a thought for the Greeks and Romans, whose aphrodisiacs I now present to you. Ancient medical treatises contain numerous recipes for aphrodisiacs. This abundance may give the impression that the Greeks and Romans were a liberated bunch, with a healthy interest in a fulfilled sexual life.

Sexual scene on one of the walls of the lupanar at Pompeii. Photo: Laurence Totelin, October 2014
Sexual scene on one of the walls of the lupanar at Pompeii. Photo: Laurence Totelin, October 2014

Certainly, archaeologists have discovered a wealth of sexually-themed Greek and Roman objects over the years. Many, like those found at Herculaneum and Pompeii, were hidden away for decades in ‘Secret Rooms’ in museums, only to come to full light quite recently. One has to be careful, however, not to look at such objects with too modern a gaze. Many had ritual purposes: they were meant to ward off various dangers. And among the perils the ancient feared most was infertility, human, animal, and vegetal. Barrenness of the earth would bring hunger; human barrenness would mean the end of the family line. I believe it is in this context that ancient aphrodisiac recipes are best read.

One of the most impressive collection of aphrodisiacs is to be found in the pseudo-Galenic Euporista. Euporista’ is the title of several ancient medical recipe collections. It simply means ‘Remedies easily procured’, that is, remedies whose ingredients are relatively easy to find, and whose preparation is relatively simple. This particular collection of Euporista is attributed to Galen in the manuscripts, although it is quite clear that Galen himself did not write it. The chapter on aphrodisiacs starts as follows:

Aphrodisiacs for the penis: these stretch the penis and lead to sexual union: pine-cones, pepper, parsley, fillings deer’s penis, turpentine, of each the same amount; mix with honey, and give to drink in wine. [Pseudo-Galen, Euporista 2.2]

This recipe is quite clearly meant to be used by men! It explicitly states that it will stretch out the penis. It features one of the most common ancient aphrodisiac ingredients – deer’s penis – with herbal ingredients. The deer’s penis is very large and was therefore considered useful as a sexual stimulant. Two of the herbal ingredients (pine-cones and pepper) present themselves as seeds, which again had links with fertility. Pseudo-Galen then gives several other similar recipes, most of which seem passably palatable, with the exception of the following:

Another [aphrodisiac]: when the bull defecates after sexual intercourse, mix clay with the pat from the bull, and coat the penis with this poultice. [Pseudo-Galen, Euporista 2.2]

Perhaps one had to have reached a certain level of desperation to make use of that particular remedy. A man under less pressure might have prefered to consume cow’s milk, which features quite often in ancient aphrodisiacs.

Aphrodisiacs could be more complex than those preserved in the pseudo-Galenic Euporista. For instance, the seventh-century author Paul of Aegina transmits the following recipe:

Man orchis (saturion), the penis of deer, of each 2 drams, seed of rocket, pellitory, barley (?), wax, of each 2 drams, turpentine, 1 dr., 3 eggs of sparrows, 3 geckos, pine or iris oil, a sufficient amount. Steep the live geckos in vinegar until 40 days have passed, smearing the vessel [containing the gecko] with dung. [Paul, Medical Collection 7.17.84]

Satyr on a red-figure cup, sixth-century BCE. Source: Wikipedia
Satyr on a red-figure cup, sixth-century BCE. Source: Wikipedia

The Greek name of the man orchis, saturion, does more than hint at its alleged aphrodisiac properties: this is the plant of the Satyrs, the companions of the god Dionysus, usually represented with huge erections. This plant, like other orchids, has a bulb that can be perceived as resembling a testicle (the Greek word for testicle is – you may have guessed – orchis). Beside this most powerful plant, the recipe also boasts herbal ingredients, deer’s penis, gecko, sparrow’s eggs, and dung.  The gecko deserves special attention. It is a type of lizard whose kidneys in particular were reputed for their aphrodisiac powers. This is what the pharmacologist Dioscorides (first century CE) had to say on the topic:

They say that the part around the kidneys of the gecko, in the amount of one dram drunk with wine, has such a sexually-stimulating power, that the intensity of desire must be checked by drinking a broth of lentil with honey, or the seed of lettuce with water. [Dioscorides, Materia Medica 2.66]

Now the lettuce has always been reputed for its soporific properties – recall Beatrix Potters’ story of the Flopsy Bunnies. Of course, sleep is the worst enemy of sexual intercourse, and if you fall prey to sleepiness, pseudo-Galen gives us a recipe to prevent sleep immediately after his chapter on aphrodisiacs:

Against sleep: Write upon the surface of a bay leaf and secretly place it on the head [of the patient], uttering ‘konkofon brachereon’. [Pseudo-Galen, Euporista 2.3].

Happy Valentine’s Day!



Painting Plants in Roman Egypt

By David Leith

The illustrated herbal is a genre of pharmacological book known in Graeco-Roman antiquity from at least the first century BCE. The encyclopaedist Pliny the Elder (Natural History 25.8), for example, mentions a number of writers of herbals who provided pictures of the plants above descriptions of their medicinal effects. One of the earliest surviving examples of such illustrated herbals, dating to around 400 CE (to judge from its handwriting), is a lavish, papyrus codex leaf with full colour illustrations named ‘the Johnson Papyrus’ (P. Johnson), after John de Monins Johnson who found it in 1904.[1] He discovered it in the city of Antinoupolis in Middle Egypt, and it is now held in the Wellcome Library in London.

L0015764 Johnson Papyrus, fragment of an illustrated herbal.On one side of the page, we find a cabbage-like plant with dark, bluish-green leaves bearing the name Symphyton, perhaps to be identified as comfrey (symphytum officinale L.). The surviving caption, written directly underneath the picture, is as follows, though the text may have continued on for several more lines after the break:

‘This plant, when ground down, cures every haemorrhage and agglutinates wounds and severed tendons. It cures coughing up of blood …’

On the other side, the plant Phlomos, perhaps mullein (verbascum Thapsus L.), is depicted with green and yellow leaves sprouting from five stalks and a large bulb with roots. This time the plant is not recommended as medically useful by itself, but rather in the form of a compound drug along with several other ingredients (here the end of the caption seems to be preserved):

Johnson papyrus, verso. Phlomos
Johnson papyrus, verso. Phlomos

‘(1 word unread, e.g. ‘Apply’) … the juice of the plant, marjoram, deer marrow, all-heal, wax, turpentine resin, and old olive oil. It cures those who have been harmed by (pains?) and all kinds of (weariness?).’

On the papyrus, the paint used to depict the plants remains remarkably vibrant, though the same cannot be said for the captions describing their medicinal applications. This is due to the metal-based ink used, called iron gall ink, which is prone to fading over time, and the poor state of these texts meant that continuous sense has been gleaned from them only recently. However, the ink tends to show up much more clearly under ultraviolet light, as you can hopefully see from the image just below , and we now have a much better idea of the sort of medical information that the herbal contained.

P Johnson UV

Significantly, these plants, Symphyton and Phlomos, and the same therapeutic recommendations are also to be found in a work of astrological medicine which was similarly composed in Egypt. This is a treatise named On the Powers of Plants (De virtutibus herbarum) attributed to ‘Thessalus the philosopher’, whose identity has been the subject of some controversy (in particular, whether or not he is the better known first century CE doctor Thessalus of Tralles – I don’t think he is). This astrological treatise records medical information on 19 separate plants, each associated with either one of the 12 signs of the zodiac, or with one of the 7 ‘wandering stars’ (which is what the Greek ‘planetes’ means) that were known at the time, i.e. the sun, moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. The entries are much longer and more detailed than those preserved on the illustrated herbal, with several different medicinal applications included for each plant, and specific quantities in the compound recipes, as well as notes on the correct dates, given in various calendrical systems, for harvesting the plants to maximise their potency. The surviving manuscripts of this astrological text, however, contain no illustrations of the plants.

It is unfortunately unclear precisely what relationship the illustrated herbal had to this astrological work, whether they were both dependent on a common source, or one was the source for the other. It is to be noted, however, that the surviving parts of the papyrus herbal show no trace of the astrological material found in On the Powers of Plants. There is a further piece of information which might be suggestive of some sort of direct relationship. If all 19 plants in the astrological treatise are re-arranged in Greek alphabetical order, it is at least a striking coincidence that the final two plants turn out to be Symphytum and Phlomos, which of course were juxtaposed in the herbal. Perhaps the compiler of the illustrated herbal used On the Powers of Plants to create a new, alphabetically arranged and non-astrological text, yet that would not explain where the illustrations came from, which are unlikely to have been painted from life.

[1] First edited by C. Singer, ‘The Herbal in Antiquity and its Transmission to Later Ages’, Journal of Hellenic Studies 47 (1927), 1-52 (at 31-33); see also D. Leith, ‘The Antinoopolis Illustrated Herbal (PJohnson + PAntin. 3.214 = MP3 2095’, Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 156 (2006), 141-156.