Category Archives: Antiquity

Controlled substances in Roman law and pharmacy?

By Molly Jones-Lewis

Let me begin with a passage from the Digest of Roman Law within the section on the Lex Cornelia on murderers and poisoners (D.

It is laid down by another decree of the senate that dealers in cosmetics[1] are liable to the penalty of this law (the Lex Cornelia on murderers and poisoners) if they recklessly hand over to anyone hemlock (cicuta), salamander, aconite, pine-worms (pituocampae), or buprestis,[2] mandragora, or, except for the purpose of purification, cantharis beetles.

This particular decree of the senate was preserved by the jurist Marcian (active c. 200 and 222 CE), but the actual decree could date from any time between 81BCE, when it was passed, and Marcian’s own day. The main test of the law was not whether or not a murder had been committed, as it is with most modern legal systems, but the intent to murder. Penalties ranged from relegation (temporary exile) to death by wild animals.

Negligence should not have exposed someone to its penalties, but there is evidence in both the legal and literary record of medical professionals who unwittingly aided in a murder being prosecuted under the Lex Cornelia. Galen, for instance, mentions one unfortunate doctor who was executed when a wicked stepmother (of course) claimed a drug was for her own use, only to have her slaves slip it into her stepson’s food.

Other examples preserved in the Digest involve gynecologists, aphrodisiacs, and abortifacients; gender bias very likely accounts for the departure from the intent-test. Add to that the demographics of medical professionals in the Roman Empire–many of them were slaves and freedmen–and the pattern becomes even more clear. Elite moral panic likely drove the legislative policy in this decree of the senate, with chilling effects. Under it, suppliers are held liable for selling commonly used pharmaceutical ingredients.

So would these highly toxic items that an ancient pharmacist would carry? Absolutely! Dioskourides, author of a first century CE pharmacy manual (and standard reference for Roman pharmacists), listed several uses for them.[3]

“Spanish Fly” continues to enjoy an unfortunate reputation as a “natural” aphrodisiac, even in this age of safer alternatives. Image credit: Nuvalife.
“Spanish Fly” continues to enjoy an unfortunate reputation as a “natural” aphrodisiac, even in this age of safer alternatives. Image credit: Nuvalife.

We begin at the end with Blister Beetles (Cantharis, buprestis, pituocampae): Here, I am grouping three similar insects, just as Dioskourides did (2.61). These insects are more popularly known as “Spanish Fly.” The oil produced by these beetles causes the skin to blister, and this made it a useful item for removing growths.

But Dioskourides does not mention its most famous application, and most dangerous–blister beetle poisoning irritates the urogenital tract, causing an erection. It was, in essence, ancient Viagra. It seems to have been responsible for quite a few accidental and embarrassing deaths, and likely accounts for the general anxiety surrounding the use of aphrodisiacs in Roman law and armchair scientists like Pliny the Elder.[4] It also shows up in some cringe-worthy gynecological recipes, and must have caused many a woman severe discomfort.

Cosmetics sellers would stock it for people with warts, women would keep it handy, and Roman legislators were concerned. It is hardly surprising that this class of insect dominates the senate’s decree.

The shape of the flower resembles the hood of a monk, hence the English common name. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.
The shape of the flower resembles the hood of a monk, hence the English common name. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Aconite, also known as monkshood, wolfsbane, and the “queen of poisons,” is best known today as Professor Snape’s go-to icebreaker question for Potions class. It is deadly–strong enough to cause numbness when it comes in contact with the skin–and that is precisely what put it on the senate’s list. Dioskourides 4.77 declares it useful for killing wolves, and nothing else, but urban sales were almost certainly aimed at eliminating human nuisances like abusive slaveowners and inconvenient husbands, at least in the minds of lawmakers.

The English name reflects the long history of identifying the somewhat anthropomorphic form of this root. Dioskourides differentiates between a “Male” and “Female” form – this one is the female variety. Image credit:
The English name reflects the long history of identifying the somewhat anthropomorphic form of this root. Dioskourides differentiates between a “Male” and “Female” form – this one is the female variety. Image credit:

Another alumna of Harry Potter, the mandrake is best known for its use in magic. However, it also has a strong effect as a sedative and anesthetic; it was used as such into the early 1900s. But too much could cause death, as Dioskourides warns in his lengthy list of applications (4.75). It’s hallucinogenic properties, too, combined with its sedative effects, would have made it a prime candidate for abuse and accidental death. No wonder it makes the senate’s list!

Even today, Hemlock remains infamous for its role in the death of Socrates. So why on earth would a pharmacy sell it? Dioscorides 4.78 recommends it for topical applications only, first as a cure for shingles and erysipelas, both common and painful skin conditions. He goes on to prescribe it to stop lactation, to keep youthful breasts small, and, alarmingly, to cause a boy’s testicles to shrivel. The most shocking suggestion, though, is that it be applied to the testicles to prevent nocturnal emissions – surely a recipe for disaster if the man in question failed to wash his hands carefully.

Small jars excavated in the prison in the Athenian Agora, possibly used for the executioner’s Hemlock. Author’s image, 2006.
Small jars excavated in the prison in the Athenian Agora, possibly used for the executioner’s Hemlock. Author’s image, 2006.

So we have in this list a number of items common in recipes and associated with women and medical professionals, both of whom might respond to their systemic oppression with the covert violence of poisoning. If you were to open a pharmacy in the bustling streets of the Roman empire–especially if you were a woman, freedman, or both– it would be best to think twice about why your patient is so keen to buy his cantharis in bulk.

[1] The ingredients in cosmetics and pharmacy were often similar, and likewise cosmetics were made to also have medical benefits.

[2] J. B. Rives rightly suggests (n. 22) that the word “bubrostis” is a misspelling of “buprestis.”

[3] See Lily Beck’s excellent translation and commentary for the most likely identification of the species involved. Taxonomy and nomenclature in antiquity is imprecise by modern standards; it can be difficult to link ancient names to known species.

[4] For example, Natural History 25.25: “I do not include abortifacients in my account, and not even love potions, remembering that Lucullus the most famous general perished from such a potion.”

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

The coral and the seal: an ancient amulet against all ills

By Laurence Totelin

In a recent post, Sietske Fransen and Saskia Klerk introduced a seventeenth-century recipe whose main ingredient was red coral. That ingredient has made several other apparitions in The Recipes Project posts (see here, here, and here). Perhaps it is time it took centre stage. For coral is not any ingredient. We know it to be an animal (a marine invertebrate), but it is only in the eighteenth century that it was finally classified as such. Beforehand, it was generally considered to be a plant, albeit a very peculiar one, as it transformed into stone when in contact with the air. In Greek, coral was at times called ‘lithodendron’, literally, the stone-plant. As such, it was usually included in Lapidaries, treatises devoted to stones and their healing or magical properties. Thus, the Orphic Lapidary describes it as follows:

Perseus with the head of Medusa on a Roman fresco at Stabiae. Credit: Amadalvarez, Wikimedia
Perseus with the head of Medusa on a Roman fresco at Stabiae. Photo: Amadalvarez, Wikimedia

For it first grows as a green grass, but not on the ground,
Which, as we all know, gives solid food to plants, but in the sea,
The sterile sea, where are born the seaweeds and the light mosses.
Orphic Lapidary 517-519

According to a legend recounted by the poet Ovid (first century CE), coral was born of the blood of Medusa’s severed head, which the hero Perseus had placed on seaweeds. The plants, as they absorbed the monster’s blood, became harder and redder. Sea Nymphs then sowed the seeds of the newly-created coral into the sea (Ovid, Metamorphoses 4.740-753).

Perseus and Andromeda, by Giorgio Vasari (c. 1570). Credit: Wikipedia
Perseus and Andromeda, by Giorgio Vasari (c. 1570. Source: Wikipedia

Since it had been born from blood, coral was believed to have good blood staunching properties; Dioscorides (first century CE) wrote in his Materia Medica that ‘it cicatrizes; it treats quite effectively blood spitting’ (5.121). Galen (second century CE) preserves several recipes against blood loss that include the exotic coral, including one attributed to Philadelphus the Great (in reference to one of the kings of Ptolemaic Egypt):

Another remedy of Philadelphus the Great for those who spit blood: two obols of coral, four obols of Samian clay, two kyathoi of juice of knot-grass; give two draughts in total. (Galen, Composition of Medicines according to Places 7.4, 13.80 Kühn)

Unsurprisingly, the other main ingredient in this recipe, the earth from Samos, was also red. In fact, Discorides believed that it was that colour because the inhabitants of Samos mixed it with the blood of a goat (Materia Medica 5.153) – a fact that Galen knew to be false.

Coral had several other properties beside its blood staunching ones. Thus, it is recommended as an ingredient in the following teeth-whitening preparation:

V0022008ETL A coral. Etching. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images A coral. Etching. 1793 Published: 1 November 1793 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0
Coral, etching by F.P. Nodder (1793. Credit: Wellcome Images

Very good remedy to whiten the teeth: red coral, pumice stone, stones of dates, bones of cuttle-fish, and burnt salts; crush and use. (pseudo-Galen, Remedies easily Procured 2.8.14, 14.432 Kühn)

This powder may (or may not) have whitened the teeth, but I am not certain it would have been a good breath-freshener – a bit too fishy for my own liking.

My favourite coral recipe, however, comes from the Cyranides, a collection of magical material in Greek. It suggests using coral wrapped in the skin of a seal as an amulet:

The seal is a quadruped sea-animal. Its skin, whenever it is placed in a house or in a ship, or carried by someone, ensures no ill occurs to whoever carries it.  For it turns away thunderbolts, hurricanes, hailstones, dangers, winds, witchery, spirits, pirates, night visitations, wild beasts, creeping animals, and phantoms. You must use it as an amulet on its own or with the coral stone.  (Cyranides 4.67)

The combination of the seal skin and coral is important here: both ingredients are born from the sea, and are difficult to classify. The seal resembles a fish but is a quadruped; the coral looks like a plant but is a stone. In antiquity, liminal objects – those that fall into two categories, or in neither – were often seen as powerfully magical.

Healing words: Quintus Serenus’ pharmacological poem

Perhaps one of the most puzzling aspects of ancient science to modern readers is its predilection for verse. The ancient Greek and Romans could express the most complex scientific and medical notions in poetic form. Thus, many pharmacological recipes in Greek and Latin were cast in verse. These poetic recipes can be divided – very roughly – into two categories: those that are filled with metaphors and riddles that readers must decode; and those that use verse to assist memory through the means of rhythm and uncomplicated poetic imagery.

The verse recipes of Quintus Serenus (or Quintus Serenus Sammonicus: very little is known of this author, who lived at the end of the second – beginning of the third century CE) fall somewhere between these two categories. These remedies, collected in the Liber Medicinalis (Medical Book), include numerous learned references, but do not require advanced riddle-solving skills from their readers. Serenus borrowed most of his recipes from older pharmacological authorities, such as Pliny the Elder (first century CE), but added other some material, in particular magical recipes.

Serenus’ best known recipe is undoubtedly the ‘abracadabra’ recipe, which include the first known occurrence of that magical word. It recommends writing the word on a piece of parchment, which is then used as an amulet in the treatment of a particular type of fever:

One possible representation of the 'Abracadabra' amulet. Source: Wikipedia
One possible representation of the ‘Abracadabra’ amulet. Source: Wikipedia

Much more fatal [than other fevers] is that which is called ‘hemitritaios’
In Greek words; this in our language
Nobody could express, I believe, and neither did parents wish for it.
Write upon a piece of papyrus the word ABRACADABRA
And repeat it more times underneath, but take away the last letter
So that more and more individual elements will be missing from the figure,
Those which you constantly remove, while you retain the others,
Until a single letter remains at the end of a narrow cone.
Tie this to the neck with a linen thread; remember that!
[Quintus Serenus, Liber Medicinalis 54.1-9; for more information on this poem, see Peter Kruschwitz’s great blog]

Serenus used inscribed parchment as a healing ingredient in at least another recipe. This is a recipe to treat insomnia in people suffering from fevers:

Not only does the most loathsome fever consume wretched patients,
It further deprives them of longed-for sleep,
Lest they should benefit of the heavenly gift of peaceful sleep.
Therefore inscribe a piece of parchment with random words,
Burn it, then drink the ashes in hot water.
[Quintus Serenus, Liber Medicinalis 54.1-5]

With such recipes, it not surprising that historians of magic have paid more attention to Serenus than medical historians. It is very easy to dismiss such practices as hocus pocus. I would argue, however, that one should not take Serenus’ recipes at face value. Certainly, these are real recipes which Serenus collected from various sources, but did Serenus intend his readers actually to prepare them? It is always difficult to gage an author’s intention (and reader’s response), but it is still worth noting that in the first lines of his work, Serenus wrote:

Phoebus [Apollo], protect this health-giving song, which I composed
And let this manifest favour be an attendant to the art you discovered [medicine].
[Quintus Serenus, Liber Medicinalis, preface 1-2]

Serenus, then, calls his poem a ‘salutiferum carmen’, a ‘health-giving song’. This poem is healing because it contains healing recipes, but it is also healing in itself, as a piece of poetry. The idea that poetry could heal – or at least alleviate pain, or sweeten harsh treatments – was a common one in Roman culture. In particular, the Epicurean poet Lucretius had compared the role of poetry in philosophy to that of honey as a sweetener to a bitter medicinal preparation (De Rerum Natura 1.936-942).

I would suggest that for Quintus Serenus poetry in itself is healing: listening to mellifluous words can heal, especially when they pertain to pharmacology. In this context, recipes that have words as their main ingredient, as in the case of the ABRACADABRA recipe or the recipe against insomnia, become particularly significant. Not only can a poem heal; it can be dissected into its basic components – random words and letters – and still retain much of its power.