Category Archives: Classical

Thanksgiving with Galen and Apicius

By Sean Coughlin

For Thanksgiving, I thought I’d come up with a new English translation of a seasonal recipe from the Roman cook-book of Apicius. It comes from the third book of De re coquinaria. The Latin is cucurbitas cum gallina. In Joseph Vehling’s English translation: “Pumpkin and Chicken”.

If only the Romans had turkeys. And pumpkins.

I first learned that the Greeks and Romans were pumpkinless from Laurence Totelin earlier this year and it left me utterly confounded.

I had been revising a translation and commentary of the first book of the sixth-century CE physician Aetius of Amida’s Medical Collections, and a question came up about how to identify different kinds of cucurbits, that immense botanical family of vines which produce comically-large-berries, like cucumbers, melons, watermelons, pumpkins, squashes, gourds, and luffa sponges.

Naively, I thought it would help to look at how authors like Aetius or Galen say cucurbits are prepared. And, since Galen (On the Properties of Foodstuffs, 2.3) tells us that people always ate their cucurbits cooked, I figured that Greco-Roman cucurbits must be something like zucchini.  After all, who on earth would cook a melon?

“But,” Laurence told me, “zucchinis are new world.”

Now, before going into why I found this so shocking, I want to bring everyone up to speed.

“Old world” cucurbits include a lot of different genera: Cucumis, the cucumbers and melons; Citrullus, the watermelons and colocynths; Lageneria, the bottle gourd or calabash; and a few others like Luffa and Bryonia. No one is quite sure where in the old world they first evolved, but the recent consensus is somewhere in Africa. In other words, they could have existed in the Greco-Roman world.

Various old world cucurbits: cucumbers and melons. Photo from the author.

“New world” cucurbits, however, are the vines descended from plants native to the Americas. They almost certainly could not have been known in antiquity, and the group includes all species of the genus Cucurbita. This includes zucchini, courgettes, pumpkins, squashes, decorative gourds, and even those 1000 kg monsters at fall fairs. None of them were known in Europe before Columbus.

I would like to imagine that there is at least one other kindred reader of classics in English who feels a bit anxious at this news. It’s not just a problem for Apicius’ Thanksgiving casserole or my rehearsal of Epicrates’ lampoon of Plato’s Academy.

What about the “Pumpkin Pirates” of Lucian’s True History (2.37)? Or Psyche’s sister’s husband who Apuleius says is “bald as a pumpkin” (Apuleius, Metamorphoses 5.9)? And what will become of Seneca’s Apocolocyntosis divi Claudii – the Pumpkinification of the Divine Claudius?

English translations are unusually problematic in the case of cucurbits. Pumpkins show up all over the place. And this isn’t merely because of translators’ license, or a confusion of names.

As far as I’ve been able to sort out, it’s mainly the result of an unfortunate coincidence between the rise of an influential but erroneous botanical hypothesis, and the publication of two influential Greek and Latin English dictionaries.

Here is the story:

Before the mid-19th century, the evidence about the origins of Cucurbita was mixed. The names of the plants suggested they came from the “old world”, but depictions of Cucurbita species don’t show up before the mid-1500s.

For instance, in Leonhart Fuchs’ 1542 herbal, De Historia Stirpium, we get one of the first European depictions of the pumpkin plant, the species Cucurbita pepo L. Fuchs, however, calls it cucumis turcicus, the Turkish cucumber, a name which might lead one to think the plant was native to the “old world”.

Not long after Fuchs, in an herbal of Matthiolus from 1586, the same plant appears again, but with a different name: cucurbita indica – the Indian gourd. And “Indian,” Matthiolus tells us, means American: “they say these [new gourds] came into Italy from the West Indies, whence they are called by many ‘Indian’” (Matthiolus of Padua, Commentary on Dioscorides 1559, p. 292, my emphasis).

“He has a pumpkin” (ipse cucurbita habet). Using pumpkins as camouflage. Woodcut, late 16th century, Netherlands. CCBY

Both Fuchs and Matthiolus agree that these cucurbits are foreign (and probably even recent) imports to European markets. They disagree about where they came from: were they indigenous to the old or the new world?

This continued until the 1850s, when the hypothesis that Cucurbita species were indigenous to the old world reached its most articulated form. It happened as part of a public debate between two great 19th century botanists: Alphonse de Candolle and Asa Gray.

De Candolle argued that because people had used the same names for cucurbits since ancient times, the plants with those names must have come from the old world.

In response, Gray argued that new and ‘foreign’ cucurbits only start showing up in 16th century herbals like those of Fuchs and Matthiolus. That, along with documentary evidence from the first European explorers, suggests a new world origin.

The debate continued for over thirty years, only coming to an end in 1883 after a devastating two-part review of De Candolle’s last book, The Origin of Cultivated Plants. In this review, Gray, along his colleague J. Hammond Turnball, presented almost documentary evidence from European explorers that cucurbits were cultivated in the Americas before European explorers ever reached it in 1492.

These explorers recorded indigenous names for the plants they encountered, but they also used European ones, and these are the names that stuck: in Latin, cucurbitae and cucumeres; in Spanish, calabaças, melones, pepinos and cogombros; in French, melons, concombres, citrouilles, and courges; in Italian, zucca; and in English, musk-melons, cowcumbers, and, — most importantly — the pompion, the source of our word, ‘pumpkin’. Only the name “squash” from the Algonquin vernacular made its way into English.

Gray and Turnball’s review, however, appeared only after the work on the great Greek and Latin lexica had finished up – A Greek-English Lexicon by Liddel and Scott, and A Latin Dictionary by Lewis and Short. Both dictionaries identify some Greco-Roman cucurbits with American pumpkins (Cucurbita pepo L. or Cucurbita maxima L.), and pumpkins have shown up in English translations ever since.

So for this recipe, I figure, why fight it?

Tune in tomorrow for Apicius’ recipe!

The author with pumpkins, sometime in the late 2000s. Photo from the author.

Sean Coughlin is Research Fellow in the history of philosophy, science and medicine at Excellence Cluster Topoi and the Institute for Classical Philology, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. He is completing a revised translation and commentary on Aetius of Amida, Medical Collections, Book I, an edition and translation fragments of the 1st century Pneumatist physician, Athenaeus of Attalia, and co-editing a volume on the concept of pneuma after Aristotle.

Recreating Ancient Beauty

By Eboni John, published as part of the Undergraduate Series

The society of ancient Rome was just as obsessed with cosmetics and beauty as we are today. Indulging in the use of items such as white lead foundation, ash-based eye-shadow and poppy petalled blush, it is clear that the Romans’ idea of perfection centred around pale skin, large dark eyes and blushed cheeks (see e.g. Pliny the Elder, Natural History 21.73.123, 35.56.194). However, what these cosmetics may have achieved for beauty, achieved very little when it came to health. This is because the Romans used all sorts of deleterious ingredients in their cosmetics such as crocodile dung, nightshade, urine and the infamous lead – to name a few (Olson, 2008, 61-72). What exactly then, are the possibilities of recreating some of these ancient Roman cosmetics today?

To answer this question, I will be covering the recreation of two Roman cosmetics:
1) A 2000-year-old Roman face cream used for coverage
2) A Roman beauty mask used to soften and in some cases, whiten the skin.

Roman Face Cream

The Roman face cream dates from the 2nd century AD and was discovered in London in 2003. Due to the container’s expensive nature (tin was a relatively precious metal at the time) it is thought that the cream was used by a Roman aristocrat, with a function similar to that of modern foundation.

The ingredients for the cream were revealed by Katherine Mansell: it contained 40% animal fat (likely derived from a goat then boiled); 40% starch (likely obtained from boiling wheat or roots); 20% synthetic tin oxide (cassiterite). The starch would have been added to the fat ‘to reduce the greasy feeling of fat on the skin’. The tin would have then made the cream white (Mansel, 2004). 

It is surprising that this cream does not contain the ingredient lead, which was frequently used in cosmetics at the time. This suggests that the Romans were possibly becoming more aware of the lead poisoning that plagued their cosmetic products, as this particular chemist appears to have identified tin as being a non-toxic ingredient.

When visually comparing the two products is it clear that the colour is one of the largest differences, with the recreation displaying a brilliant white in comparison to the originals faded grey. The texture also looks a lot less crusted and granular than the original. While the cream did not smell entirely pleasant, it did provide a very adequate form of coverage.

Roman Face Mask

A Roman face mask to soften the skin was a must-have when it came to skincare. The ingredients for this mask are provided by Susan Stewart:


Almond oil; rosewater; water parsnip (boiled); lily root (ground into a fine powder using mortar and pestle); eggs (Stewart 2007, 32-60).

I found that the smell of the face mask was rather pleasant, but those who sampled my mask said otherwise. The final products colour of light beige was exactly how I visually imagined it, but the texture turned out to be runnier than I expected. Upon sampling the mask, my volunteer reported that it did make her skin feel slightly softer but left an oily residue on her face that failed to wash off immediately with water.

Sourcing Ingredients and Substitutions

In preparation for recreating these cosmetics, I had to acquire the right ingredients. Unfortunately, particular ingredients proved rather hard to come by and so have been substituted.

1. Animal fat: Originally the fat would have probably been derived from a cow or goat but the only animal fat I could come across was goose fat.
2. Synthetic tin oxide: This ingredient was not a cost-efficient one to come by as it was often sold in bulk. I have, therefore, substituted it with zinc oxide which I was able to find in small quantities for a reasonable price. I also felt safe in my knowledge that it was a safe ingredient as it is used in many modern cold creams.
3. Lily root: I found it was not easy to come across lily root as it is not something typically sold in supermarkets or online. So, I substituted it with powdered orris which is typically found in perfumes.

Because I have chosen to use substitutes, these replicas cannot be considered exact recreation of the originals. However, I do believe that the cosmetics I have prepared hold some resemblance to the originals I have attempted to recreate. After all the ancients were no strangers to substituting ingredients as preserved substitution lists have shown.

From this experience of recreating ancient Roman cosmetics, I have found that it is no simple or easy task. The difficulty is mostly derived from acquiring the right ingredients. I often found myself stopping to consider the authenticity of the ingredients I thought to use. For example, I had to stay clear of starches found in pasta, as it would not have been an available form of starch at the time.

We must also keep in mind that these two recipes were not particularly hard or dangerous to follow, yet I still found myself substituting the original ingredients for those that were more available. Therefore, if you were to attempt recreating some of the more complex cosmetic remedies, the difficulty of acquiring the authentic ingredients and the risk of encountering hazardous ingredients is sure to increase along with the complexity.


My name is Eboni Alis John. I am 22, and a recent graduate of Cardiff University where I studied English Literature & Ancient History. I am a book fanatic that has always been keen to travel and write about my experiences. After writing my ancient cosmetics blog post for my third-year Greek and Roman medicine module, I was totally inspired by the level of creativity it allowed for. Since this assignment, I have begun planning to create my own blog that will focus on travel advice and my experiences exploring the countries of eastern Asia (Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia). I am now looking to start a career in teaching abroad as this is what I believe truly fuels my passion.

Ancient Cures for Asthma: Do They Really Work?

By Joanna Cunningham, as part of the Undergraduate Series

Find out more about ancient ideas on asthma, and whether the remedies that ancient physicians used actually work!

Asthma and Its Ancient Background

Asthma is an affliction of the lungs which numerous ancient physicians discussed in their writings. It was first mentioned in Homer’s works (Iliad, book 10) when men gasped for air in the moment of death. One of the Hippocratic authors was the ‘first physician to understand the relationship between the environment and respiratory ailments’ (Cserháti 2004, 248; Ryan 1793, 62), discussing cold air as a cause for asthma. However, his understanding is questionable, as he associated asthma with epilepsy and hunchbacks (On Airs, Waters and Places, 3). Galen referenced asthma over 70 times in his books (Jackson 2009, 23), but the extent of these ancient men’s understanding of asthma as a separate affliction is questionable; they make no distinction between different types of asthma (cardiac or bronchial). Instead, the Greek word asthma is used to describe the general symptoms of dyspnoea (Stolkind 1933, 37; Frea 2011).

Nevertheless, Caelius Aurelianus gave ‘a better description of bronchial asthma as a distinct disease’ than earlier physicians (Stolkind 1933, 37), and Aretaeus documented the earliest known description of the definition we use today; breathing difficulties after exercise. Therefore, we can see how the ancient understanding of asthma changed over time.

Ancient Remedies

Ancient medicinal techniques have been adapted throughout the centuries, informing modern medicine. Naturally, we are so caught up in the technology of modern medicine that we forget the routes of these discoveries. However, whether these original remedies work is something I was curious to discover. Therefore, I journeyed back in time to see whether myself, as a modern-day asthma sufferer, would have survived an ancient physician’s advice.

Ancient remedies for asthma mostly focused upon loosening the humours. There were the more dangerous and vile remedies, including drinking animal blood, eating rabbit fat and fox lungs, inhaling or consuming numerous herbs and plants, for example, coltsfoot, hellebore and hyssop (Dioscorides De Materia Medica 2.41, 2.30), blood-letting, cupping, and even surgery (Nutton 2004, 56)! However, there were just as many feasible remedies to try, including eating raisins, dried figs, vegetables, barley, capers, bread, and cake, alongside steaming, baths, wet compresses, and moderate helpings of wine with dinner (Jackson 2009, 16, 33; Stolkind 1933, 37; Sanders 2007, 73); certainly a contrast to the more gory options!

My Body on Modern Asthma Medication

My current asthma medication consists of a brown inhaler twice a day, and a blue inhaler when breathless.

On a weekly basis, I take part in numerous extra-curricular activities, including cheerleading and dance, which consist of practising our routine and performing full-outs (performing the routine as you would at the competition), with high energy stunts and bursts of energy throughout. Usually, I cope to a certain point, however, with vigorous exercise, I quickly become short of breath, and anxious about my breathing. So, let’s see how my body copes with the ancient remedies, alongside my inhaler…

My Plan

From my research, I devised the plan below, with the ancient remedies highlighted in red:

© Joanna Cunningham

This plan varied depending on what I could buy in the shop, what extra rehearsals I had, and how much time I had that day.

My Body Using Ancient Remedies

Day 1

Breakfast: Porridge with Nutella, tea.

Lunch: Niçoise salad.

© Joanna Cunningham

Dinner: Chicken thigh fillets, roasted vegetables, glass of red wine.

© Joanna Cunningham

Day time:

© Joanna Cunningham

Bed time: Warm flannel on chest, arm massage.

Exercise: Dance (8-9.30pm) – my heart rate increased, I was sweating, and my breathing became rapid and difficult.

Findings: My breathing was no different to usual; I became rapidly out of breath during dance. However, after only one day, I cannot discredit these ancient cures just yet…

Day 2

Breakfast: 1 toast, with avocado and scrambled egg, tea.

Lunch: Niçoise salad, honey and lemon water, piece of birthday cake.

Dinner: Chicken, roasted vegetables, glass of wine, peanut m&ms.

Snacks: Honey and lemon water, and finished the snacks from the bowl yesterday. I dislike the figs, however, as with any medicine, you take it regardless.

Day time: 10 minute steam.

Bed time: Warm flannel on chest, arm massage, lavender-scented bath.

© Joanna Cunningham

Exercise: Dance (8-9.30pm) – same as yesterday.

Findings: My breathing recovery time was speedier than usual, but I’m sure this was either psychological, or by chance.

Day 3

Breakfast: 2 toast, 2 poached eggs (I didn’t finish this), tea.

Lunch: Vegetable and barley broth.

© Joanna Cunningham

Dinner: Chicken, roasted vegetables, glass of wine.

Snacks: A mini-roll, lemon and honey water.

Day time: Sing-along to my favourite playlist.

Bed time: Wet flannel on chest.

Exercise: Cheerleading (3-5pm)/Dance (9.30-10.30pm) – I sweated, and was a little out of breath.

Findings: My breathing was difficult by the end of each routine, but my recovery time was great!

Day 4

Meals: I was very ill, so didn’t eat anything.

Day time: Arm massage, 10 minute steam.

Bed time: Bath, wet flannel on chest.

Day 5

Breakfast: Toast with scrambled eggs.

Lunch: Vegetable and barley broth.

Dinner: Salmon, barley, asparagus, broccoli, glass of wine.

© Joanna Cunningham

Snacks: Mixed nuts, raisins and figs.

Day time: Another sing-along.

Bed time: Wet flannel on chest, arm massage, 10 minute steam.

Exercise: Cheerleading/Dance Showcase (6-8pm) – 3 full-outs of each routine.

Findings: After each run through, I felt out of breath, however, I recovered quickly.

What My Findings Have Shown Me…

My findings have shown me that these ancient techniques really do work, as my recovery time seemed to improve throughout the week. However, could this simply be a trick of the mind? Or could it just be that a relatively healthy life-style, ensuring to take care of one’s body, works wonders? In reality, only by the 16th century were doctors able to identify and diagnose asthma, and only sometimes able to treat it successfully (Hicks 2006, 30). I think I’ll stick to my inhaler for the foreseeable future, but I see no harm in ensuring to maintain a healthy lifestyle, minus the ancient addition of copious glasses of wine!


My name is Joanna Cunningham, I am 21, and I am currently in my final year at Cardiff University, studying Ancient and Medieval History. I am a cat lover and sushi fanatic, and have always been a keen writer. After writing my ancient asthma cures blog post for my second year Greek and Roman medicine module, I was totally inspired. Since this assignment, I have started up my own blog focusing on lifestyle, fashion, beauty, food, productivity, and travel (you can find  it following this link), and I am now looking to start a career in content writing, copywriting, and journalism, as this is what I am truly passionate about.

Tales from the archives: the torture of therapeutics in Rome: Galen on pigeon dung

Recently, I have noticed fewer pigeons at Cardiff station. This probably mean that there has been a cull, which even though I’m no fan of pigeons, made me feel rather melancholy. So, in honour of the humble pigeon, here is, fresh from our archives, a fab post by Caroline Petit on pigeon excrement in Galen’s recipes.


Although Galen is more than reluctant to use disgusting ingredients and remedies wherever possible (De simpl. med. ac fac., X, 1), his catalogue of simple remedies, his recipes and case histories show that animal and even human dung and urine are not absent from his therapeutic arsenal. But this is not as contradictory as it sounds, because Galen uses careful qualifications in his approach to excrements. Why, did you think he was going to spread dog’s feces all over your face? Fear not, Galen uses only non-smelling dung.

File:Fresco pigeon Oplontis.jpg
A pigeon on a Roman fresco from Oplontis. Source: Wikipedia.

Galen reports an interesting case. In the dead of night, Galen was once called to the bedside of a Roman lady (Meth. med. V, 13); she had begun spitting blood and became extremely concerned, as she had heard Galen warn people against this dangerous symptom (Rome was justifiably anxious about the Antonine plague). She believed only prompt treatment would get the better of it, and she called for him. When Galen arrived, she begged him to submit her to whatever treatment he would deem suitable to cure her; the treatment designed by Galen would make any modern patient shiver, as it sounds very drastic indeed:

“I ordered the use of a sharp clyster and rubbing, and binding around of the legs and arms as much as possible, along with a heating medication. Then, having shaved her head, I applied the medication made from the excrement of wild pigeons. After an interval of three hours, I led her to the bath and and washed her without touching her head with any oil. Then I covered her head with a well-fitting felt cloth and, according to the prevailing season, I nourished her with thick gruel alone, afterwards giving her bitter fruits. Then, when she was about to go to sleep, I gave her the medication made from vipers that had been prepared four months before, for such a medication still has the juice of the poppy in strong degree whereas, in medications that have been aged, the strength becomes less. (…) Then, at intervals I repeatedly used on her head the customary salve from thapsia. I provided total care and nourishment for the body with passive exercises, rubbings, perambulations, abstinence from baths and a moderate and succulent diet. This woman became well without the need for milk.”

The poor woman, who was certainly elegant, perhaps fashionable and accustomed to elaborate hair styles (at least this is how we usually picture Roman ladies – Galen doesn’t comment on his patient), had to endure the shaving of her head, then the prolonged application of a paste made with pigeon dung – a well-known ingredient, known for its heating and drying properties, at least since Dioscorides (Mat. med. II, 80). The rest of the treatment is strikingly strong, with several powerful heating remedies (for example thapsia, which could cause burns if used at a high dosage) and must have been difficult to endure, especially as it lasted for a number of days. But the excrement of wild pigeon catches the eye, because it belongs to the much-maligned category of ‘disgusting’ (bdelura) remedies: so why does Galen mention it so casually here, in the case of a woman who must have been more delicate than any other, and for a readership who may have been just as sensitive as this poor woman? Well, Galen explains elsewhere in book X of his treatise on simple drugs that the key thing is to have dung that doesn’t smell, in order to remove the nauseating factor. For dung does have remarkable properties. Thus some forms of dung, especially the one coming from wild pigeons, is absolutely devoid of bad smell and is a powerful, reliable remedy praised by all. For some smelly kinds of dung (as in dog’s dung), it is preferable to let it dry first, before grounding it and thus, again, removing the problem of smell. Dung is disgusting only as long as it smells of dung. But once it is transformed into a powder, a paste, or any other pharmaceutical form you can think of, it is perfectly acceptable and pretty useful, as it is easy to find and inexpensive. What’s not to like?