Category Archives: Classical

Editing the Recipes Project – 5 Years On: A Recipe for Happiness

Editorial: This is the third of a series of reflection posts from Recipe Project contributors and editors.

By Laurence Totelin

When Lisa Smith, Elaine Leong and Amanda Herbert invited me to join the editorial team of The Recipes Project in the Autumn of 2014, I felt elated. I was so happy to join what I knew would be a supportive team of editors. My contribution was to solicit posts from scholars working on ‘ancient’ material, and I started in my editorial role with a series on Greek and Roman Recipes in January 2015. Since then, we have had a post on pre-1500 recipes almost every month, which is extremely pleasing.

Before I joined the editorial team, I had been blogging for The Recipes Project for two years. I wrote my first post  for TRP while on maternity leave with my second son, G. That leave, which blissfully lasted an entire year, was a turning point in my career. I had been extremely lucky to gain an open-ended lectureship in Ancient History at Cardiff University, but I was finding it increasingly difficult to juggle my job with motherhood, that is, with one son, T. As is often the case, my research was suffering: students – quite rightfully – come first for a lecturer. How was I going to cope with a second child? How would I ever find time to write articles, let alone books (gasps)?

Home, health and happiness
Credit: Wellcome Library, London

Blogging was the solution. It quite simply saved my research career. I started blogging on my own blog, Concocting History, and The Recipes Project around the same time, at the beginning of 2013. With blogging, I discovered that I could take a few ancient recipes and write an entertaining (well, at least I hope) piece in a couple of hours. It was all so different from ‘traditional’ academic writing, where it can take years for an article to see the light of day. Of course, blogging cannot entirely replace that slow process of maturation that happens when writing academic articles, but it can certainly complement it. And I also discovered that I could apply the discipline that I had learnt from blogging, that of writing a short piece of research in a given amount of time, to article and book writing. Gone were the leisurely days I could devote to research – at least for the foreseeable future – but I could now write faster and in a more targeted way.

The benefits of blogging do not end there. The wonderful TRP community allowed me to meet so many new people, some virtually, others in person, and to engage with their ideas and material. One of my favourite way of blogging is to respond to another post. Thus, I particularly enjoyed responding to Jennifer Park’s post on curdled milk in the breast. I was learning to open up my horizons and become more adventurous.

And adventures I have had since then. Among other things, I have started using recipes in teaching; I have written pieces  on recipes for The Conversation; and I have taken part in a MOOC on Health and Wellbeing in Antiquity on the invitation of Helen King, another TRP author. Blogging has given me a lot of confidence where I was filled with self-doubt.

Scholars working on recipes know perhaps better than most that there is no recipe for happiness. But we also know that working with historical recipes can bring a great deal of pleasure. To do so in the supportive environment of The Recipes Project, one that is based on collaboration and encouragement, is particularly joyful. Do join us!




MOOCing about with Ancient Recipes

A while ago, Professor Helen King (Open University) offered Dr Patty Baker (University of Kent) and me the opportunity to be involved in an exciting project: a MOOC (Massive Online Open Course) on the topic of Health and Wellbeing in the Ancient World. We had previously worked together on a pedagogical project (an article on the difficulty of teaching sensitive topics such as the history of abortion), and were prepared for a new collaborative challenge.

Several months down the line, the MOOC is in the final stages of writing. We chose to organise our material in the ‘head-to-toe’ order, which is the structure so often adopted in Greek and Roman medical texts. We cover a huge variety of themes and topics, in what we hope will be an original and informative introduction to ancient medicine.

I was particularly keen to introduce as many recipes as possible into the MOOC material. We did so both in written sections and in video ones. For the film sections, I chose to recreate two ancient recipes: that of a collyrium (an eye remedy) found in Galen’s pharmacological writings and an oxygarum (a recipe supposed to aid digestion) found in Apicius‘ cookery collection.

Filming in the stacks of the National Roman Legion Museum at Caerleon
Filming in the storerooms of the National Roman Legion Museum at Caerleon

The wonderful National Roman Legion Museum at Caerleon (South Wales) was kind enough to host the filming. They provided us with authentic looking Roman pots to put all the ingredients in, as well as a costume – complete with winged-phallus amulet – for me to wear. I believe being in costume greatly helped me feel slightly less nervous.

For nervous, I certainly was. This was only my second experience of filming: the first had taken place a couple of days before, at the Wellcome Library, where we filmed a piece on manuscript herbals. I had not quite realised that filming a cookery piece usually involves several cameras, as multiple takes are not possible (because ingredients are expensive). I therefore had to pretend to be natural in front of the producer (Lizzy Jones) and three cameramen. Let’s just say that I can’t see an alternative career for me as a TV chef…

We started with the collyrium:

White collyrium, for a persistent flow of tears and other afflictions; it is called ‘delicate’: calamine, 16 drachms; white lead, 8 drachms; starch, 4 drachms; gum, 4 drachms; tragacanth gum, 4 drachms; opium, 2 drachms. Take up with rain water. Use with egg. Galen, Compositions of Medicines according to Places 4.8, 12.757 Kühn

Of course, I could use neither white lead nor opium, which are dangerous substances. I substituted the former with zinc, and the latter with a white powder.

Wondering what comes first: the remedy or the egg
Wondering what comes first: the remedy or the egg

As someone who has experience recreating ancient recipes, I knew exactly what to expect: the ingredients mixed together with water would take on a consistency similar to a very thick shaving foam. But, while photos can illustrate this point, they can’t do so as powerfully as a film.

Like so many ancient eye-remedy recipes, this one omits to state that the preparation has to be left to dry, a process which I discovered takes at least 24 hours… Fortunately, I had tried this at home a few days before the filming! Once the preparation is dried, it can be crumbled, and a small amount is then applied to the eye. But to what part of the eye, and how exactly? I knew that the part of the egg to use is the white (I can now add ‘can separate an egg in a highly stressful situation’ to my CV), but I did not know whether to dip my finger in the crumbled remedy first and the egg second, or vice versa. Helen King and I had a quick chat, and decided that the egg came first!

The second recipe I recreated is named after its main ingredient, garum, the famous Roman sauce made with fermented fish. A purist would have prepared some garum in advance, but I simply went to the supermarket to buy some Nam Pla, also known as Thai fish sauce:

Another oxygarum, for digestion: 1 ounce each of pepper, parsley, caraway, lovage; mix with honey. When done add garum and vinegar. Apicius, De re coquinaria 1.37

Feeling a bit like a rabbit in the headlights
Feeling a bit like a rabbit in the headlights

Preparing that recipe was very simple. Instead of using an ounce (a relatively large amount), I used a spoonful of each ingredient. I confidently announced to the camera that Roman medicine was ‘all about proportions’ merrily throwing spoonfuls of ingredients into a mortar. I failed to notice that I had been rather heavy handed with the pepper.

Of course, the crew insisted that I should try some of my wonderful aid to digestion. I obliged – the things that one does! The preparation tasted surprisingly sweet, until – that is – the pepper kicked in. I am sure my face pulling will be much appreciated by the MOOC learners!

I was left with a fishy, fiery taste in the mouth for several hours. Perhaps the Romans were wired differently from me, but I suffered from heartburn for the entire afternoon.

Health and Wellbeing in the Ancient World, a Future Learn MOOC, will start on February 6th, 2017. You can read Helen’s thoughts on writing a MOOC here.

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.”

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.