[Cooked] gourds with fowl: [add] hard-fleshed peaches, truffles, pepper, caraway, cumin, silphium, green herbs – mint, celery, coriander, pennyroyal, mentuccia –, honey, wine, liquamen, oil and vinegar. (The Latin text is here).
turkey drumsticks (about 750 g)
sugar pumpkin or butternut squash, cubed
apple, peeled, cored and diced
1/4 tsp. asafoetida
(1/2 tsp. fennel seeds will do)
For the sauce
dry white wine
chicken or vegetable stock
fish-sauce or MSG
herbs to taste (mint, celery, coriander, pennyroyal, oregano)
shaved (to taste)
1. Season the turkey legs with salt and pepper. Heat the oil in deep pan over high heat. Add turkey legs and cook, skin-side down, until crispy and golden brown (8 minutes or so). Flip legs and cook until the other side is browned, another 5 minutes. Transfer to a plate.
2. Return pan to heat with a bit more oil,
and when it’s hot, add the pumpkin or squash and asafoetida. Cook until the
pumpkin just begins brown, about 5 minutes. Add the apple, caraway, cumin and
fennel seeds and cook for another few minutes until browned.
3. Add wine to the pan and reduce by half.
Add stock, honey, fish-sauce and herbs. Return the drumsticks to the pan, cover
and let simmer for an hour until drumsticks are fall-apart tender. Add water or
more stock if it begins to look too dry. Alternatively, place in an oven
preheated to 375 F / 190 C. Serve drumsticks with roasted sweet potatoes,
drizzle on some of the sauce with some shaved truffle.
I’ve recently become obsesessed with
cucurbits thanks to a question from Peter Singer. This resulted in a discussion
with Laurence Totelin that took place this summer during
a workshop at the Humboldt-Universität as part of SFB 980, project
A03, “The Transfer of Medical Episteme in the ‘Encyclopaedic’ Compilations of
Late Antiquity”, with Philip van der Eijk. The subject was our forthcoming
translations of Books I and II of Aetius of Amida’s Medical Collections.
“We” are Sean Coughlin, Eric Gowling, Christine Salazar, and Piero Tassinari.
Many thanks to our guests Alessia Guardasole, Matteo Martelli, and of course
Laurence for attending. The translation of Book I was completed by Eric Gowling
as a doctoral dissertation and was in the process of being revised by Piero
Tassinari and myself when he passed away last year. I hope Piero would
appreciate this little essay. He is dearly missed.
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’sMedical 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.
“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
This includes zucchini, courgettes,
squashes, decorative gourds, and even those 1000
kg monsters at fall fairs. None of them were known in Europe before
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.
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
Here is the
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.
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,
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.
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.
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 History21.73.123, 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.
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 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 (DioscoridesDe 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…
From my research, I devised the plan below, with the ancient remedies highlighted in red:
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
Breakfast: Porridge with Nutella, tea.
Lunch: Niçoise salad.
Dinner: Chicken thigh fillets, roasted vegetables, glass of red wine.
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…
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.
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.
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!
Meals: I was very ill, so didn’t eat anything.
Day time: Arm massage, 10 minute steam.
Bed time: Bath, wet flannel on chest.
Breakfast: Toast with scrambled eggs.
Lunch: Vegetable and barley broth.
Dinner: Salmon, barley, asparagus, broccoli, glass of wine.
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.