Nit Picking the Greek and Roman Way

By Laurence Totelin

One of the ‘joys’ of parenthood is dealing with lice and nits. In the UK, the NHS helpfully states that ‘there’s nothing you can do to prevent head lice.’ You can only prevent them from spreading like wild fire. This school year, the problem has deepened in England and Wales, as general practitioners have been prevented from prescribing free treatments in an attempt to make savings. Treatments on sale in pharmacies and supermarkets are exorbitantly priced and don’t work particularly well. Cheaper treatments, basically covering the hair with hair conditioner and combing, are extremely time consuming but perhaps more effective in the long run.

Nineteenth-century lice comb, India. The Science Museum, London. Source: Wellcome Images

Fighting off lice infestations in our household this year has made me wonder whether the Greeks and the Romans also dealt with the issue, and if so, how. I discovered that the ancients distinguished between the adult insect, the louse (phtheir in Greek), and its egg (konis in Greek), thereby showing an understanding that one cannot get rid of the pest without removing all eggs. They also recognised that lice can live on the head, the body, and even the eyebrows. They appreciated that the easiest way to treat an infestation was to shave the hair, although perhaps not as assiduously as Egyptian priests, who according to the Greek historian Herodotus (Histories 2.37), shaved their entire body every other day to avoid lice. That method, however, was not available to those who had to wear their hair long for social or cultural reasons. Thus, Herodotus again noted of the Adyrmachidae, a tribe of Libyans, that:

Their women wear twisted bronze ornaments on both legs; their hair is long; each catches her own lice, then bites and throws them away. They are the only Libyans that do this (Herodotus 4.168, translation A.D. Godley).

This observation is meant to stress the oddness and otherness of the Adyrmachidae, whose women fight lice in a disgusting manner, without even relying on the social ritual of nit picking.

Delousing. Illustration to the Hortus Sanitatis, fifteenth century. Source: Wellcome Images

What about treatments? Ancient Greek and Roman medical authors offer some possible solutions. The first-century pharmacologist Dioscorides recorded several methods in his De Materia Medica, many of which are still in use today. Some consisted in spreading the hair with a sticky or oily substance, such as cedar oil (1.77.2) or boiled honey (2.82.2), which would presumably have asphyxiated the lice and facilitated a combing process. Others involved smearing the hair with a plant sap (sap of ivy, 2.179.3) or decoction (decoction of tamarisk leaves, 1.87.2), which might have acted as an insect repellent or poison. Dioscorides also recommended the use of alum (5.106.6) and sea water (5.11.1). Perhaps more surprising is his suggestion to give garlic, drunk with a decoction of oregano (2.152.2).

Other medical authors gave slightly more complex recipes for the treatment of lice infestation. Thus, the sixth century author Alexander of Tralles (1.459) recommended a mixture of sodium carbonate, alum, and wild grapes, each in the amount of an ounce, mixed with myrtle oil and smeared onto the head. The seventh century medical author Paul of Aegina for his part claimed that ‘I am always successful when I anoint the head with wild grapes crushed together with vinegar and oil’ (3.3.8).

In short, most of those remedies are highly sensible, if perhaps not entirely effective. But then again, what is ever effective in fighting lice? There were, however, some tall tales circulating in antiquity regarding nits and lice. Dioscorides tells us that authorities whose names were not worth recording ‘say that those who are given [viper flesh] grow lice, which is false. And some add that those who eat vipers become long-lived’ (2.16.1). The trade off for a long life, then it seems, is to eat viper flesh and become a growing field for lice. I’m not sure I would make that trade off!

A Pain in the Backside: Ancient Remedies for Haemorrhoids

By Glyn Muitjens

Although haemorrhoids are not often talked about, as many seem to consider them a source of embarrassment, they are anything but a rare condition. In fact, the Association of Coloproctology of Great Britain and Ireland suspects one in three people in Britain suffers from them sometime in life. Haemorrhoids seem to have been a common problem in Greek antiquity as well, and this inspired at least one medical author from the 5th century BCE to dedicate a treatise to them and their treatments – recipes included!

            Haemorrhoids (Greek haimorrhois, a contraction of haima, ‘blood’, and rhoia, ‘flux’) form due to prolonged pressure on the anal veins, which swell up and may in some cases lead to lumps appearing on the outside of the anus. The author of the treatise Haemorrhoids, which is part of the Hippocratic Corpus, describes their formation as follows:

Nineteenth-century representation of the excision of haemorrhoidal tumours. Source: Wellcome Images

When bile or phlegm becomes fixed in the vessels of the anus, it heats the blood in them so that, being heated, they attract blood from their nearest neighbours. As the vessels fill up, the interior of the anus becomes prominent and the heads of the vessels are raised above its surface, where they are partly abraded by the faeces passing out, and partly overcome by the blood collected inside them, and so spurt out blood, usually during defecation, but occasionally at other times as well. (Hippocrates, Haemorrhoids 1)

For this author humoral clogging, heat and the ensuing attraction of ‘like to like’ – staples of Hippocratic pathology – are to blame for the formation of haemorrhoids. Another Hippocratic claims that men from cities exposed to hot winds have heads filled with phlegm, often suffering from haemorrhoids “in the anus” (Airs Waters Places 3). The Greek word haimorrhois can be used to denote any vein that discharges blood, so some topographical precision is necessary to speak of haemorrhoids in our sense of the term.

            The Hippocratic author mentions several possible ways of treating haemorrhoids. Some of these are rather invasive: cauterization with heated irons, for example – a treatment not always welcomed with enthusiasm (“Let assistants hold the patient down by his head and arms while he is being cauterized so that he does not move – but let him shout during the cautery, for that makes the anus stick out more.” Haemorrhoids 2). The cautery wound is then covered with a plaster of boiled lentils and chickpeas for 5 or 6 days, after which an assemblage of different fabrics covered in honey is inserted in the anus and kept in place by a bandage tied around the body.

A tool to remove haemorrhoids: the Chassignae-type écraseur, London, England, 1880-1902. Source: Wellcome Images

            This final treatment points to an interesting aspect of treating haemorrhoids ‘of the anal variety’, namely that the backside is a difficult place to reach both for diagnosis – the author warns that using a device to dilate the anus for closer inspection might obscure the haemorrhoid – and for treatment, which elicits some creative responses. For example, having removed a “knobbiness” or kondulôma next to a blood vessel by hand, the author suggests to dry out the blood vessel by inserting a tube into the anus, and shove a heated iron into the tube, so as not to expose the patient to the burning directly.

            Haemorrhoids could also be removed purely with medications, for which the author provides several recipes, both for direct application and as suppositories. For example, after moistening the anus:

Grind myrrh and oak galls into a smooth paste, and add one and a half times as much burnt Egyptian alum and an equal amount of black pigment: apply this medication dry. (Haemorrhoids 8)

Recipes for this purpose were also provided by the 1st century CE pharmacological writer Dioscorides: bramble, and several kinds of frankincense when applied as a plaster could be used to treat condylomas and haemorrhoids (De Materia Medica 3.74.2; 4.37.1).

Frankincense, represented in the ‘Vienna Dioscorides’ manuscript, 512 CE

            At the end of the treatise, our Hippocratic author speaks of what he calls haemorrhoids “as pertaining to women.” The treatment is as follows:

Moisten with copious warm water in which sweet smelling substances have been boiled; grind tamarisk, burnt litharge, and oak gall, add white wine, olive oil, and goose grease, pound these all smooth, and after she has been moistened give this to be anointed. Also foment the anus after forcing it out as far as possible. (Haemorrhoids 9)

What does the author mean with “as pertaining to women”? The moistening treatment (the Greek verb used appears only a handful of times in the Corpus) is very reminiscent of those found in the Hippocratic gynaecological treatise Nature of Women, in which they pertain to the womb. Are we to imagine that these haemorrhoids are located in the uterus? The final sentence, “also foment the anus”, might be taken to point in this direction, as if the backside is not the primary concern.

            I hope to have broken some of the embarrassed silence surrounding haemorrhoids, putting them in historical perspective. Although haemorrhoids nowadays can be a nuisance, we should remember they are a common condition and rarely pose a serious threat to health. At worst, they have to be treated through minor surgery. Let’s thank the stars we’re not ancient Greeks.

All of the Greek translations, sometimes slightly adapted by me, are from Paul Potter, Hippocrates Volume VIII (Cambridge MA, London: Harvard University Press, 1995)

Apicius’ Pumpkins with Turkey

By Sean Coughlin

This post follows on yesterday’s post on whether the Romans had pumpkins.

Translation:

[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).

Stewing turkey, pumpkin and apples in the wine and stock. Photo by the author.

My interpretation:

Ingredients

  • 2 tbsps. olive oil
  • 2 large turkey drumsticks (about 750 g)
  • Salt and pepper
  • Half a sugar pumpkin or butternut squash, cubed
  • One apple, peeled, cored and diced
  • 1/4 tsp. asafoetida
  • 1/2 tsp. caraway
  • 1/2 tsp. cumin
  • Silphium (1/2 tsp. fennel seeds will do)

For the sauce

  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • 1/2 cup chicken or vegetable stock
  • 1 tbsp. honey
  • dash of fish-sauce or MSG
  • Fresh herbs to taste (mint, celery, coriander, pennyroyal, oregano)
  • Truffles, 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.

Deglazing with white wine. Photo by the author.

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.

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.

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