Revisiting Laurence Totelin’s Fevers and the Dog Star in Antiquity

Well, the Dog Days of summer are upon us once again…To help us cope with the heat, we revisit Laurence Totelin’s wonderful post from 2018.  In “Fevers and the Dog Star in Antiquity”, Laurence tells us about the origins of the term “Dog Days” and about various ancient remedies for seiriasis a fever whose name evokes the Dog Star Sirius. Keep cool, everyone! Elaine Leong


By Laurence Totelin

Summer this year in the UK has been particularly hot; we have experienced a heat wave for the first time in almost a decade. The hot days between roughly the tenth of July and the fifteenth of August are known as the Dog Days, so called because they are under the astronomical influence of the Dog Star (canicula in Latin, hence the French “canicule”, sometimes also used in English), also known as Sirius. Greek and Latin poets, starting with Homer and Hesiod, sang of the effects of the parching heat on the environment and people:

When the golden thistle blooms and the chirping cicada
Sits in a tree and pours down its shrill song
Continuously from under its wings, it is the season of exhausting heat,
Then goats are fattest, wine is at its best,
Women are most lustful, but men are weakest,
Because Sirius dries up the head and the knees,
And the skin is parched by the burning heat.
[Hesiod, Works and Days 582-588]

The constellation Sirius in the ninth-century manuscript Harley MS 647 . Source: wikipedia

To the Greeks, women were wet and men dry. The heat of the Dog Days caused both men and women to become drier; this brought positive effects to women, who became more like the ideal male, but weakened men. That weakness, however, was not a morbid state; it was not an illness.

Medical texts composed in later antiquity described a disease called seiriasis, which was an inflammation of the meninges accompanied by a burning fever. Its name evoked the Dog Star Sirius, although the physician Soranus of Ephesus suggested that the origin of the word seiriasis might be slightly more complex:

Some people state that the disease is called ‘seiriasis’ after the star [Sirius], because of the fever; but others state that it is thus called after the sunken forehead, because among farmers ‘seiros’ is the name of a hollow object in which they put and keep seeds. [Soranus, Gynaecology 2.55]

Soranus, and other medical writers, recommended the application of various ingredients to the forehead as treatment for the illness: egg yolk mixed with rose oil, the leaf of the heliotrope, grated colocynth, the skin of melon, or the juice of nightshade with rose oil. Most of these products, available in mid-summer, were thought to be cooling, and therefore effective in the treatment of fevers: opposite is a cure for opposite. The heliotrope, however, was not known as a cooling drug. The therapeutic principle at play here seems to be that of homeopathy (similar is a cure for similar): the heliotrope, the plant that follows the heat of the sun, is a remedy for a burning fever.

An altogether more colourful remedy for seiriasis is recorded in Pliny the Elder’s Natural History:

The inflammation of infants which is called seirasis is improved by the bones that are found in dog excrement, worn as amulets. [Pliny the Elder, Natural History 30.135]

Girl playing with a dog on a Greek funerary stele, second century BCE. Credit: British Museum

Bone shards are sometimes found in dog poop, and these might be what Pliny was referring to here. This ingredient was most certainly chosen because of the perceived link between seiriasis and the Dog Star Sirius. One can only imagine the despair that would lead the sleep deprived parents of a sick child to put their trust in such an amulet.

Tales from the Archives: Nit Picking the Greek and Roman Way

Here in the UK, school has recently started. For parents of young children, this brings the annual scratch-fest of lice. I haven’t yet found any, but I’ve already had at least two nightmares involving lice.  The post I’ve chosen doesn’t really discuss children specifically, even though this month is our annual teaching edition. But I do offer a tale from the archives that discusses some ancient lice treatments that would have been used on children (and adults)…

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!

Smelling of Roses in Ancient Rome

By Laurence Totelin as part of the perfume series

The Roses of Heliogabalus by Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1888. Source: Wikimedia

The painter Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912) had a knack for depicting the — sometimes imaginary — luxurious excesses of the Romans. In The Roses of Heliogabalus, he represented a banquet hosted by the emperor Elagabalus (218-222 CE). Vast amounts of delicate rose petals are drifting onto the banqueters, some of whom appear to be asleep, perhaps after drinking too much. Look more carefully, however, and you will note that some are inert but have their eyes wide open — they are dead, suffocated under the oppressive roses.

Alma-Tadema’s inspiration for his painting was a story preserved in a collection of emperors’ biographies called the Historia Augusta (21.5). There, the emperor is said to have smothered his guests with violets and other flowers — no roses then — released from a reversible ceiling. The guests were unable to crawl from under the roses and died; it is unclear whether the emperor had intended for this to happen. If the story is true, Elagabalus might have emulated another infamous Roman emperor, Nero (54-68 CE), who also had a reversible ceiling in his palace, which opened up to scatter flowers and spray perfume (Suetonius, Nero 31).

It would be impossible to count the flowers on Alma-Tadema’s canvas, but one would guess that they are in their thousands. Imagine a heap of a thousand fresh roses. Imagine their scent.

One thousand roses is the exact number we find mentionned in a second-century letter from Roman Egypt preserved on papyrus. Apollonios and Serapias write to Dionysia to apologise for having sent only a thousand roses for the wedding ceremony of Dionysia’s son, Serapion:

There are not yet many roses here — rather a shortage — and from all the farms and all the garland makers we had difficulty in putting together the thousand which we sent you via Sarapas, even by picking the ones which should have been picked tomorrow. We had as many narcissi as you wanted so we sent you four thousand instead of the two thousand you ordered (P. Oxy. 3313; translation John Muir)*

Cupids hanging rose garlands. Roman Fresco, end of the first century CE. Getty Centre. Source: wikimedia.

One thousand roses is also the number we find in the first-century pharmacologist Dioscorides’ recipe for rose perfume (Materia Medica 1.43). The recipe is long and complex and involves several stages. What is clear, however, is that the petals of ‘1000 unmoistened roses’ are left to steep overnight in 20 litrai 5 oungiai of olive oil (approximately 6.7 kg — equivalence between ancient and modern weights and measures is difficult to establish). The petals are then squeezed out, and the same amount of fresh petals can be added to the oil. Dioscorides notes that “the oil accepts the addition of rose petals up to the seventh insertion and no more.”

Imagine then that oil into which the petals of no less than 7000 fresh roses have been inserted. The head spins. Imagine too the feeling of that perfume on your skin. The thick oiliness of it. Let me tell you a secret: I feel queasy at the very thought of it. I can’t quite fathom the work involved in picking this extraordinary amount of thorny flowers, in detaching the petals without bruising them too much, in squeezing them out by hand. Yet that work was carried out, and in antiquity, it was probably carried out by enslaved people. Roses can be oppressive in more senses than one!


Muir, John. 2009. Life and Letters in the Ancient Greek World, London and New York: Routledge.

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!