Flower power: Cato’s medicinal recipes

By Jane Draycott

Marcus Porcius Cato (234-149 BCE) is often presented as the archetypal example of the ancient Roman head of the household taking charge of his family members’ health, the result of claims made by Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE) in his encyclopaedia Natural History:

For [Cato] adds the medical treatment by which he prolonged his own life and that of his wife to an advanced age, by these very remedies in fact with which I am now dealing, and he claims to have a notebook of recipes, by the aid of which he treated his son, servants, and household. 

[Pliny, Natural History 29.8.15]

A bucolic scene featuring a walled garden, Red Room, Villa of Agrippa Postumus, Boscoreale
A bucolic scene featuring a walled garden, Red Room, Villa of Agrippa Postumus, Boscoreale

The Greek historian Plutarch (c. 40-120 CE) offers more detail in his Parallel Lives, describing Cato’s theories, methods and practices, which show strong parallels with those utilised by the period’s physicians:

[Cato] had written a book of recipes, which he followed in the treatment and regimen of any who were sick in his family. He never required his patients to fast, but fed them on greens, or bits of duck, pigeon, or hare.  Such a diet, he said, was light and good for sick people, except that it often causes dreams. By following such treatment and regimen he said he had good health himself, and kept his family in good health. [Plutarch, Life of Cato the Elder 23.4]

Both Pliny and Plutarch offer Cato’s longevity as proof of his medical capabilities, at least in respect of himself (his wife and one of his sons predeceased him). Unfortunately, Cato’s book of recipes has not survived. What has is his treatise On Agriculture, the very first such work to be written in Latin, which dates to around 160 BCE. The treatise was directed at a very specific audience: young men who, thanks to Rome’s recent triumph in the Second Punic War, were in a position to purchase fertile agricultural land in central Italy, along with sufficient slaves to enable them to cultivate grapes and olives in order to produce wine and oil for sale, but who were not in possession of sufficient knowledge or experience as to how to proceed beyond that. The priority is economic self-sufficiency and investment potential, with as much as possible being produced on the estate, for use on the estate, hence the prominent place the garden takes in Cato’s list of requirements: a garden can be used to grow fruit, vegetables, flowers, and herbs not only for food, but also for medicine.

The prescriptions and recipes found in On Agriculture indicate that, in addition to acting as a healer for the human members of his household, Cato also acted as a veterinarian for his livestock (oxen, cattle, and sheep are all mentioned specifically), and recommended that others do the same. Throughout the text the authority of the master – which, it is made clear, results from a combination of knowledge and experience – is emphasised, as is the importance of drawing upon the resources immediately to hand, those grown on the estate, predominantly in the garden. Of Cato’s numerous prescriptions and recipes for the treatment of both humans and animals, the ingredients required are all those which he either explicitly states were cultivated within his garden, or were likely to have been.

Pomegranates, Garden Room, Villa of Livia, Prima Porta
Pomegranates, Garden Room, Villa of Livia, Prima Porta

In conjunction with Cato’s recommendation that, if an estate is located near a town, the garden should be used to cultivate flowers for garlands, he lists those he considers to be the most suitable: ‘white and black myrtle, Delphian, Cyprian, and wild laurel, smooth nuts, such as Abellan, Praenestine, and Greek filberts’ (On Agriculture 8.2). Elsewhere in the treatise, laurel leaves appear in a recipe for a tonic for oxen, while black myrtle is a main ingredient in a recipe for indigestion and colic (On Agriculture 70 and 125). In a remedy for indigestion and strangury, he includes pomegranates, instructing his reader to ‘gather pomegranate blossoms when they open’, thus implying that these plants were within easy reach (On Agriculture 127). Pomegranates also appear in a recipe for ‘gripes, for loose bowels, for tapeworms and stomach-worms, if troublesome’ (On Agriculture 126). The wine and oil produced on the estate are also frequently enlisted in Cato’s medicaments, both as primary and secondary ingredients. With regard to wine, the addition of black hellebore is recommended to make a laxative, while that of juniper is recommended to treat the retention of urine, and gout, while the amurca that results from the production of olive oil is enlisted (along with wine) as a treatment for scab in sheep (On Agriculture 114, 115, 122, 123, 96).

It would appear that in respect of domestic medical practice, Cato very much practiced what he preached!

Something old – something new: Greek and Roman recipes in focus

By Laurence Totelin

A Roman coin showing the god Janus. Source: http://www.livius.org/ja-jn/janus/janus.html
A Roman coin showing the god Janus. Source: http://www.livius.org/ja-jn/janus/janus.html

The double-faced Roman god Janus presided over transitions: transitions from war to peace, from month to month, and from year to year. The Romans celebrated him on the Kalends of January, the first day of the year. The festivities are described most fully by the poet Ovid (first century CE) in his Fasti, where the offerings to Janus are described as wine, frankincense, cakes and meal sprinkled with salt (Book 1, lines 75, 128, 172). Later in that same poem, Ovid indicated that the offering of such simple products as cakes, meal and salt harked back to a past when imported and luxury products were not available:

Of old the means to win the goodwill of gods for man were spelt and the sparkling grains of pure salt. As yet no foreign ship had brought across the ocean waves the bark-stilled myrrh; the Euphrates had sent no incense, India no balm. And the red saffron’s filaments were still unknown.

(Ovid, Fasti 1.337-342; translation: James Frazer).

The cake offered to Janus was called “janual” (Festus, s.v. janual). According to Cato the Elder (second century BCE), author of a famous work On Agriculture, heaps of such cakes were sacrificed to the god before the harvest (On Agriculture 134). Unfortunately, we do not have any recipe for the janual, but Cato transmits a couple of recipes for cakes used for sacrificial purposes – the libum and the placenta – which may have been somewhat similar (On Agriculture 75-76).

The Recipes Project cannot offer you cakes to celebrate the Kalends of January 2015, but it can present you this series about Greek and Roman recipes instead. Helen King and I have devoted several Recipes Project posts to these ‘old’ recipes, but for the series we have enrolled three brand new bloggers: Jane Draycott, Ianto Jocks and David Leith. Their posts will demonstrate – if there was any need – how much there is still to study about ancient recipes.

Jane opens the series with Cato the Elder, who is familiar to all classicists, but whose recipes are still understudied. She shows how Cato exploited the produce from his ideal farm, and in particular from its garden, in his medicinal and veterinary recipes. Ianto turns to Scribonius Largus (first century CE), one of the most neglected of classical writers, the author of the wonderful Compositiones (Compositions of Remedies). Ianto focusses more particularly on a recipe to cure a headache which includes, among other ingredients, castoreum. The ancients believed that substance to originate from the testes of beavers (in fact, it comes from a gland located near the anus) – we are here far from the hearty garden produce praised by Cato, that great admirer of cabbage. David discusses recipes preserved on a papyrus dating to around 400 CE, but which may originate from a much earlier period.

A medieval miniature representing a beaver biting off his testes to avoid been killed by a hunter for its castoreum. Source: http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2012/11/beavers-on-the-run.html
A medieval miniature representing a beaver biting off his testes to avoid been killed by a hunter for its castoreum.
Source: http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2012/11/beavers-on-the-run.html

There are particular issues surrounding the study of ancient Greek and Latin recipes. Many texts are not translated into any modern language. In the case of Scribonius’ Compositions of Remedies there is no complete English translation. Translators have avoided that arduous task partly because it is sometimes impossible to identify ingredients listed in ancient recipes. It is important, however, not to use this obstacle as an excuse to neglect texts that are a rich source for social, economic, and medical history. As our bloggers show, one can still study an ancient recipe even though not all its ingredients are identifiable.

Studying ancient recipes can also be difficult when one is faced with fragmentary evidence, which is particularly the case for recipes preserved on papyrus. In antiquity, texts were copied onto papyrus, a very fragile material that survives only in certain climatic conditions. The climates of Greece and Rome are not favourable to the preservation of papyrus. However, the Greek and Roman worlds extended well beyond modern Greece and Italy, and included (from the end of the fourth century BCE onwards) one country in which papyrus survives quite well: Egypt. This explains why the Greek-language papyrus studied by David in his post was found in that country.

We hope you will enjoy our ‘Janual’ series on Greek and Roman recipes and that you will join in the discussion! Salve as they say in Latin.