Painting Plants in Roman Egypt

By David Leith

The illustrated herbal is a genre of pharmacological book known in Graeco-Roman antiquity from at least the first century BCE. The encyclopaedist Pliny the Elder (Natural History 25.8), for example, mentions a number of writers of herbals who provided pictures of the plants above descriptions of their medicinal effects. One of the earliest surviving examples of such illustrated herbals, dating to around 400 CE (to judge from its handwriting), is a lavish, papyrus codex leaf with full colour illustrations named ‘the Johnson Papyrus’ (P. Johnson), after John de Monins Johnson who found it in 1904.[1] He discovered it in the city of Antinoupolis in Middle Egypt, and it is now held in the Wellcome Library in London.

L0015764 Johnson Papyrus, fragment of an illustrated herbal.On one side of the page, we find a cabbage-like plant with dark, bluish-green leaves bearing the name Symphyton, perhaps to be identified as comfrey (symphytum officinale L.). The surviving caption, written directly underneath the picture, is as follows, though the text may have continued on for several more lines after the break:

‘This plant, when ground down, cures every haemorrhage and agglutinates wounds and severed tendons. It cures coughing up of blood …’

On the other side, the plant Phlomos, perhaps mullein (verbascum Thapsus L.), is depicted with green and yellow leaves sprouting from five stalks and a large bulb with roots. This time the plant is not recommended as medically useful by itself, but rather in the form of a compound drug along with several other ingredients (here the end of the caption seems to be preserved):

Johnson papyrus, verso. Phlomos
Johnson papyrus, verso. Phlomos

‘(1 word unread, e.g. ‘Apply’) … the juice of the plant, marjoram, deer marrow, all-heal, wax, turpentine resin, and old olive oil. It cures those who have been harmed by (pains?) and all kinds of (weariness?).’

On the papyrus, the paint used to depict the plants remains remarkably vibrant, though the same cannot be said for the captions describing their medicinal applications. This is due to the metal-based ink used, called iron gall ink, which is prone to fading over time, and the poor state of these texts meant that continuous sense has been gleaned from them only recently. However, the ink tends to show up much more clearly under ultraviolet light, as you can hopefully see from the image just below , and we now have a much better idea of the sort of medical information that the herbal contained.

P Johnson UV

Significantly, these plants, Symphyton and Phlomos, and the same therapeutic recommendations are also to be found in a work of astrological medicine which was similarly composed in Egypt. This is a treatise named On the Powers of Plants (De virtutibus herbarum) attributed to ‘Thessalus the philosopher’, whose identity has been the subject of some controversy (in particular, whether or not he is the better known first century CE doctor Thessalus of Tralles – I don’t think he is). This astrological treatise records medical information on 19 separate plants, each associated with either one of the 12 signs of the zodiac, or with one of the 7 ‘wandering stars’ (which is what the Greek ‘planetes’ means) that were known at the time, i.e. the sun, moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. The entries are much longer and more detailed than those preserved on the illustrated herbal, with several different medicinal applications included for each plant, and specific quantities in the compound recipes, as well as notes on the correct dates, given in various calendrical systems, for harvesting the plants to maximise their potency. The surviving manuscripts of this astrological text, however, contain no illustrations of the plants.

It is unfortunately unclear precisely what relationship the illustrated herbal had to this astrological work, whether they were both dependent on a common source, or one was the source for the other. It is to be noted, however, that the surviving parts of the papyrus herbal show no trace of the astrological material found in On the Powers of Plants. There is a further piece of information which might be suggestive of some sort of direct relationship. If all 19 plants in the astrological treatise are re-arranged in Greek alphabetical order, it is at least a striking coincidence that the final two plants turn out to be Symphytum and Phlomos, which of course were juxtaposed in the herbal. Perhaps the compiler of the illustrated herbal used On the Powers of Plants to create a new, alphabetically arranged and non-astrological text, yet that would not explain where the illustrations came from, which are unlikely to have been painted from life.

[1] First edited by C. Singer, ‘The Herbal in Antiquity and its Transmission to Later Ages’, Journal of Hellenic Studies 47 (1927), 1-52 (at 31-33); see also D. Leith, ‘The Antinoopolis Illustrated Herbal (PJohnson + PAntin. 3.214 = MP3 2095’, Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 156 (2006), 141-156.

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!

Sweet as Honey

By Laurence Totelin

Yesterday I read some press releases about a fascinating Welsh research project (based at my University: Cardiff University) that will screen Welsh honey for antibiotic properties.  The aim is to find the Welsh answer to Manuka honey, by driving bees to flowers with the highest antibiotic properties. This project, if successful, will no doubt have significant positive medical, ecological, and economic implications. The press release mentions the use of medicinal honey since the Middle Ages. One should never take press releases too literally, but the history of employing honey medicinally goes much further than the Middle Ages. I will focus here on the Greek and Roman periods of antiquity, but honey was used in many cultures well before the Greeks started using writing.

A coin from ancient Ephesus, representing a bee. Source:
A coin from ancient Ephesus, representing a bee. Source:

Honey is one of the most common ingredients in Greek and Roman pharmacopoieias. It was taken orally as well as applied to the body.  What interests me here is the great care the ancients took to differentiate between types of honey. In particular, ancient recipes frequently and consistently ask for Attic honey. For instance, the Hippocratic text Internal Affections (end of the fifth, beginning of the fourth century BCE) has the following recipe for a ‘hip-disease’:

If this [previous treatment] does not help, purge with the following remedy: crush half a kotyle of cumin; chop into pieces an entire gourd, of the small and round variety, in a mortar; sprinkle with the finest red Egyptian natron, in the amount of a quarter of a mina; roast; pound finely; put these ingredients in a pot; pour in a kotyle of oil, half a kotule of honey; a kotyle of sweet white wine, and two kotylai of juice of beet. Boil these [ingredients] until they have the right consistency; pass them through a cloth; add to them a kotyle of Attic honey, if you do not want to boil they honey together with the other ingredients. If you do not have Attic honey, use some of the best honey and heat up in the mortar. If this clyster preparation is too thick, add the same wine to the recommended thickness. Use this as a clyster. [Hippocratic Corpus, Internal Affections 51]

Several interesting things here: first, the Attic honey is not the only ‘ethnic’ ingredient in this recipe: it also contains Egyptian natron. This use of geographically-qualified ingredients is a characteristic of ancient recipes. Second, the author understands that not everyone will have access to Attic honey and suggests using the best possible honey available if that is the case. Third, the recipe recommends not to boil the honey together with the other ingredients, possibly indicating an awareness that heat destroys some of the qualities of honey.

The Hippocratic authors do not tell us what made Attic honey special, but other medical authors tell us that Attic honey (and in particular the honey of Mount Hymettus) was special because the bees fed on thyme, which was itself an important medicinal herb. Some writers produced lists of plants that produced the sweetest honey (thyme, violets, asphodel, iris), and those that should be avoided (spurge, thapsia, wormwood, wild cucumber). According to Palladius, a fifth-century CE agronomist, these plants had to be avoided because their bitter taste would prevent the creation of sweetness (1.37).

The Greeks and Romans also mention poisonous honeys. The historian Xenophon (fourth century BCE) describes the effect of a poisonous honey to be found in the land of the Colchians (East Coast of the Black Sea, modern Georgia).

And swarms of bees were numerous there, and the soldiers who ate the honeycombs all went out of their mind, vomited and suffered from diarrhoea, and none of them was able to stand up; but those who had consumed only a little appeared like those who are extremely drunk; while those who had taken a lot seemed like mad or even dying men. Thus many lied there as if there had been a defeat, and there was much despondency. But the next day nobody had died, and around the same hour as they [had taken the honey], they came back to their senses. And on the third or fourth day they got up, as if after a poisoning (pharmakoposia). [Xenophon, Anabasis 4.8.20-21].

Unfortunately, Xenophon does not tell enough about the flora of the region to make a hypothesis about the nature of the plants upon which these bees fed. Pliny the Elder also describes a poisonous honey from Heracleia Pontica (on the Black Sea, modern Turkey), this time produced from a plant called ‘the goat killer’ (Natural History 21.74). I wonder whether modern apiculturists are aware of such poisonous honeys, and whether these dangerous honeys, taken in small doses, could be used medicinally? In any case, there is much scope for honey bioprospecting, and I wish my Cardiff colleague the best of luck!

Horse love pills

By Laurence Totelin

In the seventh century BCE, Semonides of Amorgos wrote his now infamous poem on the races of women, each one worse than the next. The mare-woman is perhaps my favourite, the ultimate high-maintenance lady:

Another type a horse with a splendid mane begat.
She turns up her nose at all kinds of work and toil.
She would never touch a mill, nor a sieve
Would she ever lift, nor would she throw dung out of the house,
Nor, for fear of the soot, would she near the oven
Ever sit. Only out of necessity will she make love to her husband.
She washes off the dirt every day,
Twice, sometimes three times; then she anoints herself with perfumes
She always wears her mane combed loose,
Abundant as it is, and strewn with flowers.
What a beauty to look at, she is that woman
For others; for her owner she is a pain,
Unless he is a king or a sceptre bearer
Who can delight in such pleasures.
[Semonides fragment 7, 57-70]

Now Semonides was describing human women here, but he may as well have been berating an actual mare. For in antiquity horses in general, and mares in particular, were considered rather troublesome, especially in their sexual habits.

Centaur women flanking Aphrodite on a Roman mosaic, Tunisia. Photograph by Giorces available on Wikimedia Commons
Centaur women flanking Aphrodite on a Roman mosaic, Tunisia. Photograph by Giorces available on Wikimedia Commons

According to Aristotle, horses were the most salacious of animals after men, but unlike civilised Greeks, they had no revulsion for incest:

Horses will mounts their mothers and their daughters. In fact, a herd of horses is not considered perfect, unless horses copulate with their own offspring. [Aristotle, Enquiry into Animals 6.22, 576a18-20]:

In some regions, mares left without a stallion, were said to imagine the pleasures of love and conceive ‘wind-foals’, with the help of the west wind (this story is often repeated in ancient literature, see for instance Vergil, Georgics 3.269-275; Columella, On Agriculture 6.27.4-7). Other mares fell in love with themselves:

There is a rare, but remarkable, form of madness that overcomes mares. If they see their reflection in water, they are seized with a vain love, and as a result, they forget to forage and they become lost to this wasting love disease. [Columella, On Agriculture 6.35]

However, when breeding was required, mares turned cold. They often had to be tied to submit to the stallion (Varro, On Agriculture 2.7.8; Pliny the Elder, Natural History 10.179). And the only way to get a mare to submit to an ass in mule-breeding was to clip her mane, because a long mane made her ‘proud and high spirited’ (Pliny, Natural History 10.179). No wonder then, that the ancients developed love pills to regulate equine desire. The Roman agronomists recommended squill, crushed to the consistency of honey in water, to be smeared on the genitals of the mare; while the stud was made to smell her genital scent (Columella, On Agriculture 6.27; Varro, On Agriculture 2.7.8). The Greek Hippiatric treatises, beside similar herbal remedies, have slightly more complicated concoctions:

Horse carrying a nude woman. Detail from a mosaic at the Baths of Caracalla, Ostia. This photograph by Hubert Steiner is available on Wikimedia Commons.
Horse carrying a nude woman. Detail from a mosaic at the Baths of Caracalla, Ostia. This photograph by Hubert Steiner is available on Wikimedia Commons.

To incite horses to sexual intercourse… the right testicle of a cock; place it in the skin of a ram and hang to the neck of the horse; or the dried right testicle of a deer; reduce to powder and make it drink with milk-honey. For frequent and unpainful sexual intercourse… The flesh of a skink (lizard) in sweet-smelling mixed wine; inject into the animal…  [Hippiatric treatise of Cambridge 10.6 and 15, ninth century CE]

The animals whose testicles were sacrificed to the greater good of horse breeding were, of course, not chosen at random: both the cock and the deer were known for their sexual vigour. Nor was the right testicle an arbitrary choice: the right side was believed to be involved in the production of males.

Such fanciful and expensive aphrodisiacs may never been used on actual mares, but it is significant that they are recorded. Horses were time-consuming and costly animals to keep–animals whose possession was indicative of social standing, very much like Semonides’ beautiful horse-woman, kept entertained by luxurious flowers and perfumes.