André J. Fabre


Two main purposes were assigned to this study :


. Evaluate Roman pharmacopoeia in reference to modern scientific criteria (botany, physiology, pharmacology and therapeutic).


. Assess the rationality of a new discipline, close to "ethno-botany" and "ethno-pharmacology"aiming to a new approach of drug research based on re-investigation of Ancient texts : "archeo-pharmacology".



Confronted to this ever expanding subject, spices in Antiquity , one can hardly give a "message" for conclusion but some "markers" have been found useful in our work :


The Roman world of spices


The Roman world of spices has been in all times object of fascination : merger of all Mediterranean traditions, giant network of trade expanding on three continents, ingredients of every magic rituals and assigned to the many tasks of daily life, as dyes or perfumes, table food and medicine.


However, this Roman world remains mainly obscure to us on many sides. Even definitions pose problems :in our times, spices will commonly be defined as exotic condiments intended to enhance " flavour" and " aroma " in foods but, in Ancient times, distinction between condiments, perfumes and drugs or between aromas, aromates and aromatic plants was only relative. In fact, we can only understand this simple word "spices" using a complicated system of criteria : peculiar quality in taste and/or smell, "exotic" origin, high commercial value. but such criteria could not be applied easily to the Roman world. In yhe classical Latin texts, the word "species" has no entry: there is only mention of "condiments" and the triad : "aromas, aromates and aromatic plants ". Most likely, spices were, for the Romans, nothing more than substances with specific aromatic strength and high market prices.


The judgement that the Romans could have on spices is, by no means, clear : at times, quite similar to our experience, often surprisingly different. Very likely, there has been no change in sensory systems : spices have always carried on a subtle mixture of hedonism and passion, instinct and dreams, exotism and conquests and mutations. Beyond sensorial perceptions, a huge complex in the central nervous structures has a main impact on the psychology of human beings and their way of living. Recent works have demonstrated that a cerebral "image" is created from our sensorial perceptions : could not it explain some wide differences in our judgements on spices ??.


Three components of this "image" of spices could help to understand the Ancients :


·          Power and magic of spices

All aromatic plants and, mostly, spices, according to the knowledge of Antiquity had "virtues", i.e. "qualities" merging flavours, aromas and therapeutic properties.


·          Sense of "luxury "

Spices in the Roman world were indeed symbol of wealth and abundance. Could it be also a secret desire to "show-off", a flair for the "well being" or, more pragmatic, a call for "better living" ?


·          Exoticism of spices

Clothes, furniture, arts and, most of all, table foods had to come from the most distant countries. Whatever it may be : caprice, exoticism", "orientalism", "egyptomania" or "cosmopolitanism". An unleashed "passion" is born in Rome at the time of the Empire for the "far away" : a "premiere" in world History ?




The place of spices in the Roman pharmacopoeia "


The study is conducted on a whole of 2600 quotations from 12 authors whose work ca be dated from the Ist to the IVth century : Apicius, Caelius Aurelianus, Cassius Felix, Celsus, Dioscorides, Galen, Marcellus, (Anonymous) Mulomedicina, Pelagonius, Pliny the Elder, Serenus Sammonicus and Scribonius Largus. A set of 33 medicinal spices, all from beyond the limits of the Roman Empire, was thus studied : cyperus, ferulas (Asa foetida), frankincense, pepper, myrrh and saffron among others. Here are some of our comments :


·          Preponderant place of spices in Roman pharmacopoeia:


Prescription of spices had 4 main indications : pneumology, dermatology, ophthalmology and ENT (over 30% of all references) with a major place for Apiaceae (Umbellifereae)


Three fields of prescriptions were apparently favourite for the most "exotic" substances coming from India and Asia : gastro-enterology, hepatology and uro-nephrology. On the other hand, gynaecology, obstetrics and parasitology seem to have been, for the same type of substances, a minor field of prescription.


Oncology remains difficult to investigate since the high amount of uncertainties concerning the meaning of words such as "tumour", "cancer" or "carcinoma".


Regarding the route of administration : the local form of administration was always preferred (ointments, inhalations, fumigations, sternutatories, enemas, pessaries) : this is not specific to spices but common to all forms of vegetal drugs suspected of potential side-effects.


·          Pharmacology of Antiquity :


We show in the study that "Pharmacology of Antiquity" is a science defined by specific criteria (pharmaco-gnosy, -dynamics and -therapy). The whole concept is centered on "quality" or "dynamic virtue" merging together flavours, aromas and therapeutic actions


Thus considered, sensory perception can be seen as a primitive instrument of investigation. Our suggestion is that methods of comparison and graduating scales used by Ancient authors could suggest a "qualitative" approach ("analogic"), contrasting with the "quantitative "approach of contemporary science.


Actuality of Roman pharmacopoeia


Current evolution of modern medicine match the ancient theories on therapeutics : antidotes, disinfectants, aromathérapy, phototherapy, thermotherapy, techniques of local administration, diathesis


·          concordance between the knowledge of Antiquity and pharmacology of modern times


Many fields of concordance could be observed between pharmacological data coming from Ancient texts and the results of current research in our times, among them :


.aloe used as laxative agent

.ammi : therapeutic photosensitization aimed at treatment of vitelligo·

.bdellium and cardamon: anti-inflammatory properties used in rhumatology

.benzoin: symptomatic treatment of respiratory diseases·

.cinnamon : inhibiting action on helicobacter pylori (gastro-duodenal ulcers)

.clove: dental analgesics

.curcuma: symptomatic medication in digestive tract diseases·

.cyperus :antimalarial activity

.frankincense : anti-asthmatic medication·

.ginger : antiemetic properties

.henna : tuberculostatic activity

.myrrh ·:analgesic medications

.poppy: anaesthetic use of opium derivatives·

.saffron: anti-xerophtalmic preparations (high contents of B2 vitamin).

.silphium (Asa foetida) : contraceptive activity


use of the therapeutic knowledge of Antiquity


Many arguments lead to a better utilisation, for therapeutic research, of the vast knowledge of Antiquity so long time disregarded by the scientists in the near past.


·          Phytotherapy : quack medicine or new field for scientific research ?


      The trend to "plant medicine" is now on two different levels : health consumers with a growing interest for so-called "altenative medicine" coming close, at times, to charlatanism and scientific research. Allthough very little interest has been given by clinicians, an active research exist Search in Medline retrieves a large number of publications coming from authorized sources on drugs mentioned in Ancient medical texts. Current renewal of interest for all forms of traditional medicines is a fact of our times. New disciplines have emerged as ethno-botany and ethno-pharmacology. The search for new drugs moves more and more towards a field which had been neglected in the last century, phytotherapy. Medicinal plants are now closely investigated, especially curcuma and ginger and many other spices.


·          Can data processing improve the analysis of the texts of antiquity ?


New techniques of information and communication have made Ancient texts more available for us : collecting original texts and their variants and analysing their contents (indexes, occurrences and co-occurences, philological compilations, glossaries with variable entry according to authors and periods).


·          "Therapeutic message" from Antiquity


The idea of a therapeutic "message ", coming through the ages from all parts of Mediterranean world and delivered through the Ancient medical texts has been gaining more and more ground during the last decade. Therapeutic sciences of Antiquity show a remarkable coherence among texts, authors and centuries, contrasting with the vast divergences, at the same time, of "medical theories" on diseases, their nature and mechanisms.


·          Ethno-botany, ethno-pharmacology and " archeo-pharmacology " : three facets of therapeutic research


            During the last decades, new methods of therapeutic research : ethno-botany and ethno-pharmacology, have been used extensively to explore traditional medicines. A new discipline is ready to emerge : "archeo-pharmacology", aiming towards a drug research based on Ancient texts. Time has come to investigate thoroughly an heritage bequeathed for us from the mists of times : broad perspectives are now open to ancient medical texts. The achievement of such objectives may require a long period of efforts : we should only have in mind the long term. Our time is that of paradoxes : even if obstacles seem nearly insurmountable at the moment, we can expect a great future for a scientific exploration of the past.


André J. Fabre M.D.


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January 1st, 2010



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