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Antiquity

The mystery of the disappearance of the most valuable medicinal plant from antiquity

Remains of ancient Cyrene / photo tourdottk - Shutterstock

The ancient Greek city of Cyrene (in present-day Libya), where Eratosthenes was born, was founded by settlers from Thera (Santorini) on the advice of the Oracle of Delphi around 632 BC. It soon prospered and became one of the richest cities in the Mediterranean.

A plant, whose trade Cyrene dominated for centuries, had a lot to do with it. It was its main product, of such importance in the city’s economy that even the coins bore its image. It was called Silphium (Σίλφιον) and the first reference to its habitat is given by Herodotus:

Next to the Adyrmachidae are the Gilligammae, who inhabit the country westward as far as the island of Aphrodisias. Off this tract is the island of Platea, which the Cyrenaeans colonised. Here too, upon the mainland, are Port Menelaus, and Aziris, where the Cyrenaeans once lived. The Silphium begins to grow in this region, extending from the island of Platea on the one side to the mouth of the Syrtis on the other. The customs of the Gilligammae are like those of the rest of their countrymen.

Herodotus, History IV.169

Its use began in prehistoric times and spread throughout all Mediterranean cultures, to the extent that both Egyptians and Minoans had a symbol or glyph specific to it in their writing systems. It was used as a food condiment, perfume, aphrodisiac and medicine. The Romans called it laserpicium because of its sap, delicious to taste and smell, and considered it as valuable as gold and silver.

Front and back of a Cyrene coin (300-282 BC) with the image of the silphium / photo CNG Coins on Wikimedia Commons

Its stems were eaten roasted or boiled, its roots were freshly pickled, and if eaten by sheep, the meat of these was extremely tender. Its flowers were grated as a condiment for all kinds of foods. As a medicine it was a panacea that served for almost everything. Pliny the Elder says that it was good against hemorrhoids, animal bites and wounds in general. As an aphrodisiac it may have been the first effective contraceptive in history, and it is believed that the heart shape of its seeds are the reason why this symbol is associated with love.

Next after these we will speak about laser-wort, a remarkably important plant, the Greek name for which is silphium; it was originally found in the province of Cyrenaica. Its juice is called laser, and it takes an important place in general use and among drugs, and is sold for its weight in silver denarii

Pliny the Elder, Natural History XIX.15
Cyrene coin with the image of a silphium seed / photo Kurt Baty on Wikimedia Commons

The problem is that today nobody knows what plant the silphium was. We know it because ancient authors mentioned it very often in their works, mainly the Romans. It is known that Julius Caesar kept about 680 kilograms of it in the official treasury of the city of Rome. But a little more than a century after his death, Pliny the Elder wrote that during his lifetime only one stem had been found in Cyrene, which was torn out and sent to Emperor Nero sometime between 54 and 68 A.D.

It has not been found in that country now for many years, because the tax-farmers who rent the pasturage strip it clean by grazing sheep on it, realizing that they make more profit in that way. Only a single stalk has been found there within our memory, which was sent to the Emperor Nero

Pliny the Elder, Natural History XIX.15

Pliny continues saying that since a long time ago the silphium was no longer brought from Cyrene, but from Persia, Media or Armenia, where it grew in considerable abundance, but much less than that of Cyrene. Also that the quality left much to be desired, as it arrived adulterated with gum or crushed beans.

Another Cyrene coin with the image of the silphium / photo AHO on Wikimedia Commons

Most specialists believe that the plant became extinct, in fact Pliny (who never saw it) says that it was wild and impossible to cultivate, because if it was tried, it left the land desolate and sterile. He also indicates how to recognize it:

If a grazing flock ever chances to come on a promising young shoot, this is detected by the indication that a sheep after eating it at once goes to sleep and a goat has a fit of sneezing

Pliny the Elder, Natural History XIX.15

However, most experts believe that this is an absurd story that Pliny must have made up, namely why. But the fact is that by the middle of the first century A.D., the silphium had practically disappeared. The main reason could be the overexploitation since Cyrenaica became a Roman senatorial province, and the abandonment of the previous strict control over its collection.

Some authors believe that this painting of a Laconian vessel found in Vulci depicts the preparation of the silphium / photo Marie-Lan Nguyen on Wikimedia Commons

Despite the descriptions of the plant by Theophrastus and other ancient authors, and the numerous representations on Cyrene’s coins, the silphium has never been satisfactorily identified.

One of the current theories is that the silphium was a natural hybrid, and so when the Greeks tried to grow it from seed the result may have been barely recognizable. Many hybrid plants do not grow from seed, but asexually by extending their roots, and the second generation may be quite different from the original.

In any case, there have not been many studies on the diversity of the flora in Libya, so some experts believe that the silphium may still be there, hidden in some remote place, the only problem is that nobody knows exactly how it looks. The most accurate description is that of Theophrastus:

The silphium has a lot of thick roots; its stem is about the size of a cubit, and is almost as thick; the leaf, which they call maspeton, is like celery: it has a wide fruit, which is like the leaf, so to speak, and they call it phyllon.

Theophrastus, History of plants VI-III.5

Theophrastus compared silphium to Ferula asafoetida (probably the silphium that Pliny claimed to have brought from Persia) that grew in Syria and the slopes of Parnassus, both assimilating to fennel. Scientists believe that this is where the shots can go, that the silphium can be the same as asafoetida a variety of ferula, plants that grow like weeds in North Africa. One of these plants, Ferula tingitana, still exists in Libya. It’s the one most experts believe may be the silphium.

Ferula tingitana / photo Ruben0568 on Wikimedia Commons

But there is more, because the historian Flavius Arrianus, who wrote his Anabasis of Alexander the Great in the second century A.D., says this when he relates how Alexander crossed the Hindu Kush (which the Romans called the Indian Caucasus):

Aristobulus tells us that nothing grew in the above-mentioned part of the Caucasus except for oak trees and silphium; nevertheless, it was inhabited by many peasants, and there were quite a few flocks of sheep and oxen grazing there, because sheep are very fond of silphium. If a sheep smells the plant from afar, it runs to it and feeds on the flower; they also dig with their hooves to unearth the roots, which are eaten in the same way. For this reason, in Cyrene they usually graze their flocks, as far as possible, outside the places where silphium plants grow; others even enclose the plants with a fence, so that if the sheep manage to get close they cannot get inside the enclosure. For the inhabitants of Cyrene, the silphium is very valuable

Flavius Arrianus, Anabasis of Alexander XXVIII

Some 200 years before Alexander ventured into those parts much of the population of the Cyrenaic city of Barca had been deported by the Persians to Bactria. Could it be possible that these Barcaeans carried silphium seeds with them?

The Barcaeans carried into slavery were sent from Egypt to the king; and Darius assigned them a village in Bactria for their dwelling-place. To this village they gave the name of Barca, and it was to my time an inhabited place in Bactria

Herodotus, History IV.204
Cachrys ferulacea / photo Mapio

In the early 1990s the Italian archaeologist Antonio Manunta, from the University of Rome, found specimens of Cachrys ferulacea, also known as the common basilisk, in Cyrenaica. The Bedouins of the area, who thought it was the same plant as the silphium, took Manunta to a valley where it grew in abundance and where the silphium had supposedly flourished in ancient times. The archaeologist confirmed that the oil from the seeds of this plant has a pleasant smell, which coincides with Dioscorides’ claim that the Libyan silphium did not have the strong smell of asafoetida. According to Manunta, of all the plant seeds that have been proposed to be the silphium, this is the only one whose seeds are, like that one, heart-shaped.

However, doubts remain, mainly because Cachrys ferulacea is identical to what the ancient Greeks knew as Magydaris, and the sources clearly distinguish between it and silphium.

Today, researchers continue to search for the silphium, convinced that it is hidden in plain sight and under our very noses.


Sources

Historia Natural (Plinio el Viejo) / Historia de las plantas (Teofrasto) / The Silphium of the Ancients: A Lesson in Crop Control (Alfred C. Andrews) / Silphium (Chalmers L. Gemmill), Bulletin of the History of Medicine 40, no. 4 (1966): 295–313 / Devil’s Dung: the world smelliest spice / Silphion: multis iam annis in ea terra non invenitur… (Monika Kiehn) / Wikipedia.