Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Roman Medicinal Herbs

Foiled by my attempts to take up backyard beekeeping, in the spring of 2007 I became interested in growing herbs. While doing the requisite research I was pleased to see a connection to the ancient Romans. The history of herbal medicine has close ties to the Roman military. Pompey the Great is credited with bringing a wealth of herbal knowledge to his country. Roman soldiers benefitted from effective herbal medicines and also followed ineffective (apart from the possible placebo type effects) superstitious herbal treatments. There are three main sources for Roman herbal knowledge—Pedanius Dioscorides 40-90AD, Gaius Plinius Secundus (Pliny the Elder) 23-79AD and Galenos (English: Galen, Latin: Claudius Galenus), c. 129 - 200 or 216 AD. All men had direct dealings with the treatment of trauma and wounds.

Dioscorides was a Greek physician who served with the legions of Emperor Nero. His tour of duty brought him from Germany to the Middle East. He published De Materia Medica (On Medicines) in 78AD.

Pliny was informed by his time in the Roman military. He served as a tribune in a Roman legion in Gallia Belgica and as a prefect of an auxiliary cavalry unit at Xanten (Castra Vetera) in Germania Inferior. Pliny’s Historia Naturalis (Natural History) speaks much about the medicinal properties of herbs and other plants. Vol. 12-19 discuss botany. Vols. 20-27 focus on medicinal herbs. Pliny attributed Roman knowledge of herbs to the research and writings of Mithridates of Eupator (120-66BC). This Pontic king was defeated by Pompey in 66BC. When his royal treasures were looted Mithridates’ herbal encyclopedia came into the hands of Pompeius Lenaeus, the freedman of Pompey. The victorius general returned to Rome with this vast collection of herbal knowledge.

Galen, a Greek physician, gained much insight into the human body while treating the gladiators of Pergamene (modern Turkey). His skill eventually lead to his appointment as court physician to Emperor Marcus Aurelius.
Galen was a prolific writer of medical texts. Interestingly, many of the herbal remedies touted by these ancient writers have been confirmed by modern science.

Listed bellow are some of herbs that are likely to have been used on the infirm Roman soldier. Note: the latin names listed for these herbs are modern scientific names, not those used by the Romans themselves.

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
Homers Illiad has a scene where Achilles treats the wounds of his friend with Yarrow. This well-read story would have ensured this treatment was common knowledge in the Roman world. Modern research shows that Yarrow is an astringent, is anti-inflamitory and speeds healing. (McIntyre)

Garlic (Allium Sativum)
Galens wrote of Garlic as a cure-all. This herb is antibacterial, antiviral, antiparisitic and antifungal.

Marshmallow (Althea officinallis)
Marshmallow pollen has been found at Bearsden Fort. Pliny suggested this herb can be used as an ointment or a cough syrup. (Alcock)

Marigold (Anethum graveolens)
Used as a fever reducer, marigold was grown in southern Europe.

Uva Ursi (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi)
Galen wrote that he used this herb’s leaves to treat wounds and stop bleeding. (Castleman)

Taragon (Artemisia dracunculus)
Pliny suggested tarragon as a way to prevent fatigue from physical exertion. The Roman soldiers were well acquainted with long marches. Perhaps some used tarragon to invigorate themselves.

Borrage (Borago officinalis L)
High in calcium and potassium, Borage leaves can be used to treat inflammation and bruises. Roman-era Borage has been found in the South Downs of England. (Alcock)

Hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis)
Hyssop was considered protection against the plague (McIntyre). Although it would not protect the user from deadly disease, volatile oils found in Hyssop are useful at treating the coughing associated with colds and the flu. (Castleman).

Chamomile (Matricaria Chamomilla and Anthemis nobilis)
Pliny recommended Chamomile as a cure for headaches, kidney, liver and bladder ailments. (Castleman)

Horehound (Marrubium vulgare)
Pliny and Celsus (a 2nd century Greek writer) suggested horehound as a treatment for coughs. At the Roman fortress at Carpow (Perthshire, Scotland) an amphora was found with the Greek word for horehound (prasion) written on it. Aprently, Leg. VI was using medicated wine used as cough syrup. (Alcock)

Parsley (Petroselinum Crispum)
Many herb books state that gladiators ate this herb before a fight to promote strength, cunning and agility. Some add that the Roman soldiers did the same. However, I have yet to see any citation to confirm this story.

Plantain (Plantago major, minor, lanceolata)
Wound healer, poison antedote

Blackberry (Rubicus fruticosus)
Dysentary has always been a problem to armies. Pliny reccomended drinking a decoction of blackberry leaves and bark to treat diarrhea. Chewing the leaves was supposed to cure bleeding gums. Blackberry leaves contain high levels of tannins - an astringent that can indeed control diarrhea and bleeding gums. These tannins would also be useful in treating war wounds. The controlling body in Germany that regulates drugs endorses blackberry leaf as a treatment for diarrhea. (Castleman)

Thyme (Thymus vulgaris)
There was a belief in the Roman world that sleeping on thyme could cure melancholy. There are many confirmed health benefits to consuming thyme (it treats coughs and aids in digestion). Of course, sleeping on it could offer only a placebo type effect. However, it is interesting to consider its use. As with today’s soldiers, Roman troops deployed away from home for years on end could suffer from depression. The Roman army was perhaps not very sympathetic to this problem, yet the treatment was known.

Fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecurn)
The cavalry would have likely made use of this herb. Fenugreek was widely used in the ancient world as a food for sick horses and cattle. Some modern veterinarians use the herb to encourage sick livestock to feed. Roman physicians prescribed fenugreek to people suffering from fevers, respiratory and intestinal troubles. Modern researchers have not found fenugreek to have any effect on fevers, but it is recognized as anti-inflamitory.(Castleman).

Fenugreek is mentioned in Josephus' The Jewish War. The besieged Jews in Jerusalem added the plant to the scalding liquid that they poured on the Roman attackers. The plants gelatinous fibers made the scaling ladders slippery and difficult to climb!

Stinging Nettle (Utrica dioica)
Some herb books include an intriguing story in the history of the herb. They often state that nettles were first brought to Britain by Julius Caesar’s invading army. The plant’s stinging needles were supposedly used by the Roman troops in cold climates to create a warming sensation on the skin. Although Pliny does mention nettles as a food source, there is no evidence to suggest legitimacy to any part of this story. Neither its use as a skin-warmer, nor its arrival in Britain are discussed in classic texts. The story was written by an English scholar of Elizabethan times, William Camden, and is apparently purely conjectural.
1. Alcock, Joan. Food in Roman Britain. 2001.
2. Boon, H. and Smith, M. The Complete Natural Medicine Guide to the 50 Most Common Medicinal Herbs. Robert Rose, Inc. 1994.
This text is a excellent resource for learning the effectiveness of medicinal herbs. Unlike many other herb books, this text cites studies and explains the science.

3. Castleman, M. The New Healing Herbs. Rodale, Inc. 2001.
This book comments on the historic use of herbs (Greeks and Romans), unfortunately it does not cite specifically sources.
4. McIntyre, A. The Medicinal Garden Henry Holt and Company, Inc. 1997. Same comment as for Castleman.
Jashemski, W. A Pompeian Herbal: Ancient and Modern Medicinal Plants. University of Texas Press, 1999.


  1. Very interesting post. Herb gardening has been around for a long time and herbal medicine is thought to be one of the oldest forms of natural therapy in the world.
    herbal supplements online

  2. It's good to know that Hyssop can be used as one of the most powerful flu remedies. Honey and garlic are also among the best herbal medicines.

  3. Ginger is a good herbal medicine that can be used to treat several illnesses. I consider ginger as one of the best sore throat remedies.