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Silphium and Asafoetida: Evidence from Greek and Roman writers

A paper by Andrew Dalby first published in Spicing Up the Palate: proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery 1992 ed. Harlan Walker (Totnes: Prospect Books, 1993) pp. 67-72.

This is a collection of new translations of the classical written evidence about the silphium of Libya, and about the silphium substitute that came from Media (Persia) or beyond. The texts are arraned in chronological order, the earliest first.

Silphion is the normal Greek term for the spice we are talking about, sirpe or laserpicium or laser in Latin. I have not translated these words: notice that silphion sometimes means the whole plant and all its products, but is sometimes used in a more specialised way. In the preprinted version, I left the various specialised terms and trade names for silphium products untranslated. To make reading easier I am now generally translating them: kaulos as silphium stem, opos as silphium resin, maspeton as silphium leaf. The meaning of magydaris is so contradictory in different sources that it is pointless to try to translate it. The fullest explanation of the trade jargon is in the passage by Theophrastus, no. 8.

Here are a few general observations on the texts below.

All too little is primary evidence. Almost certainly none of the authors had ever seen silphium being 'harvested', though one or two had seen it growing, perhaps. Note Theophrastus's statement: 'it is the Libyans [the aboriginal population of Cyrenaica] who are the silphium collectors'. But all, we may think, will have tasted silphium or asafoetida or at any rate will have eaten food or taken medicines in which one or other was an ingredient.

Some of what follows does not even rank as secondary evidence. Pliny, for example, a tireless note-taker, is here largely copying out, and translating into Latin, what he read in Theophrastus's Study of Plants. Where Pliny seems to differ from or add to Theophrastus, the first question to ask is whether he has mis-copied or failed to understand the original, and whether he is abridging or padding: if none of those explanations works, the second question is what other book he may have been using and how good it may have been. But unless that book survives, as luckily Theophrastus's does, we may be able to do nothing but guess about it.

Solon (poet and Athenian legislator, about 590 BC)

1. Some hurry along with a mortar, and some with silphion, and some with vinegar.

Solon fragment 39 Bergk, quoted by Pollux, Onomasticon 10.103. The context (judging from what appear to be other fragments of the lost poem) may have been the preparation of a showy and expensive feast.

Herodotus, Histories (about 440 BC)

2. [The Libyan coastline:] In between lies Platea island, where the Cyrenaeans [first] settled, and on the mainland coast is Menelaus harbour and Aziris, where the Cyrenaeans used to live. The silphion starts here. From Platea island to the mouth of the Syrtis is where the silphion is found.

4.169.

3. Those of the Barcans whom [the Persians] enslaved, they deported from Egypt to the King['s court]: and King Darius gave them a village in Bactrian country to live in. They called this village Barca, and it was still inhabited in Bactria in my time.

4.204. No mention of silphium: but Alice Arndt, in her paper, rightly draws attention to this passage, a remarkable link between the two classical sources of silphium. Barca was close to Cyrene: Bactria is modern Afghanistan.

Hermippus (Athenian comic playwright, late 5th century BC)

4. 'Tell me now, Muses whose dwellings are on Olympus, how many good things Dionysus has brought here to men in his black ship since he has plied the wine-dark sea: from Cyrene silphium stem and oxhide; from the Hellespont mackerel and every salt fish; from Thessaly porridge and ox ribs; from Sitalces an itch for the Spartans; from Perdiccas many shiploads of lies. The Syracusans send us pigs and cheese; and the Corcyreans, may Poseidon damn them in their slick ships, for they have shifty thoughts. Those things from those places; and rigged sails and papyrus rolls from Egypt; and then incense from Syria. Fair Crete provides cypress-wood for the gods, Libya much ivory for sale, Rhodes dreamy raisins and figs. From Euboea pears and fat apples, captives from Phrygia, mercenaries from Arcadia. Pagasae sends slaves and jailbirds; the Paphlagonians send the chestnuts and glossy almonds which are the ornaments of the feast. Then Phoenicia, bread wheat and the fruit of the date-palm; Carthage, rugs and fancy pillows.'

Hermippus fragment 63 Kock, quoted in the Epitome of Athenaeus 27e-28a. The passage is a neat parody of epic poetry, with many phrases reminiscent of Iliad and Odyssey.

Supplementary notes on diet in acute diseases (a 'Hippocratic' text: late 5th century?)

5. Silphion and its resin: fine for some, but are not easily passed through the bowels by those unfamiliar: so-called 'dry bile': occurs especially when taken with a lot of cheese, or in meat dishes with beef.

48. See Galen's commentary on this passage, below.

Antiphanes (Athenian comic playwright, mid 4th century BC)

6. 'Thither I shall not sail whence we were seized; I say farewell to everything, horses, silphion, pairs of horses, silphium stem, racehorses, [silphium leaf, wheat,] silphium resin!'

Antiphanes, Unlucky Lovers, fragment 88 Kock, quoted by Athenaeus 100f. Two words are conjecturally restored: the manuscript text 'breasts, fevers' is unmetrical and hard to make sense of.

7. And Antiphanes [lists] Cypriot mustard and scammony sap, Milesian cress, Samothracian garlic, silphium stem and silphion from Carthage and Hymettian thyme, oregano from Tenedos.

Epitome of Athenaeus 28d.This is clearly identical with the passage attributed to Eubulus below.

Eubulus (Athenian comic playwright, mid 4th century BC)

8. 'And Cypriot mustard and scammony sap and Milesian cress and Samothracian garlic and silphium stem and silphion from Carthage and thyme from the Hymettians.'

Eubulus fragment 19 Kock, quoted by Pollux, Onomasticon 6.67.

Theophrastus (scientist at Athens: this text written in 310 BC, see below)

9. Silphion has a big thick root, a stem as long as giant fennel and just about as thick, and a leaf (which they call maspeton) similar to celery; it has a flat fruit, rather leaf-like, called phyllon 'leaf'. Its stalk is annual, like giant fennel. In spring it puts out this maspeton, which purges sheep and fattens them greatly and makes their meat amazingly good to eat; after that the kaulos 'stem', which they say is eaten [by humans] all ways, boiled, baked, and is likewise a purge for the [first] forty days. There are two kinds of opos 'juice', one from the stem, one from the root, hence called kaulias and rizias. The root has a black skin which they strip off. Its collectors cut in accordance with a sort of mining-concession, a ration that they may take based on what has been cut and what remains, and it is not permitted to cut at random; nor indeed to cut more than the ration, because any surplus spoils and decays with age. Exporting it to Piraeus they prepare it as follows: after putting it in jars and mixing flour with it they shake it for a long time -- this is where its colour comes from; and thus treated it remains stable. That, then, is how silphion is collected and treated. It is found over a large region of Libya: more than five hundred miles, they say, and commonest along the Syrtis starting from the Euesperides. Its oddity is to avoid cultivated land, and to retreat as the land is gradually brought under cultivation and farmed -- obviously as if, far from requiring husbandry, it is essentially wild. The Cyrenaeans say that silphion appeared seven years before they settled their city, and they have been there about three hundred years now (I write in Simonides' archonship at Athens [310 BC]).

That was what the Cyrenaeans say about it. We can add from others that 'the root grows to about eighteen inches or a little more, and has a head about the middle of its length, which comes higher, almost above ground, and is called gala "milk": from this in due course grows the stem, and from that the magydaris and the so-called leaf, its seed; in the first strong south wind after Sirius it detaches, and silphion grows from it. The root and stem grow in the same year,' well, that seems not at all unusual, it is just the same with other plants, unless in fact they mean that all this grows in the same season in which the seed was sown. Then a feature that is unusual and contradicts our first report: they say 'the ground must be dug annually: if it is left it does still seed, and stems do appear, but both stem and root are inferior, while if dug they are better because the soil was turned over.' This conflicts with the statement as to its retreating from cultivated land. 'The root is eaten fresh, chopped, with vinegar. The leaf is golden in colour.' Another contradiction now, that sheep are not purged by eating the leaf: because they say that 'in spring and winter they are driven into the hills and pastured on this and on another plant like southernwood: both plants seem to be heating, and do not purge but dry up and promote digestion. If a sheep is diseased or unwell when it comes there, it will either quickly recover, or die, but it is more likely on the whole that it will be cured.' We must find out which of these reports is true.

What is called magydaris is different from silphion, later-growing, less pungent, not having the juice; the experienced can tell them apart at sight. It grows somewhere about Syria, not in Cyrene. They say it is common on Mount Parnassus, too. Some call this plant silphion. We must find out whether it retreats from cultivated land like silphion, and also whether its leaf and stem have some sort of superficial resemblance, or are really close, and whether it has any kind of resin.

6.3.

10. The juice of silphion is pungent, as is the silphion itself. What they call its juice is a resin.

9.1.4.

11. Now as to plants whose stem and root are both tapped: with silphion for example they tap the stem first, and they call the juices kaulias and rizias. The rizias 'root juice' is better: it is pure and translucent and more solid. The kaulias 'stem juice' is more liquid, which is why they mix flour with it to set it. The Libyans know the time to tap it -- it is they who are the silphion collectors.

9.1.7.

Aristobulus (accompanied Alexander's expedition: wrote about 300 B.C.)

See the passage by Arrian below and the note after it.

Plautus (Roman comic playwright, 2nd century BC)

12. 'I beg and pray you, as you hope to have plenty of sirpe and laserpicium this year and to get it exported to Capua safe and sound, and may your eyes never water --' 'Are you feeling all right?' '-- and be sure of plenty of magydaris on the way, if you will not refuse to give attention to my prayer, old man.

The Rope, 629-634. The scene is Cyrene. The play is based on a Greek original, but details will have been altered or invented.

Strabo, Geography (lived c. 63 BC - 25 AD)

13. [Media:] The plant that provides the best fodder for horses we call by the name Medike 'lucerne' because it is abundant in Media. The country produces a silphion too, from which comes the Median resin, much inferior to Cyrenaic, then again sometimes better, whether because of differences in the terrain or because of different species of plant or because of the people who tap and prepare it to stabilise it for storage and use.

11.13.7.

14. [Alexander] crossed the mountains to Bactriane by ways barren but for a little shrubby terebinth, so short of food that the flesh of beasts [possibly a euphemism for horses] was eaten and so short of wood that it was eaten raw; but with the raw meat their digestive was silphion, which grew plentifully.

15.2.10.

15. [Libya:] Then another place, called Kharax 'Palisade', which served the Carthaginians as an entrepôt: they brought wine and got in exchange silphium resin and silphion, secretly diverted there from the Cyrenaeans.

17.3.20.

16. Bordering on Cyrenaea is the country that produces the silphion and the Cyrenaic resin, which is what the silphion eventually secretes. It came close to dying out when the natives, in the course of some dispute, erupted and destroyed the roots of the plant. They are nomads.

17.3.22.

Dioscorides, Materia Medica (about 50 AD)

17. Silphion: grows in the Syria-Armenia-Media region and in Libya. Its stem, called maspeton, resembles giant fennel; it has leaves like celery; a flat seed, leaf-like, called magydaris ...

The juice is collected by making an incision in the root and the stem. Its quality is shown in being reddish and translucent, myrrh-like and powerfully scented, not greenish, not rough in taste, not readily turning white. The Cyrenaic, even if one just tastes it, at once arouses a humour throughout the body and has a very healthy aroma, so that it is not noticed on the breath, or only a little; but the Median and Syrian are weaker in power and have a nastier smell. Any juice may have been adulterated before it dries, by mixing with sagapenon or bean-meal: this can be diagnosed by taste, smell, appearance or by moistening.

Some call the stem silphion, the root magydaris, the leaf maspeton. Most active [pharmacologically] is the juice, less so the leaves, less still the stem ...

A different magydaris is said also to grow in Libya, a root like silphion but not so thick and not so pungent, spongy, without juice, but having the same effects as silphion.

3.80.1-6. Original Greek text

Columella, On Agriculture (Roman author, mid 1st century AD)

18. Maladies of the eyes ... Also effective is the root that Greeks call silphion but our populace customarily terms laserpicium. To whatever quantity of this ten parts sal ammoniac are added, both ground, and dropped on to the eye; or the same root, crushed and mixed with lentisk oil, cures the malady.

6.17.8.

19. To make a digestive: Pepper, white if any, if not black, 3 oz.; celery seed 2 oz.; laser root, which Greeks call silphium, 1.5 oz.; cheese 1 sextans [2 oz.]: crush and sift them, mix with honey, keep in a new jar. When called for, mix just the quantity required with vinegar and garum ... If you have Syrian laser instead of silphium, better to increase by half an ounce.

12.59.4-5.

Pliny, Natural History (Pliny was killed at Pompeii in 79 AD)

20. Cyrenaican country to a width of 15 miles from the shore and the woods is said to be fertile, under grain only; the next 30 miles' width, 250 miles length, laser only.

5.33.

21. Next will be discussed the very famous laserpicium which the Greeks call silphium, discovered in Cyrenaica province, its juice being called laser -- splendid in use and in medicines and worth its weight in silver denarii. For many years now it has not been seen in that region, since the agents who lease grazing land, scenting higher profits, overgraze it for sheep pasture. The single stem found within living memory was sent to the emperor Nero. If an animal does come upon a promising shoot, the sign will be that a sheep after eating it rapidly goes to sleep, whereas a goat sneezes rather loudly.

For a long time now the only laser brought to us has been that originating in Persis, Media and Armenia, plentiful but much inferior to Cyrenaic and moreover adulterated with gum or sacopenium or bean-meal: it is all the more noteworthy that in the consulship of C. Valerius and M. Herennius Cyrene sent to the Roman state 30 lb. laserpicium, while at the beginning of the civil war Caesar as dictator produced from the treasury, beside the gold and silver, 1500 lb. laserpicium.

From the most detailed [some manuscripts say 'oldest'] Greek authors we note that it originated in a resinous rainfall which suddenly drenched the country around the Gardens of the Hesperides and the Greater Syrtis seven years before the foundation of Cyrene, and that was 143 years after the foundation of Rome [753 BC]: the effect had been felt over more than five hundred miles of Africa, and there laserpicium habitually grew, a wild and ill-tempered plant that retreated to the desert from farmed land, with a big thick root, a stem like giant fennel and just about as thick, and a leaf (which they called maspeton) extremely similar to celery; it had a leaf-like seed and its actual leaf was shed in spring; it used to be fodder for sheep and at first purged and then fattened them greatly and made their meat amazingly enjoyable. After the leaf was gone, the stem was eaten, this by men as well, boiled, baked, fried, and for men too it was a purge for the first forty days, clearing every impurity [text doubtful here]. The juice was collected in two ways, from root and stem, and so there were two names, rhizias and kaulias, the latter poorer and liable to go bad. The root had a black skin. Its commerce entailed adulteration: after putting the juice in jars and mixing bran with it they shook it for a long time and thus matured it: if they did not, it would go bad. Its maturity was shown by its colour and its dryness when it ceased sweating.

Others say that laserpicium root grew to more than eighteen inches and had a tuber above ground from which, when cut, the juice would flow like milk: from this grew the stem, which they called magydaris; the golden leaves, its seeds, fell after Sirius rose in a south wind, and laserpicium would grow from them, the root and stem maturing in the same year. These informants said they dug around it, and that animals were not purged by it but sick ones were cured or quickly died -- but few died.

Persian silphium accords with the former description.

There is another species called magydaris, weaker [in growth], less pungent, without juice. It grows somewhere about Syria, and does not come from Cyrene. It grows commonly on Mount Parnassus, too, and they call it laserpicium. By these means the reputation of a most salutary and useful product is impugned.

The first test of its purity is in its colour, being slightly reddish, white inside when broken; then the translucence of the 'tear', and its very rapid dissolving in saliva. It is much used in medicines.

19.38-46.

22. It came at first from Cyrene, as was said above: it is now imported in very large quantities from Syria, [that supply being] worse than Parthian but better than Median, all the Cyrenaic having died out, as we said. The uses of silphium in medicine: ...

22.100.

Arrian (Roman general and Greek historian, lived c. AD 90-170)

23. The Caucasus range is as high as any in Asia, so Aristobulus says, but largely barren on this [the southern] side. The Caucasus is an extensive range, so much so that they say the Taurus range which divides Cilicia from Pamphylia belongs to it as do other great mountain ranges, each distinguished from it by a customary local name. Now in this Caucasus [the Hindu Kush] nothing but terebinth trees and silphion grow, so Aristobulus says; but, even so, it had numerous inhabitants, and many sheep and other beasts grazed it, because sheep like the silphion and if a sheep scents the silphion among other plants it runs to it and bites off the flower and then grubs up the root and eats that too. Which is why in Cyrene they keep their flocks as far as possible from the downs, for the silphion to grow there. Some actually fence off the place, so that even if sheep got close they would not be able to get in; because the silphion is worth a lot to the Cyrenaeans.

Arrian, Alexander's Expedition 3.28. Note that it is quite unclear how much of this passage comes from Aristobulus.

Galen (Greek physician working in Rome, lived 129-199 AD)

24. Silphion and its resin: fine for some, but are not easily passed through the bowels by those unfamiliar. People call the root of silphion by the same name as the whole plant. [Hippocrates] is saying that it, and especially its opos, produce dry bile in those unfamiliar, i.e. those unaccustomed to it ... [Silphium] is bitter and feverish ... Occurs especially when mixed with a lot of cheese, or in meat dishes with beef. He is saying that this so-called dry bile is produced particularly in those who take silphion with cheese liberally, or with beef ...

Commentary on 'Diet in Acute Diseases' 15.877-8. This is a discussion of the early text given as no. 5 above. The passages in italics are quotations of the original: the remainder are Galen's observations. Note that Galen does not comment on the availability of silphium. He does not deal with either Libyan or Median silphium in his manual On the Properties of Foods.

Scholia on Aristophanes' Knights (scholarly commentary from Roman or Byzantine times)

25. Aristaeus, son of Apollo and Cyrene, first discovered the exploitation of silphion, as also of honey.

From a note on line 894 of the play. A piece of mythology which contradicts the claim that silphium was discovered seven years before 631 BC. Apollo's pursuit of nymphs was in the mythical past, not in the second half of the seventh century BC.

Synesius of Cyrene (bishop: about 400 AD)

26. [To his brother at Phycus:] I asked the boy who brought the silphion whether it came from your ground or whether you got it as a gift and decided to share it with me. Learning that this, like all the rest, was fruit of your carefully tended garden, I was doubly happy, for the beauty of the plant and for the fame of its birthplace. May you rejoice in your bountiful field; may you never tire of watering your beloved plots; may they never fail of offspring. Thus you shall have the benefit yourself -- and have enough to share each harvest with us!

Letters 106.

27. [To Pylaemenes at Constantinople:] ... We have put up some generous trifles for golden Tryphon -- I must be allowed my Gorgian pun. Plenty of resin of silphium (the 'wealth of Battus' [ancient king of Cyrene] as you know) and some finest saffron (Cyrene produces good saffron too). But there was no way to send them to him just now. Perhaps we might dispatch them on another ship, along with those sparrows for you, and the oil separately.

Letters 134.

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