Ancient Romans Had A Wonder Drug That Most People Never Heard Of – Silphium


By Mayukh Saha / Truth Theory

If you had a shot at a wonder drug that would not only make your meals more delicious, but it would also drive your libido to new heights, would you take it? Would it sweeten the deal for you to know that this drug could also cure a whole host of ailments and prevent pregnancies at the same time? As it turns out, the ancient Romans and Greeks definitely didn’t shirk away from the plant silphium- which did all that and a lot more.


This plant is quite a riddle for most of the researchers in the modern era- but it was so heavily popular in ancient Rome that most of the Emperors used to stockpile the plant in the treasury. In fact- the plant was so in demand that it was actually harvested all the way to extinction. Such was the craze for this plant that no one could have enough of it. 


Silphium- The Wonder Drug For The Roman Nobility

Silphium was one of the plants that were endemic to Cyrene in Northern Africa- which is now the place of Shahhat, Libya. This plant was initially thought to be a species from the taxonomic genus Ferula- which is also called the giant fennel. According to historians, this plant had extremely thick roots with black bark on them. It also had a hollow stalk and leaves which were yellow-greenish in color- quite similar in appearance to celery. It is documented that the Greeks did try to grow this plant in Greece, but the soil was completely incompatible with the plant. The only place where this addictive plant was grown naturally was in Cyrene- where it also turned out to be an important part of the economy as it was continuously shipped to Rome and Greece due to exceedingly high demand. In fact, anyone interested in the plant could also see a few coins from Cyrene that had the plant depicted on them. Goes without saying, those who could afford it bought a lot of it- to the point of extinction

Naturally, this high demand for silphium led to an exorbitant increase in the price, and at a point in time, it was worth its weight in silver. Augustus, the Holy Roman Emperor, also tried to control the entire distribution of the plant- where he also demanded that all the harvests of the plant and its juices had to be delivered to Rome as a tribute. 

Silphium was consumed and also used as a seasoning for a whole plethora of dishes that were consumed in Ancient Rome and Greece. The leaves and the stalks were grated and chopped over food like parmesan, and it was also said to be very good when mixed in with salts and sauces. For an extremely healthy option, the leaves were then added to the salads. The crunchy stalks were often boiled, sauteed, or roasted as a delicacy. Needless to say, every single part of this plant was consumed- which included the roots, which were originally dipped in vinegar before being consumed. One of the most famous cookbooks in Rome from the 5th Century, De Re Coquinaria- that was written by Apicius, did include a recipe for the ‘oxygarum sauce’. The recipe asked for pepper, cardamom, mint, cumin, silphium, and then called for crushing the ingredients into a paste- after which one had to add in vinegar and broth to taste. 

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From Recipe To Medicine- Silphium Was A Necessity In Most Households

One could also add pine kernels to silphium, and then add it to a dish to increase the flavor. The kernels would then be crushed and sprinkled over the food- and the recipe book suggested that the plant should be paired with a flamingo or parrot. Interestingly, this was also the perfect foot to flatten sheep up after which their meat would end up tasting quite delicious. One should also check out Pliny the Elder’s encyclopedia set, which talks about this plant. In the Naturalis Historia, the Roman author does recount how the last stalk of the plant was given as a gift to the mad emperor Nero, and according to the author, the emperor ate it the moment he received it. 

Throughout ancient times, early medicine was pretty well-documented. Pliny the Elder also did his due diligence by writing in great detail about the strides taken by modern medicine- and how one used it in his Naturalis Historia. In his book, he wrote about the uses of silphium used in the treatment of ill patients. The cure-alls were also quite popular throughout antiquity. Interestingly, this plant was one of those cure-all ingredients that could be used as an antidote to most illnesses. This wonder drug could be used to treat sore throats, coughs, fevers, headaches, epilepsy, warts, hernias, and other ailments. In fact, it was believed that a poultice of the plant would be curing one of heart inflammation, tumors, and even toothaches- along with hair removal, bruises, and tuberculosis. 

The Ancient Viagra

Silphium could also be used in several specific cases to prevent rabies and tetanus from the bites of feral dogs. Interestingly, it was noted that the plant could help in both hair growth and hair removal- something historians found justifiably odd- along with inducing labor in expecting mothers. As it turns out, this planet was also adept in matters of the bedroom. It was considered to be a fine aphrodisiac, as well as the most effective birth control at the time. The seeds of the plant were shaped like a heart and had alkaloid properties that were said to increase the libido in men, as well as work as contraception in women. 

Women found a lot of other uses in silphium- as it was used to start the menstruation process and deal with hormonal issues. When mixed with pepper, myrrh, and wine, this plant could induce menstruation. The Roman historian did write about this, where he noted that women frequently drank it and applied it to their genital organs in order to start the process. In order to start their periods, women were also asked to mix the plant with wine or water once a month. This recipe also served as an abortifacient- that would cause a miscarriage. 


Unfortunately, the modern world would forever be bereft of the advantages of silphium for it has been rendered extinct. There is a belief among a growing school of historians that men who used to rent the land on which this plant grew also let their sheep graze on the plants- something that destroyed the naturally occurring plants. Desertification and climate change also played major roles in making the soil quite unsuitable for use for silphium to grow. Therefore, it must be said that while there have been several documents regarding this plant- it is still relatively unknown. Since antiquity, no one has been able to find it- and all we know about it comes from coins and descriptions by ancient authors. 

Image credits:АНО «Международный нумизматический клуб», CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY 4.0)

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