I have been interested in ancient Roman food for the past 30 years or so. I have collected a number of books on the matter, written a couple of papers, and every now and then I try out some recipes. But for now I would like to upload a cartoon. The recipes will follow shortly. Just check back. Roman food is already ancient, a couple of days will not make a difference.
Anas Fugit! (the duck ran away)
I wrote this background paper at Harvard for a class in the winter of 1999. I incorporated library research, empirical "field research" in my kitchen, with my family, my friends, and an occasional professor and schoolmate, as "helpers." The focus of the paper was the role of food as medicine in ancient Rome, and how this attitude is still present in Italian food.
Lucia D. Clark
Eat It: It’s Good for You:A Historical Survey of Food as Medicine from Roman Times to Italian Cuisine.
Food. Well Being. Safety. And possibly, longevity. These are the things we all strive to achieve, today and since the beginning of our history. This quest for health is one of the oldest and more complex of human activities. Recently In the United States there has been a return to the concept that our diet has a tremendous importance for the prevention of disease. Our attention goes from one type of diet to another, in the pursue of that perfect combination, that perfect meal that becomes the elixir of long life.
In this paper I trace those elements of the Cuisine of my motherland, Italy, to the ancient Roman medical practices that constitute the therapeutic and gastronomic ancestry of Italian cuisine. The Roman pharmacopoeia, the body of healing materials, consisted largely of herbs and other substances easily obtained in the markets, the surrounding countryside, or the kitchen. How these remedies have been discovered has been the topic of many works, either books, magazine articles, films or Internet sites. (Scansani & Setti & Benfatti, 1994; Lehane, 1977; Grey-Wheelwright, 1974; Da Legnano, 1973). I will analyze the basic Roman attitude toward the therapeutic properties of food and how these attitudes are in fact the ancestors of the modern theoretical food syndromes common in those parts of Europe that came under the influence of Rome. I will focus on how those herbal remedies used in the Roman world, the medicamenta, healing herbs and foods, became the staples of later Italian cuisine. I will investigate the possible historical and economic reasons for the change from the elaborate taste for spices in ancient Roman cuisine to the more savory taste of today’s Italian cuisine, one that relies among others on some herbs used by the Romans only as medicines. I will consider possible historical and economic reasons for this trend.
Roman Medical Sources
In this initial investigation I relied on the works of Celsus, a roman physician who practiced Medicine in the 1st century C.E. Celsus was one of the medical authorities of his days, and his writings were widespread all trough the Roman Empire. Figure 1 shows one of his libraries and teaching hospitals in Ephesus, in modern day Turkey. I will touch briefly upon the ongoing polemics between Celsus and Galen, a Greek doctor from Sicily whose theories on the four humors of the body supplanted Celsus’ more pragmatic approach to medicine. I also used the work of Pliny the Elder, who left a compendious treatise on natural history, and who died taking notes on the eruption of Vesuvius that buried Pompeii and Ercolaneum.
Health and the Food We Eat: Hot-Cold, Heavy-Light Syndromes
It is important to note that the overlaying dietary philosophy in Italian cuisine, the “Incalorire-Rinfrescare” syndrome known in other culinary cultures as the “Hot-Cold” syndrome, is definitely present in Roman cuisine. Celsus catalogues foods in several categories: “cooling-heating”, “bland-acrid”, and “nourishing-less nourishing”. Some foods belong to more than one category (Celsus, Book II, 18-33). These multiple categories seem to be the direct ancestors of modern day Italy’s food syndromes, where there is correlation between food that produces heat (cibo che fa incalorire) and heavy food (cibo pesante). However, according to the Italian food syndromes, a given food can be either heating or cooling depending on the time of the day it is eaten. (Clark, unpublished field research notes on Italian folk medicine, 1978). This particular aspect of this syndrome appears to be a later development, or at any rate one to which Celsus did not believe in. I include a partial list of food classifications.
The Roman food classification is the most recent object of my ongoing research on Roman medicine and cuisine. It is the logical blending of both, for, to quote (and translate) Celsus, “proper foods not only cure diseases, but maintain a state of heath”. Celsus, Book II, 18-1)
The initial stage of research I am currently engaged in was impaired by the translation used by the Loeb Classical Library. W.Spencer, while generally an excellent translator, seems to find some difficulties in translating food-related texts. Perhaps he was not particularly versed or interested in food, cuisine, and the medical use of foods. What follows is a chart with Celsus terms, Spencer’s translation, and mine. While I am not a Latinist of Spencer’s caliber, I have been interested in the medical properties of food and in Roman medicine for over 20 years and I hope I was able to reach some sensible conclusions.
| Latin Text || Spencer || Mine |
|Legumina ||Pulses ||Legumes. Pulses is a word little used today|
|Quo minus mirum est opus pistorium valentissimum esse, quod ex frumento, adipe, melle, caseo constat. (Book II, 18,2) ||It is not wonderful that pastry made of grain, lard, honey and cheese is very strong food.||It is not surprising that puddings made with wheat, lard, honey and cheese are most nourishing. I refer to a few recipes by Cato and Apicius in which puddings are made with those ingredients. The word surprising makes much more sense |
|Ex holeribus debere ea, quorum radices vel bulbos adsumimus (ibid 18,3) ||Of the pot-herbs, those of which the roots or bulbs are eaten are strongest||Of the vegetables, the richest are the ones of which we use roots and bulbs. Holeris has several meanings, including the generic one of “vegetable”. Celsus specifies “of which we use roots or bulbs” i.e. parsnips, beets, onions etc., all of which grow in fields not in pots. “Pot-herb” gives the impression that only some medicinal herbs were used for food. |
|vel specialiter radicula appellatur (ibid 18,3)||That we call a root.||The one we particularly call radish. Root is too generic a translation. It means all small roots. The correct translation is included as a footnote in the text, possibly by a later editor. |
|Ex fructibus surculorum valentiores uvae, ficus …ect. (ibid 18,6) ||But of fruit growing on twigs,… ||The one thing that grape, figs, nuts and dates have in common is that they can propagate by cutting. So I interpreted it as Fruit propagated by cutting. Cutting is one of the translations of surculus “Twig” is confusing. It could be translated as branches, but then all fruit, included the orchard fruit mentioned immediately after, grow on branches. |
| Aliae res boni suci sunt, aliae mali suci, quae eukhulos vel kakokhulos Graeci vocant…(ibid 19,1) ||Some materials have good juice, others bad juice ||Some things are digestible, others indigestible. The Greek terms immediately following in the text provide the translation: eukhulos: digestible, and kakokhulos: not digestible. (because of qualities inherent in the food, and the effect they have on the stomach. Note of author) |
|Lenes autem sunt…, acria sunt omnia…(ibid 22,1 and 2)||The following are bland… acrid ||The following are mild... acid |
|Crassiorem … Tenuiorem pituitam faciunt (ibid 23) ||Thicker Phlegm ... Lighter Phlegm || Heavy Phlegm, Light Phlegm |
can be intended as inflammation or as intestinal mucus caused by inflammation. Galen lists phlegm as one of the 4 humors. Celsus is very pragmatic, and obviously less interested in the Aristotelian theories followed by Galen.
|Stomacho aptissima sunt, quaecumque austera sunt (ibid 24) ||But best suited to the stomach is whatever is harsh ||Soothing to the stomach are the simple, wholesome foods, not “processed” but Celsus specifies as mildly salty |
|Aliena… stomacho sunt omnia tepida (ibid 25)||Alien to the stomach || Apt to upset the stomach are all things tepid |
|Calfaciunt piper, sal…(ibid 27)||Heating, warm Heat producing||inflaming foods are pepper, salt |
| Refrigerant|| Cool ||Refreshing |
|Facile autem intus corrumpuntur panis fermentatus (ibid 28) ||Decompose the most|| Food that ferments are leavened bread, gas producing, hence gives an uncomfortable feeling |
|Minime vitiantur panis sine fermento ||Decompose the least ||Food that do not ferment, do not produce gas is unleavened bread |
|Belva Marina, cetus (ibid 18,2)||Sea monsters, whales ||Large sea animals and cetaceans Belva Marina literally means marine beasts. Celsus mentions cetus, cetaceans, which includes dolphins, pigmy sperm whales and fin whales, the kind of Cetacean mostly present in the Mediterranean. Pliny includes sharks among the cetus. The most common cetaceans fished for food must have been the size of dolphins.|
Celsus divides the classification of foods in two parts: one according on the nutrient value of foods, and the other on their therapeutic value. For clarity sake I have divided the foods classifications in charts. As for the nutrient value of foods, Celsus follows the “Like to like” theory; Bigger animals are more nourishing than smaller ones, and bigger sea animals more nourishing than smaller ones. My translation f Belva Marina has provided with a no-nonsense explanation of “sea monster”: simply the largest sea animals a fisherman could catch. The same concept seems to be extended to the environment in which the food grows: Highest ground produces more nourishing grains, and ocean fish are more nourishing than shallow water fish (rock fish). It is also evident that Celsus is a pragmatic observer of cause and effect: in nutrition: some foods are beneficial because digestion goes smoothly, other are damaging because they cause ill effects. Some of his comments are clearly aimed at Galen: His autem omnibus, et simplicibus et permixis, varie medici utuntur, ut magis quid quisque persuaserit sibi appareat, quam quid evidenter compererit. “Regarding all these medications, either used alone or in mixtures, their uses by medical men vary, being evident that each physician follows his own ideas rather than what has been proven to be true by empirical observation”. Galen, contemporary of Celsus, was a doctor from Pergamum, in Magna Graecia, modern day Sicily. He established himself in Rome at the court of Marcus Aurelius and founded a School of Medicine based on the teachings of Hippocrates and Aristotle. His theory that health results from the balance of the four humors, Phlegm, Black bile, Yellow Bile, and Blood, became the basis of the medical theory prevalent in the Roman Empire and later in Europe up to the 18th century. While Celsus remained a vastly popular physician, his no-nonsense empirical attitude toward medicine lost credibility among the mainstream medical culture and remained popular only in folk medicine. Many of my findings during my field researches in rural Italy in the seventies bore a strong resemblance to the teaching of Celsus.
Partial Charts of Roman Food Classification
Valentissima,: Strongest: Most Nourishing,
Meat, Animal Products, Fish (Degree of nourishment in descending order) Domesticated quadrupeds, i.e. cattle, sheep, pork. Large game, wild boars, goats, and wild donkeys, the largest being the most nourishing. All large birds, peacocks, cranes, the largest the most nourishing. Young animals are less nourishing than adult ones. Fat meat is more nutritious than lean
Belva Marina, literally marine beasts. The most common cetaceans fished for food must have been the size of dolphins. See comment in translation chart
Drinks and Dairy Drinks made from grain, i.e. some forms of beer, mead. Milk, boiled down grape juice (wine before fermentation takes place, mosto). Raisin wine, boiled down or aged wine
All cheese, honey, lard. Hard boiled eggs
Cereals and Vegetables
Legumes, wheat products Beans and lentils are more nourishing than peas. Wheat is more nourishing than millet and barley. See comment about differentiation of grains. Cabbage, beets and leeks are more nourishing than cucumbers and asparagus. Fruit grown on plants propagated from cuttings, or strong stalks, are stronger than orchard fruit. Hence Grape are more nourishing than apples. Wheat grown in hilly soil is more nourishing than on flat fields. Food grown in dry climates are more nutritious than those grown in damp ones
Media Middle, Mildly nourishing, somewhat light
Meat, Animal Products, Fish
Hares and rabbits, small birds up to the flamingo. Birds that can walk, like chickens and geese, are more nourishing than flying birds, like pigeons. Water fowl are less nourishing than non- swimming birds. some animal part such as brains and organs. Fresh fish which do not salt well or can be salted whole, such as sardines. In descending order, Mackerel, gilthead, eyefish, bass, mullet, and rock fish
Drinks and Dairy
Vinegar and young wine, water in which beans or grain has been cooked. Soft cooked eggs
Cereals and Vegetables
Roots and bulbs, i.e. carots, turnips, leeks, etc. turnip and onion and garlic is more nourishing than parsnips or radish.
Imbecillima Least nourishing, light
Meat, Animal Products, Fish Snails, Shellfish., fish grown in deep or rocky waters
Drinks and Dairy Water, rain water being the lightest, followed by spring water, river, and pond water Raw eggs,
Cereals and Vegetables
Vegetables grown on weak stalks or bushes like cucumbers and capers, olives, orchard fruit. Juicy fruit are more nourishing tan starchy or mealy ones. Hence, grapes and figs are more nourishing than apples and pears. any bread product soaked in water, rice, spelt, oats soaked in water
Classification of medical properties of foods
Positive properties or “Good for you”
Boni suci: Digestible
Meat, Animal Products,Fish , Well marbled meat, pig’s tripe, liver, firm fleshed fish, mullet and bass.
Drinks and Dairy
Milk, sweet wine, raisin wine, defrutum Soft cheese, raw eggs,
Cereals Vegetables and Fruit
Spring lettuce, nettles, mallow, melon, squash, zucchini, ripe and sweet fruit, , olives preserved in wine, Wheat, spelt, rice, all grain gruels
Stomacho Aptissima: Agrees to the Stomach, Soothing
Meat, Animal Products,Fish Simple foods,i.e. grilled meats, soaked grains, boiled meats, beef, lean meat Oyster, scallops, All either cold or hot
Drinks and dairy
Cereals, Vegetables and Fruit
Endive, lettuce, cooked squash, cherry, blackberry, , soft pears, keeping pears, grapes, pine kernels, dates, olives in brine or vinegar
Refrigerant Refreshing foods
Meat, animal products, Fish All boiled meat. Boiled fish
Drinks and Dairy
Cereals, Vegetables and Fruit
Raw fresh vegetables, cucumber, coriander, cooked zucchini, beets, blackberries, cherries, cooking apples, soft pears (not baking pears)
Negative properties or “Bad for you”
Mali suci Difficult to digest,
Meat, animal products,Fish Drinks and DairyLean meat and preserved meat (prosciutto and sausages), spleen, kidney, Rock fish, fresh water or very big fish fish sauces,
Drinks and Dairy
Vinegar, oil and everything bitter and acid hard cheese
Drinks and Dairy
Millet, barley Legumes, radish, onions, leeks, cabbage, its sprouts, asparagus, cucumber, thyme, mint, rue, garlic, fruit that is acid or not ripe
Crassionem pituitam faciunt :Difficult to digest because gives a heavy feeling
Meat, Animal Products, Fish
Drinks and Dairy
Raw eggs, milk,
Cereals, Vegetables and Fruit
Spelt, rue, all starches, barley gruel, bulbs,
Teniuorem Pituitam: Digestive remedies
Digestion is facilitated by acid and salty foods e.g. the warm lemonade of popular medicine
Stomacho Aliena Upsetting to the stomach,
Leavened bread, all sweet and fatty dishes Tepid drinks, mead All cheese, honey Roots and bulbs, grapes, figs, beans.
Calfaciunt Inflammation producing foods
Meat, animal products, Fish
All braised meat, pepper and salt. Salted and brined fish
Drinks and Dairy
All wine, particularly strong wine
Cereals, Vegetables and Fruit
Garlic, onions, dried figs
The apparent contradictions in some categories does not upset Celsus: He points out that digestion is a personal thing and some foods agree to some people and not to others. “Ex his autem intellegi potest non, quicquid boni suci est, protinus stomacho convenire, neque, quicquid stomacho convenit, protinus boni suci esse”. “ It is clear from the above listings that what has good juice, is considered “good for you”(because it has good properties, note of author) does not necessarily agree with the stomach, and what is soothing to the stomach, is not always considered “good for you” (Book II, 25,2). As with nutrient-value categories, the underlying theory is that “Likes Cures Like”, and robust people can eat rich foods, while weak patients must abide to a diet of bland foods. This no-nonsense approach is followed in Italian folk medicine as well.
Celsus also states that food properties are complex and contradictory and vary between patients. However, there is a certain correlation between difficulty of digestion and inflaming and heaviness properties. Food classification is always pragmatic and does not follow theories. As I mentioned earlier, the no-nonsensical pragmatic approach to health of Celsus will be largely forgotten until modern medicine, and will survive in some form only in folk remedies. In later Italian food classification the groups are simplified into Heavy- Light and Inflaming-Refreshing. This classification is present in medieval medicinal herbals, which use degrees of heat or cooling. (Gerard in Johnson, 1975.) The differentiation of food according to the time of the day in modern day Italy appears to be later than roman times. In modern Italy, refreshing foods tend to be light, and inflaming foods tend to be heavy.Italian food classification
Meat, animal products, Fish All domestic lean animals, as long as they are either boiled or grilled. All boiled or grilled fish excluding shellfish. Meat or fish broth
Drinks and Dairy Acid fruit juices (lemonade) as long as they are drunk in the morning. Mineral water. Watered wine tepid milk Soft eggs, soft cheese
Cereals, Vegetables and Fruit
All vegetables that can be boiled and still taste good, excluding cabbage and broccoli . Rice, toasted bread. Vegetable broth. Fresh lettuce. First cold pressed olive oil. Fresh fruit as long as they are eaten in the morning.
Meat, Animal Products, Fish All meat cooked in complex and fatty sauces. Pork (considered fatty). All game Salted meats, sausages. Polenta Animal fats All fish and shellfish cooked in elaborate sauces or fried
Drinks and Dairy
Strong spirits and wines, coffee. Cold Milk Iced drinks (considered paralyzing of the digestion, heavy) Hard cheese, fried eggs, omelets with onions, peppers, etc
Cereals and Vegetables
Fresh fruit and most raw vegetables, eaten in the evening. Cabbages and other brassica. All oil used for frying. The act of frying makes all oil heavy
While it is indisputable that a food classification along the lines of what is easy to digest and what difficult to digest existed in Roman medicine and that modern Italian food classification is quite similar, there exist several interesting differences. Modern Italian belief is that nourishing food has to be also easy to digest, so that the attitude toward fat has totally changed from Roman times. The attitude toward the temperature of drinks is vastly different. Celsus lists tepid water as being least beneficial, while modern day Italians believe that water, and all drinks not supposed to be hot, should be at body temperature. For this reason often tourists in Italy get served their mixed or soft drinks with the one token ice cube. I haven’t found any mention in Celsus about the time of the day being a factor in food being heavy or light. The Italian idiomatic expression is “Oro la mattina e piombo la sera”, i.e. “gold in the morning and lead in the evening”. This indicates a possible connection with alchemy and therefore the differentiation of time of the day must be a later acquisition. This line of inquiry is my future goal.
Western Roman Medicine and the Mysteric Cults of the East
I have mentioned that Roman medicine as practiced by Celsus was mostly pragmatic in nature. This element of pragmatism, however, was present in Greek medicine as well, and also in the more esoteric thaumaturgic cults that established themselves in the principal cities of the Empire. The Villa dei Misteri in Pompeii is a perfect case in point. The frescoes depict complex and forbidding initiation rituals; yet, in one of them there is a strikingly serene figure, the Fanciulla dei Misteri , a young woman strolling in a field and collecting in a basket some wild gracile plants bearing small yellow flowers. (see figure 2) These flowers bear a strong resemblance to flowers still collected today in Italy for medicinal purposes. During my field research in the seventies they were identified to me as “fiorini gialli”, yellow little flowers, used in an olive oil infusion to treat rheumatic pain and skin ailments. Celsus and Pliny mention the same therapeutic properties for Hypericum Perforatum, known to modern herbal medicine as St. John’s Worth, a wild gracile plant bearing small yellow flowers.(see figure 3)
We can conclude that mysteric compounds such as the Villa dei Misteri doubled as places of esoteric worship and popular hospitals, where people would come from far and near to seek treatment or thaumaturgic healing. Such places still exist today and are connected with the cult of a deity. Lourdes in France is an example. Mystical belief was, and still is in places like Lourdes, an important element in the quest for health. The continuity of these beliefs, where the only thing that changes is the name of the deity worshipped, is a future topic of inquiry for me.
Food as Medicine: Cato and Apicius
We have several sources regarding the Roman use of foodstuff in medicine and in cuisine proper. The most widely known are Cato the Elder’s “De Agri Cultura”, written in the late second century BC, and Marcus Varro’s also “De Agri Cultura” written a century later. Both were intended as “how-to” manuals on farm and animal husbandry. Along with directions on how to cram geese or to plant asparagus, we have a number of recipes on how to make simple medicines, such as this one: “Throw in an (sic) handful of black hellebore to the amphora of must (freshly squeezed grapes before they ferment into wine, note of author) and when the fermentation is complete, remove the hellebore from the wine; save this wine for a laxative”. (Cato, De Agri Cultura,CXV)
Along with medicamenta, we have recipes for foods, including a fairly accurate one for cured pork, the modern day prosciutto (Cato, De Agri Cultura). Cato mixes easily found herbs with foodstuff used daily in a Roman farmhouse: spelt, grapes, vinegar, honey, wine and cabbage. Vinegar, wine and honey are recognized to have antiseptic properties in Roman Medicine as well as Italian Folk medicine. (Da Legnano, 1973; Grey-Wheelwright, 1974). As for cabbage, Cato was a great believer of its properties. According to him it cured everything from hangovers to kidney problems (Cato,). Most modern herbals recognize its depurative qualities (Da Legnano, 1973; Grey-Wheelwright, 1974).
If Cato’s recipes reflect the simple farm life of Republican Rome, the work of Masterchef Apicius opens for us an international vision of Roman cuisine. Actually, Apicius is to the kitchen what Homer is to literature: the collection of recipes is of varied enough styles as to suggest the penmanship of more than one chef. His identity being as it may, Apicius operated in a Rome that had become a large metropolis, where if the wealthy Romans had accomplished chefs at their disposal, most middle and working class Romans did not even own a kitchen. They lived in the “Insulae”, large apartment complexes several floor high, (see figure 4) where the danger of fire was a constant reality. We have archeological evidence of some kitchens in the ground floors of these apartment buildings. It is my opinion that they were not communal kitchen but part of the more elaborate and expensive apartments in the ground floor. The practice of mixing social classes in the same building is still common in Naples, where the ground floor is called “piano nobile”, and was traditionally reserved for the nobles. The top floors were much less expensive and more Spartan in nature. Therefore there was a need for shops where the Roman poorest classes could buy food. It was for this reason that little food shops sprang up. They were, if you will, a sort of Roman McCaesar. There the average citizens could buy their meals wrapped up in thin focaccia bread, called still today “Testu” in some parts of Italy. (see figure 5) The name reflects the baking practice of using small portable ovens covered with a “testu”, a lid. Cato mentions this practice in one of his recipes for Libum, a ceremonial bread prepared as an offering to the gods.
Libum Bread of the Gods
Casei P. II bene disterat in mortario,. Ubi bene distriverit, farinae, siliginae libram aut, si voles tenerius esse, selibram similaginis eodem indito permiscetoque cum caseo bene. Ovum unum addito, et permiscete bene. Inde panem facito, in foco caldo sub testu coquito leniter.
Crumble in a mortar 2 pounds of cheese; when it is very smooth, add one pound of wheat flour, or, if you want it more dainty, ½ a pound of fine flour, and mix well with the cheese. Add one egg, and work it in well. Pat out in loaves, and bake in a warm oven under a lid.
As I have said, the wealthy Romans had their meals prepared by professional chefs who probably followed Apicius’ recipes with the capriciousness that still marks Italian cuisine. Apicius, like many modern Italian cooks, does not give exact amounts of ingredients. Perhaps exact amounts were reserved for the medical uses of these foods, where it would have made a difference. One of the versions of Apicius’ book that came to us, De Re Coquinaria, probably written in the first century CE, gives us a picture of Imperial Rome as a metropolis open to the spice markets of southern Asia. Spices were transported by ship from places as far away as India and China in a briskness of trade not matched until the Portuguese voyages of the sixteenth century (Edwards, 1984). As we have seen, with foreign goods came foreign ideas, foreign Gods, and foreign medicine. However, there seems to be a constant quality in foods and spices used in cooking: they also have medical properties, from the domestic oregano to the exotic asafoetida.
Cucumeres Rasos Peeled Cucumbers
Sive ex liquamen, sive ex oenegarum: sine rectu et gravitudine teneriores senties Serve with garum or oenogarum (boiled wine, note of author): you will find this makes them more tender, and they will not cause flatulence or heaviness
A comparison with the medical properties of foods given in the chart puts cucumber in the Imbecillima list, lightest of foods, and will reveal that this was indeed a “refreshing little salad”.
Cymas et Caulicus Brussels sprouts and Cabbage
Cauliculi exilati in patina compositi condiuntur liquamen, oleo, mero, cumino, piper asparges, porrum, cuminum, coriandrum viride super concides Arrange the boiled cabbages in a shallow pan and dress with garum, oil, wine, cumin. Sprinkle with pepper, leeks, and fresh coriander.
Celsus lists cabbage as “mali suci”, difficult to digest. The spices used with this dish are indeed those indicated as digestive and stimulant. The following table contains some of the herbs, foods and spices used in Cato and Apicius and a partial list of herbs recognized for their therapeutic values by two of the major writers of medicine in antiquity, Pliny the Elder and Celsus.
Herbs recognized for their therapeutic values and used in Italian Cuisine
| Pliny and Celsus. || Therapeutic uses || Culinary uses in Cato, Apicius and modern Italy |
|Absinthium (Wormwood)||Skin diseases |
|Ocimum Basilicum (Basil)|| Digestive, calmant, emollient for skin diseases in Pliny. Celsus lists it also as Alimenta, food ||Mentioned in Celsus as food and medicine. Widely used in Italian cooking. Mentioned in only one recipe in Roman cuisine by one source only |
|Ageratum (Pot Majoram)||Gastric spasms, insomnia ||Used in Roman and Italian cooking |
|Alium (Garlic) ||Stimulant, antiseptic vermifugal ||Widely used in Roman and modern cuisine |
|Althaea (Marsh Mallow)||Expectorant, anti-inflammatory ||Used in the United States as snack food. |
|Ampeloprason (Wild Leek and onion) ||Antiseptic, uterine stimulant ||Widely used in Roman and modern cuisine |
|Anesum (Anise) ||Digestive, calmant ||Widely used in Roman and modern cuisine |
|Anetum (Dill) ||Digestive, calmant ||Widely used in Roman and modern cuisine |
|Anthemis Matricaria(Chamomile) ||Calmant, diuretic |
|Apium (Celery) ||Anti-inflammatory ||Widely used in Roman and modern cuisine |
|Asparagus ||Diuretic ||Widely used in Roman and modern cuisine |
|Beta (Beet)||Anti-anemic ||Widely used in Roman and modern cuisine |
|Brassica (Cabbage) ||Cure-all in Cato, diuretic and gastric stimulant ||Widely used in Roman and modern cuisine |
|Caerefolium (Chervil)|| Breath freshener, diuretic, skin diseases||Used in Roman, Spanish, Middle Eastern and Indian cooking, but not in Italian cuisine |
|Cichorium (Dandelion) ||Diuretic, depurative ||Perhaps Roman Bitter herbs, used in Italian cooking |
|Coriandrum (Coriander)||Breath freshener, digestive ||Used in Roman, Spanish, Middle Eastern and Indian cooking|
|Hypericum Perforatum (St John’s Worth) ||Calmant, particularly in skin diseases |
|Crocus (Saffron)|| Digestive, emollient in skin diseases, cosmetic ||Widely used in Roman and modern cuisine |
|Cuminum (Cumin) ||Digestive, Galattogenous ||Used in Roman, Spanish, Middle Eastern and Indian cooking but not in Italian cuisine |
|Danae (Laurel)||Cleansing agent, antiseptic, allucenogenic when burned||Widely used in Roman and modern cuisine |
|Faenum Graecum (Fenugreek)|| Galattogenous, depurative, invigorating ||Used in Roman, Spanish, Middle Eastern and Indian cooking, some regional Italian cuisine |
|Iuniperus (Juniper) ||Depurative of urinary system ||Used in Roman cuisine, sparsely used in modern cuisine |
|Laser (Asafoetida) ||Expectorant, digestive ||Used widely in Roman and Indian cuisine but not in Italian cuisine |
|Lavendula(Lavander)||Analgesic, depurative, calmant |
|Lens (Lentil) ||Good source of protein, digestive ||Widely used in Roman and modern cuisine |
|Linum (Flax)||Laxative, calmant |
|Mandragora||Soporific, calmant |
|Mel (Honey)||Antiseptic, antitussic, used in the conservation of foods || Widely used in Roman and modern cuisine|
Menta (Mint) Anti-inflammatory, depurative, digestive Widely used in Roman and modern cuisine
Myrtus (Myrtle) Anti-inflammatory, depurative
Olea (the tree and the olive derivatives) Calmant, laxative, anti-inflammatory Widely used in Roman and modern cuisine
Petroselinum (Parsley) Diuretic Widely used in Roman and modern cuisine
Origanum (Oregano) Digestive, antiflatulent Widely used in Roman and modern cuisine
Piper (Pepper) Stimulant of digestive system Widely used in Roman and modern cuisine
Papaver (Poppy) Analgesic, calmant. Poison
Puleium (Pennyroyal) Digestive, abortifacent Used in Roman cuisine
Rosmarinum (Rosemary) Digestive, good in several household uses Used in modern cooking, but not in Roman cuisine
Salvia (Sage) Anti-inflammatory Widely used in Roman and modern cuisine
Ruta (rue) Depurative, abortifacent Used in Roman and Medieval cuisine
Serpyllum (Thyme) Antitussic, depurative Widely used in Roman and modern cuisine
Vitis (Grape and derivatives including wine). Digestive, calmant, intoxicating when used in excess, antiseptic used esternally. Widely used in Roman and international cuisine
Zingiberi (Ginger) Stimulant, depurative Widely used in Roman and international cuisine, but very little used in Italy
Basil and Rosemary: their Journey from the Pharmacy to the Cooking Pot
A casual comparison between the two lists shows that most foodstuff used in Italian and Roman cuisine are also included in the Roman pharmacopoeia: oil, wine, honey, asparagus, leeks of course Cato’s cabbage. The therapeutic qualities of these foods have been well known in Italian food culture and are becoming known in the US. We know of the role of olive oil as a therapeutic agent to reduce cholesterol. (Da Legnano, 1973; Grey-Wheelwright, 1974 and others). However, the use of spices in Roman cuisine clearly shows that Roman cuisine was more similar to Middle Eastern cuisine than Italian cuisine. Furthermore, two indispensable staples of Italian cuisine, rosemary and basil, while extensively used in medicine, seem to be unknown as food flavorings by either Cato or Apicius. We have only one record of a recipe in which Apicius uses basil, and unfortunately the author does not give references of her sources. (Gozzini-Giacosa, 1994 p.152) Apicius, in any case, appears not to know rosemary. Apicius has been translated extensively, particularly in the 15th and 16th centuries, when the Renaissance revival of Roman culture demanded a return to many of the forgotten tastes and customs of ancient Rome (Flower and Rosenbaum, 1958). There is the remote possibility that the two ingredients were left out sometime during the Middle Ages by some careless copier, the amanuensis. However, we have several different versions and all of them are consistent on the absence of rosemary and basil. A far more plausible hypothesis is that the several spices most often left out were those least available in local markets. (Flower and Rosenbaum 1958). We know that basil and rosemary are widely found, cultivated or wild, over most of Europe, and furthermore were still used in medicine during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance (Da Legnano, 1973; Grey–Wheelwright, 1974, Gerard in Johnson, 1975). It is also possible that the one recipe that includes basil in Apicius’ book was added by a renaissance translator that took some liberties in the typical way already described: if an ingredient was hard to find, or unappetizing, some other ingredient was substituted. (Flower and Rosenbaum 1958). This possibility needs further exploration since Gozzini-Giacosa does not quote which translation she has used.
We must ask ourselves at this point when those two herbs were introduced into archaic Italian cuisine. Basil was original to India, and was acclimatized in Greece and the Middle East, where it was used more as an aromatic and ornamental plant than a culinary plant (Theonie Diakitis-Mark, food author, personal communication). Basil was called in Greek Basilicon, the royal plant, and according to widespread folklore the name was misinterpreted by the Roman as Basiliskos, or Dragon. For this reason, according to Le Strange, (1977,190) the Romans would not use it as food. Like Gozzini-Giacosa, , Le Strange does not quote his sources. Le Strange’ s argument seems unlikely since Pliny and Celsus knew and used the Greek name basilicon alongside the Latin name Ocimum. I was able to find that Celsus lists Ocimum among the Medicamenta but also among the Alimenta. Basil was therefore known by the Romans as medicine and as food, but perhaps, it was not one of their favorite foods. A quick perusal of their recipes in shows that they preferred a more “sweet and sour” flavor rather than the savory taste of basil. Since basil was widely used in medicine, the Romans perhaps kept it as one of the foods that “are good for you” but are not particularly appetizing, fairly much the way we consider prune juice. When was basil introduced into Italian cooking? At this point I do not have an answer but this quest will be one of my tasks in the future.
Let us now bring our attention to Rosemary. English botanist John Gerards writes in 1633 that “Tragus writeth that rofemarie is fpice in the Germane Kitchins, and other cold countries”. (Gerards in Johnson, 1975, p. 1294) Tragus is the German biologist Hieronymus Bock who in the 16th century wrote New Kreuterbuch, translated in Latin as De Stirpium Historia (The Century Dictionary and Encyclopedia, vol. VIII, p. 6420). Magninus Mediolanensis, a 14th century botanist from Milan gives us a recipe including rosemary in the Opusculum de saporibus : “Recipe petrosilli m. i rorismarini quartam m. unius panis assi ad quantitatem unius ovi zinziberi albi [[dram]] i gariofili xii.” (URL given in the Bibliography)
We must consider at this point that the German invasions that marked the end of the Roman Empire introduced in Italy several customs aborigenous of Northern Europe, including some aspects of Germanic cuisine. This fact is of crucial importance to our inquiry. To further explore it, we must turn to the socio-economic conditions of the Roman Empire from the time of the Germanic invasions.
The Germanic Invasions and their Effect on the Commerce with the East
After the death of Theodosius, the waves of Germanic invasions that took place from the end of the 4th century to the middle of the 6th weakened an already moribund Western Empire. The collapse of its socio-economic structure created a new domestic Romano-German culture. After the German tribal chief Odoacer deposed the last Emperor, Romulus Augustulus, in 476, and installed himself as tributary to the strong Byzantine Empire, whatever was left of the Roman traditional culture became secondary to the strong Germanic cultural presence in Italy. But if the German invaders effectively obliterated much of the old Italic culture, in the process they lost some of their own identity and blended themselves with and among the very Italic peoples they invaded. (Demougeot, 1969, p.551).
One of the possible reasons for the financial obliteration of the Western Empire was the extravagant overspending by the ruling classes in “necessities” such as silks, spices and even eunuchs (Jones, 1974, p.144). This, combined with high taxation and prohibitive transportation costs created rampant inflation, aided by the suicidal practice of the late Emperors to debase the currency, assigning high denomination to coins poorer in high metals (Jones, 1974, p.225). These factors contributed to the bankruptcy of the Western Empire. For these reasons trade connections with the East became difficult and too costly. The access to eastern markets was effectively closed either by political events or by prohibitive prices. The inhabitants of Italy, including the Coloni, the Germanic farmers who settled in Italy after the Germanic invasions, reverted to their own traditions, particularly in day to day practices such as cooking, and the preservation of foods.
It is at this point that probably Rosemary made its debut in the farmhouse’s cooking pot. Rosemary was, and is, a particularly versatile herb. Its uses go from the Pharmacopoeia to the kitchen to other household uses. In the Greek islands rosemary infusions are used as cleaning agents, and fish is preserved in a rosemary based sauce (Food author Theonie Diakitis Mark, personal communication). There is reason to believe that these uses were widespread in all of Europe. Gerard tells us, furthermore, that the Germans used rosemary in cooking. (Gerard in Johnson, 1975)
We can therefore safely assume that sometime following the Germanic invasions rosemary, and possibly basil, were introduced into cooking. The question remains, when this journey from the pharmacopoeia to the cooking pot took place. The only way to pinpoint a precise timetable would be to find either a medieval cookbook or treatise that comments on the culinary properties of rosemary and basil as they were first introduced in Italy. The limitations of a research of this kind are obviously the scarcity of the more obscure primary sources: the purchase orders, the kitchen’s note books, perhaps letters from one masterchef to another. Another serious limitation is the capricious liberty with which Latin texts were translated during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. As I have mentioned, ingredients that were hard to find were ignored and less palatable ingredients, like the garum, a sauce made with fish entrails, substituted with water or broth. (Flower and Rosembaum, 1958). . If reliable translations of Pliny, Celsus and Cato do exist, they contain conflicting information as to the nature of some individual plants. A possible solution to this problem is to rely on pre-Linnean sources, such as the excellent Herbal of John Gerard. On the other hand, the confusing aspects of ancient botany present a pitfall of a particular nature: the purpose of this research is to establish how and when some local medicinal plants were introduced into the local Italian cuisine. To this end the careful identification of the many subspecies of a particular plant becomes superfluous. The researcher must strive to allow to local variations of the various herbs. What is of crucial interest to the botanist is only of peripheral importance to the farmwife, who goes to her kitchen garden to pick the local variety of her favorite herbs.
We have seen how Hieronymus Bock mentions the use of rosemary in the kitchen, and Magninus Mediolanum uses it in his own treatise. Mackendry (1973) mentions rosemary in a list of a 14th century English kitchen garden, but it is difficult to specify if the herbs were grown only for culinary use or, as farmwives are likely to do, the gardens held herbs used in cooking and in empirical medicine.
The Renaissance saw a revival of classical traditions, and the long forgotten voice of Apicius again spoke of ginger and cumin, of cinnamon and coriander. Great trade routes were now established by sea, rivaling the ancient Silk Road, that was still in the hands of the Ottoman Empire, but was open to trade with Venice. Apicius’ spices were once more available, not, if you please, to mask the taste of rotting meat, as some popular magazines maintain, but to preserve and enhance the therapeutic value of foods. But this process was never really forgotten in the “Dark Ages”, the centuries preceding the Renaissance. Local traditions were carried on in the countryside by the obscure farmers, the resilient descendants of Cato the farmer united with the German Coloni. They created a new culture, in their simple and primordial struggle for survival, unaware that they were actually the actors in one of the many phenomena of globalization History has seen. The formed a new breed, the old fashioned colonus, the worker tied to the land, and the woman next to him, the colona, the farmwife, who lived away from the whims of the metropolis. She had to put together the family’s meals according to her own traditions. What is good for indigestion might as well be included in the pot in the first place. Eat it, she says, it’s good for you.
Working and Background Bibliography
Boni, Ada. Italian Regional Cooking
Campbell, J. The Masks Of God Penguin Books 1976
Celsus De Medicina Translated by Spencer, W.G. Harvard
University Press 1939
Da Legnano, L.P. Le Piante Medicinali Edizioni Mediterranee Roma
Demougeot, E. La Formation De L’Europe et Les Invasions
Barbares Aubier Paris 1969
Edwards, J. The Roman Cookery of Apicius Random Century
Flower and Rosenbaum The Roman Cookery Book Random Century
Gibbon, E. The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire The
Modern Library New York no publication year to be found
Grey Wheelwright, E. Medicinal Plants and Their History Dover
Publications New York 1974
Gozzini-Giacosa, I. A Taste of Ancient Rome Translated by Herklots,
A.University of Chicago Press Chicago 1994
Lehane, B. The Power of Plants McGraw-Hill New York 1977
Le Strange, R. A History of Herbal Plants. Arco Publishing 1977
Jones, A.H.M. Roman Economy. Rowman and Littlefield New
Mackendry, M. Seven Hundred Years of English Cooking Treasure
Press London 1973
Mazzarino, S. Si Puo` Parlare Di Rivoluzione Sociale Alla Fine
Del Mondo Antico in Il Passaggio Dall’Antichita’ Al Medioevo In Occidente.
Symposium Centro Italiano Di Studi Sull’Alto Medio Evo Spoleto 1961
Marcus Portius Cato and
Marcus Terentius Varro: De Agricultura Translated by Hooper, W. D.
Harvard University Press 1958
Pliny Naturalis Historiae Translated by Jones, W.H.S.
Harvard University Press 1966
Ody, P. The Complete Medicinal Herbal Key Porter Books
Scansani, S., Setti, M., Benfatti, C., Herbario Podiense Editioni Rossi, Mantova 1994
Gerard, J. The Herbal, or General history of Plants The Complete 1633 Edition Revised by Johnson, T. Dover Publication 1975
Url for Herbal sites on Internet: http://www.altnature.com/Library.htm
URL for Mediterranean cetacean: http://www.mare.it/studiomare/en/home.htm
The Century Dictionary and Encyclopedia, vol. VIII The Century Co. New York 1899
My thanks to Theonie Diakitis Mark for her helpful comments.
 Like all Italian students who attend the Liceo Classico, a Classical Studies school prior to University, I studied Latin for 8 years and Greek for 5.  I must correct Marvin Harris and several other authors on the making of garum: it was not made of rotting fish, but rather by fermenting fish and fish entrails in large vats. It was an operation of industrial scale. Pompeii was a big producer of it.