Spices in Roman Pharmacopoea


The place of spices in the Roman pharmacopoeia "

Octobre 2012                    André J. Fabre         

The study is conducted on a whole of 2600 quotations from 12 authors whose work ca be dated from the Ist to the IVth century : Apicius, Caelius Aurelianus, Cassius Felix, Celsus, Dioscorides, Galen, Marcellus, (Anonymous) Mulomedicina, Pelagonius, Pliny the Elder, Serenus Sammonicus and Scribonius Largus. A set of 33 medicinal spices, all from beyond the limits of the Roman Empire, was thus studied : cyperus, ferulas (Asa foetida), frankincense, pepper, myrrh and saffron among others. Here are some of our comments :


Preponderant place of spices in Roman pharmacopoeia:


Prescription of spices had 4 main indications : pneumology, dermatology, ophthalmology and ENT (over 30% of all references) with  a major place for Apiaceae (Umbellifereae)

Three fields of prescriptions were apparently favourite for the most "exotic" substances coming from India and Asia : gastro-enterology, hepatology and uro-nephrology. On the other hand, gynaecology, obstetrics and parasitology seem to have been, for the same type of substances, a minor field of prescription.

Oncology remains difficult to investigate since the high amount of uncertainties concerning the meaning of words such as "tumour", "cancer" or "carcinoma".

Regarding the route of administration : the local form of administration was always preferred (ointments, inhalations, fumigations, sternutatories, enemas, pessaries) : this is not specific to spices but common to all forms of vegetal drugs suspected of potential side-effects.


·Pharmacology of Antiquity


We show in the study that "Pharmacology of Antiquity" is a science defined by specific criteria (pharmaco-gnosy, -dynamics and -therapy). The whole concept is centered on "quality" or "dynamic virtue" merging together flavours, aromas and therapeutic actions

Thus considered, sensory perception can be seen as a primitive instrument of investigation. Still open to discussion, is our suggestion that methods of comparison and graduating scales used by Ancient authors could suggest a "qualitative" approach ("analogic"), contrasting with the "quantitative "approach of contemporary science.


 Actuality of Roman pharmacopoeia


Current evolution of modern medicine match the ancient theories on therapeutics : antidotes, disinfectants, aromathérapy; phototherapy, thermotherapy, techniques of local administration, diathesis


Concordance between the knowledge of Antiquity and pharmacology of modern times


Many fields of concordance could be observed between pharmacological data coming from Ancient texts and the results of current research in our times, among them :

.aloe used as laxative agent

.ammi : therapeutic photosensitization aimed at treatment of vitelligo·

.bdellium and  cardamon: anti-inflammatory properties used in rhumatology

.benzoin: symptomatic treatment of respiratory diseases·

.cinnamon : inhibiting action on helicobacter pylori (gastro-duodenal ulcers)

.clove: dental analgesics

.curcuma: symptomatic medication in digestive tract diseases·

.cyperus ::antimalarial activity

.frankincense : anti-asthmatic medication·

.ginger : antiemetic properties

.henna : tuberculostatic activity

.myrrh ·:analgesic medications

.poppy: anaesthetic use of opium derivatives·

.saffron: anti-xerophtalmic preparations (high contents of B2 vitamin).

.silphium (Asa foetida) : contraceptive activity






Complete text and Bibliography available at "EPICES MEDICINALES"

(Janvier 2010)

Date de dernière mise à jour : 29/07/2013

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