On this page, you'll see many of the herbs and plants the Romans used in their medicines and healing. Yes, there are a couple of articles used, then modified with art to show what is being talked about. Also, in some cases more info was found and added to better explain things. Look for this section of Romans in Britain to become more coherant and just a better place to find information on Roman medical matters.
Listed below are some of herbs that are likely to have been used on the infirm Roman Citizen, soldier or slave. Note: the latin names listed for these herbs are modern scientific names, not those used by the Romans themselves. [The photos were added to give the viewer a better understanding of what is being discussed. As they say, a photo is worth a thousand words (or in this case, a piece of art. ~DMV]
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) Galen 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 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.
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 (Urtica 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.
Wine was a frequent component of ancient Roman medicine: As is well known nowadays, alcohol is a good means of extracting the active elements from medicinal plants. Wine was the only form of alcohol known to the Romans as distillation wasn’t discovered until the Middle Ages. Herbs infused in wine was a regular medicinal stratagem which would have a degree of effect given the alcohol’s ability to extract the active compounds of a number of herbs. The “only” issue would be whether the infused herbs are the right ones for the particular ailment.
An example of this would be Artemisia Abrotanum (aka Southernwood, Lover’s Plant or Lemon Plant) which is known to be antiseptic and repel insects such as intestinal worms. When taken with wine the Romans regarded it as an antidote for poison (Horace Epistles BkIIEpI:90--117):
“no one unskilled dares give Lad’s Love to the sick.”
Whether or not Lemon Plant’s powers extend that far is questionable, perhaps it depends on the manner of preparation.
As an example of how the wine would be used in such a manner we show below a typical recipe for a laxative (from Apicius’ cookery book...):
"Rose (or violet) Wine-Rosatum: Rose petals, the lower white part removed, are sewn into a linen bag and immersed in wine for seven days. After which, add a bag of new petals which allow to draw for another seven days. Again remove the old petals and replace them with fresh ones for another week then strain the wine through the colander. Before serving, add honey sweetening to taste. Take care that only the best petals free from dew be used for soaking."
Another interesting and curious mention of wine as a cure is made by Plutarch regarding Mark Anthony’s failed campaign against the Parthians: the soldiers stranded in the desert resorted to eating some local plants which drove them mad and then killed them. Wine, supposedly the only remedy against such a poisoning was not available to them.
Listing of even more Ancient Roman medicinal plants
It is quite evident that the Romans used a great variety of medicinal plants. For example Melissa against insect bites and as a tea against melancholy. A few herbs used by the Romans are given below; apologies for the lack of order, rather like a garden.
Sage (salvia officinalis) -- The Roman name for the plant was Salvia coming from the word “salvare” or “ salus” meaning health. It was regarded as sacred and was gathered with pomp and ceremony after an offering of bread and wine and not to be cut with ferrous tools (which apart from anything would have been extremely expensive in those days).
Blackberry (rubus fruticosus) -- Galen and the Greeks saw it as useful for gout. The Romans found that chewing a leaf could help against bleeding gums. Ground leaves could also be used against the pain of ulcers and scars. A tea made of the leaves and bark was used for its astringent qualities.
Oak -- the bark, leaves and galls are powerful astringents. The high tannin content can also be used for tanning leather. A crushed leaf could be applied directly to wounds.
Garlic (Allium Sativum) -- For disinfecting. Galens wrote of Garlic as a cure-all. This herb is antibacterial, antiviral, antiparisitic and antifungal.
Hyssop (hyssopus officinalis (LINN.)) -- Pliny of the first century AD describes wine made from this plant, this may have been an influence for the later Benedictine monks who brought the herb to central europe to flavour their liqueur. During the empire the use of Hyssop was known for its cleansing action and it was regarded as a remedy for lepers.
Laurel (laurus nobilis) -- famously used to crown emperors and great men, the Laurel was dedicated to the god Apollo and the god of medicine Aesculapius. Laurel (bay leaf) is lightly narcotic and as such was closely associated with trances and oracles. Laurel garldands soon became an architectural element as the plant was believed to protect from disease, evil spells and lightning. It was also used as a remedy against the plague (remember that Aesculapius was brought over to Rome in the event of a plague).
Mint (mentha spicata) -- used to flavour wines and sauces. The poet Ovid mentions it as a symbol of hospitality. It was used as a diuretic and digestive as well as for coughs and colds.
Oregano (origanum vulgare) was a well known herb throughout the Roman world for its frangrance and antiseptic properties.
Parsley (petroselinum hortense) -- the Greeks had a variety of uses, the Romans are believed to have been the first to use it as a food.
Borage -- (borago officinalis) Some believe the name may stem from the latin word “borus” which was a rough/hairy woolen cloak worn by Roman shepherds. It was used to lower temperatures and fever caused by colds or bronchitis. Also used for rheumatisms. The Greek medic Dioscorides remarks on its use against depression and for its relaxing properties. The Romans used it particularly as a flavouring in foods and drinks. They brought it to England where it is still widely appreciated.
Cinnamon (cinnamum zeylanicum) -- a rare herb during Roman times it was highly prized, like pepper. It would be imported from India.
Cinnamon is one of the oldest known spices, and in the Ancient World it was worth more than gold. Its medicinal properties are astounding. In Ancient Rome, cinnamon was useful in the treatment of inflammation, poisonous bites, and menstrual disorders. It was very helpful in treating the symptoms of the common cold or flu, as well as other respiratory infections. Cinnamon was also claimed to be an exceptional cough medicine.
To fight infection, cinnamon was known for its antibacterial, antiseptic, and anti-fungal properties, and was often applied externally to wounds, and troublesome skin conditions. Cinnamon was also used in embalming procedures. Body cavities were filled with sweet smelling spices. During childbirth, mothers were given cinnamon, as a sedative, to help with the pain and discomfort. It was commonly used for gastro-intestinal upsets, such as indigestion, nausea and diarrhea, and it was recognized as a good digestive aid. Many people today take cinnamon as a treatment for acid reflux. Cinnamon has stimulant properties, and was used to warm the body, and aid in circulation. It was applied as an astringent, and as a parasitic treatment. It was also used in food preservation.
Calendula (calendula officinalis aka Marigold) -- from the Roman word “calendae” meaning the first day of the month. The name is said to refer to the fact that the plant flowers throughout several months. Good for skin rashes. It was widely used as a cheap substitute for saffron which in those times was extremely expensive.
Violets (viola odorata) -- used for the eyes or as a cure for hangovers.
Rosemary (ros marinus, meaning “sea dew”) -- burnt for purification. In fact its antiseptic properties meant it would be used to preserve foods. It was also placed in the hands of the dead.
Basil (ocimum basilicum) -- was introduced into Europe by the Romans. Amongst the various stories it is said to have been found growing on the spot of Christ’s crucifixion by the Empress Elena (mother of Emperor Constantine) and from hence exported across the empire.
Poppy (Papaver Rhoeas) -- it’s calming effects have been widely known in most if not all civilisations and cultures since primordial times.
Artichoke (cynara scolymus). Pliny gives one of the very first full descriptions of the artichoke as we know it. It had a variety of reputations, some of them negative for example dreaming of them was deemed to mean bad luck. It was a poor food with little nourishment and stood as a symbol of pain and bad luck. However, wehave also read of it being deemed to be an aphrodisiac...
Chestnut (castanea sativa) -- Pliny tells us it was eaten roasted/toasted by the priests of Cibele as they were forbidden from eating cereals. It is also mentioned by the poet Homer and by Galen, Martial and Virgil.
Cabbage (brassica oleracea) -- Pliny goes as far as saying the Romans used cabbage as the only medicine for a number of centuries. Catullus defended it and its virtues in the senate against other foodstuffs and herbs being imported from the orient. The poor ate all parts of it whilst the rich had a preference for the young shoots only. Recent cancer research sugests that indeed it is an effective cancer defence and should be eaten twice a week if possible!
Pomegranate (punica granatum) -- Entered Roman life around the time of the Punic wars. It’s roots were cooked and used as a cure for worms. The skin was used for intestinal problems. It’s copious seeds made the fruit to be associated with Venus/Aphrodite and according to the Greeks it’s juice was meant to be the blood of Dionysus.
Fennel (foeniculum vulgare) -- Pliny advocates it for problems with the eyes and sight. Something weird about noticing how moulting snakes would rub their eyes against it.
Chicory (cichorium intybus) -- Dioscorides used it for stomach problems and digestion. Galen suggested it was good for liver problems. Pliny found it refreshing.
Cherry (prunus avium) -- Galen advocated its use for the intestine and against gall stones. The kernel was found useful for arthritic pain, acne and verucas. The resin/gum, collected in summer, would be mixed with wine against cough and to aid appetite.
Lettuce (lactuca scariola) has been known to be rich in sap -- hence the name lactuca which means “rich in milk". It was used against rheumatisms and colds. It was very appreciated during meals and in the republican period was often eaten at the end of the meal. In later times it made its way to the beginning of the meal as an appetizer. The sap would be collected and dried for use.
Aniseed or Anise (pimpinella anisum) -- it was used by the Romans as a popular ingredient in cakes. Pliny recommended its use in wine as a remedy against the bite of scorpions.
Rice (oryza sativa) -- Rice was imported from India and hence was not very common, in fact at first it was very rare but certainly not unknown.
Barley (hordeum vulgare) -- was very common but eventually overtaken by wheat as the most common cereal in ancient Rome.
The Romans took barley with them across Europe and the Middle East, establishing it everywhere they went as a staple food, an ingredient for brewing beer and a medicine. One of its most popular medicinal uses was as an anti-inflammatory, a property for which barley still has a sound reputation today, being widely recommended as a treatment for osteoarthritis, gastric ulcers and other inflammatory diseases. Barley is also known as an emollient used in cases of pancreas and biliar ailments and other digestive problems and in infections of the intestinal mucous membrane and urinary tract, and as a febrifugal used especially for fevers in children, who are also given it for minor infections, diarrhea and dry coughs. It is also traditionally renowned as a galactogogue and a promoter of hormonal balance in women, and its benefits to the hormonal system have been reinforced in modern times by research suggesting that it stimulates the release of prolactin and human growth hormone. Barley's reputation as a woman's herb has grown even further in recent years, since it has become increasingly used as an ingredient in breast enhancement formulations.
Another therapeutic use of barley is to lower blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels and to regulate blood sugar levels. Studies suggest that these effects are caused by beta glucan, a type of fibre which barley contains, which is also claimed to be protective against the risk of bowel cancer. Barley also contains astounding amounts of proteins, vitamins and minerals, incuding potassium, calcium, magnesium, iron, copper, phosphorus, manganese, zinc, beta carotene, B1, B2, B6, C, folic acid, and pantothenic acid, making it one of the most nourishing foodstuffs known to man. It also contains high levels of chlorophyll, a substance said to inhibit cancer, and several antioxidants, thought to help prevent many degenerative diseases, such as cancer, heart disease, stroke and premature ageing.
Made into a poultice and applied externally, barley has demulcent properties which make it helpful in soothing and reducing inflammation in sores and swellings. A hot poultice eases stiff and painful joints and draws the poison from boils, abscesses, stings, bites and infected cuts. A cold poultice relieves swellings and helps with weeping eczema and other itchy skin conditions.
Citrus fruits such as Oranges and Lemons were little known if at all although opinions differ. For example there are frescos on walls in Pompeii depicting fruits that look rather like oranges. They would have in any case been seen as an exotic fruit rather than being in common use.
Asparagus (asparagus officinalis) -- Pliny tells us of how much he personally liked them and ate them very regularly. Cato gives a detailed description of how to grow them.
Mallow (malva silvestris) -- the very name suggests the plant’s emollient qualities and hence its use in Roman times against inflamations of the skin. They also regarded it as a delicious food to eat.
Almonds (prunus amygdalus) -- the plant was regarded as an aid against the effects of alcohol. It was thought that eating bitter almonds before drinking wine would protect the drinker from the effects of the drink.
Winter savory (satureja montana) -- regarded as an aphrodisiac as the name possibly stemming from the word for Satir suggests. It was liked as a spice in meat.
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