Pliny the Elder, a Roman statesman and writer, lived during the 1st Century CE. He died, famously, during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius—although more likely of a pre-existing condition than anything directly related to the volcano. A very studious fellow, Pliny devoted much of his time to investigating various natural phenomena and writing books. The best known of these is his extraordinarily long encyclopedic tome, Historia Naturalis (Natural History).
Due to its nature as a “respository of knowledge […] culled from a variety of sources,” Historia Naturalis can be used to infer larger trends in Roman attitudes toward various subjects, including substance use. We also know that Pliny drew on both Greek literary sources and Roman folk beliefs when writing his Historia. In those days medicine and the sciences overlapped with magic, religion and philosophy. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the work is full of what we would today consider pseudoscience, making it a better source for understanding contemporary culture than for scientific information.
I should probably admit that I’ve read only a tiny portion of this immense opus. My focus so far has been the volumes which discuss plants used for medicinal purposes—including some which today would be considered illegal drugs, such as opium. References to opium poppies and their wild relatives appear primarily in Book XX.
Pliny sees no need to preface these passages, as a modern writer might, with a note about not wanting to condone or promote drug use. That’s a significant clue, when we consider his status, to prevailing attitudes in Roman society. It was a society, of course, with many horrifying aspects, like slavery and imperialism. Yet historical perspectives on drugs can serve a useful function in refuting any modern notion that their demonization and prohibition is somehow natural or inescapable.
The Romans lacked the idea that there was something inherently immoral, illicit or shameful about substance use per se.
A Roman reading Pliny’s Historia would not perceive the author as some sort of radical pro-drug advocate, but rather as a perfectly ordinary communicator of practical household knowledge, as authors like D.C.A. Hillman have attested. Certainly, restraint and moderation—sexual, financial and otherwise—were valued by the Romans, particularly those of a more philosophical persuasion. But they lacked the idea that there was something inherently immoral, illicit or shameful about substance use per se.
“Opium was used in antiquity and virtually throughout history,” John M. Riddle, professor emeritus of history at North Carolina State University, told Filter. He has published widely on the history of pharmacy, with particular focus on the works of the Greek physician Dioscorides. He noted that curiously, people in antiquity, the Middle Ages and even the early modern period did not have a concept equivalent to our opioid use disorder. “Physicians and laity alike knew its properties very well yet they did not report addiction as a related problem.
In XX.77, Pliny discusses two domestic (“sativus”) species of poppy, which he refers to as black and white poppies on account of the color of their seeds. He notes that “the corolla of the white type is ground and drunk in wine for the purpose of sleep.”
Pliny even goes on to tell us how to harvest opium from the black poppies. He writes, “the stalk having been sliced, opium is brought forth from the black poppy,” before citing two different views on when precisely in the life cycle of the plant to do this. In any case he suggests it is best done “in the third hour of a serene day,” or mid-morning by modern reckoning, because “this is when the dew upon it dries up.”
Pliny goes on to describe other positive uses of opium.
He continues that “they suggest that the plant be cut below the head and corolla” (incidi iubent sub capite et calice). This phrasing, without any explanation of who “they” are, implies that this is common knowledge—similar to the common Latin phrase, “as they say” (ut aiunt or ut dicunt). The juices are then “drawn out with wool or, if meager, by one’s thumbnail.” This can then be “pressed into lozenges and dried in shadow.”
Yet in the very same sentence (painfully long to a Latin student), he warns that the resulting pastilles have the strength not only to serve as “soporifera,” substances which cause deep sleep, but to be “mortifera,” or deadly substances, if consumed in excess. He goes on to say that “we know that in this manner the father of P. Licinus Caecina, a man of the praetorian rank, ended his life in Spain, because intolerable illness had created a hatred of life.”
Pliny then approaches more modern territory when he notes that because of this, there existed great controversy regarding the use of opium, which was totally condemned by some as a deadly substance (mortiferum). He warns that it can also harm the vision—a claim that should be taken with a grain of salt, although there are modern equivalents. Still, despite these potential risks, he points out that “its use was not rejected in a celebrated medicine, called διὰ κωδυῶν [diacodion].”
Pliny goes on to describe other positive uses of opium, explaining that “the seeds, pressed into pastilles with milk, are used for the purpose of sleep, just as they are used for headaches with rose oil; this combination is also administered for ear pains.” He discusses various similar concoctions, including a slightly alarming mixture of the seeds (or sometimes the leaves) and human breast milk, applied topically for gout. Nevertheless, he rejects the use of opium in eye salves (collyria), as well as certain other medications.
After this, Pliny returns to discussing various potential uses and manners of preparation, along with other practical information, such as methods of testing quality and descriptions of the ideal climate for cultivation.
“The idea of drugs shifts quite a bit, it’s not necessarily a static concept. Our current notion of drugs is also very tied to prohibition.”
Roman medicine was often prepared and administered by laypeople. People commonly relied on remedies made at home or purchased from apothecaries, many of which were either placebos or potentially quite dangerous. Still, some of these drugs were powerfully effective.
Despite these knowledge gaps, and like almost every human society across time and geography, the Romans used psychoactive substances. Frankly, I don’t blame them. As Hillman writes in The Chemical Muse (2014), “the ancient world was very much a place of overwhelming anguish,” due to the myriad horrific ways in which someone might fall ill or die.
The drive to ingest drugs—whether to alleviate pain, for ritual purposes, for pleasure or for some other reason entirely—is no modern vice but very ancient and logical. The Ancient Greeks likely used opium as early as the 8th Century BCE. Archaeological evidence of psychoactive plant cultivation dates back to prehistoric times in Eurasia and over 1,000 years in South America, for example; actual use around the world surely predates the evidence.
Alex Betsos, a drug anthropologist and co-host of podcast Drug Futurisms, told Filter that the very concept of “drugs” has changed over time. Only a few centuries ago, they explained, herbs and spices such as chamomile and cinnamon were considered drugs—something few would define them as today. “The idea of drugs shifts quite a bit, it’s not necessarily a static concept. Our current notion of drugs is also very tied to prohibition.”
Even now, they noted, concepts of “drugs” are “contested by Indigenous peoples when it comes to plants such as coca, khat, and a plethora of psychedelic substances,” who instead refer to these as plants or medicines.
Why shouldn’t we calmly acknowledge the potential risks and benefits of substances without assigning moral values?
Pliny’s pragmatic manner of addressing potential uses and dangers of opium lacks the theatricality and moralizing so common today. He speaks directly, reporting what he believes to be true with a dryness suited to an encyclopedia writer. Despite noting its potential dangers and use as a suicide method, he—and, by extension, many of his sources and contemporaries—viewed opium as too useful a tool to discount. Abhorrent as many of the cultural values of the Roman world were, this is a reasonable and logical approach to this particular matter.
It’s also proof, as if we needed it, that the breathless, sensationalized way of talking about drugs favored by today’s media and politicians is not the only option.
Why shouldn’t we calmly acknowledge the potential risks and benefits of substances without assigning moral values to them, or to people who use them? Why fear-monger about brains being “hijacked,” exaggerate harms and ignore positive properties, when we could be realistic instead?
Image of Pliny the Elder via US National Library of Medicine/Public Domain