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Basil – spice of Greeks and Romans

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Basil was already known in ancient Greece and Rome. It was known as ocimum (Latin) or basilikos (in Greek “a herb worth a king”). It is mentioned i.e. by Pliny the Elder, who distinguishes one type of this herb. He also notes that basil may have white, yellow or purple flowers.

Basil probably comes from India, from where merchants brought it to the Mediterranean area. As Pliny points out, basil among Greek authors initially had a bad opinion. Over time, however, the approach to this spice had changed. Pliny himself gives 32 different medical recipes, using basil, which i.e. acted against pain or scorpion’s venom.

Apicius in one of his recipes for pea soup suggests adding basil to taste, and Columella claims that this is his favorite spice for olives. Basil for the Romans also had symbolic significance – it was a sacred and magical plant dedicated to Venus, which should be broken after the appropriate ritual. Any damage to basil with an iron tool caused a reduction in the healing properties of basil.

Pliny also mentions that basil was valued as an aphrodisiac. Apparently, farmers, in order to breed donkeys or horses, added this plant to their diet. Over time, basil also became a symbol of lovers and was even valued in Gaul.

Sources
  • Jeanne D'Andréa, Ancient Herbs in the John Paul Getty Museum Gardens
  • Basil, " Food and Drink in the Ancient World"
  • Pliny the Elder, Natural History
  • Sacred Plant of Eternal Love and Healing: The Mythology and Magic of Basil , "Ancient Origins", 7.01.2018

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