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Cinnamon – valuable spice of antiquity

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Cinnamon was a very well known spice in ancient times. Chinese and Egyptians, as well as Romans used it. In ancient times cinnamon and cassia were distinguished. Cinnamon, which was imported from Sri Lanka, was more respected and luxurious; cassia, in turn, was imported from Arabia and Ethiopia. Due to the fact that cinnamon was very expensive, only the richest could afford to import it. 

Cinnamon and cassia are extracted from the inner bark of various cinnamon tree species. Pliny the Elder claims that a Roman pound (327 grams) of cinnamon or cassia costed 300 denarii – a regular 10-month pay. In Diocletian’s Edict of maximum prices from 301 CE the price per pound of cassia was 125 denarii.

Originally, cinnamon was used to hide the bad smell of rotten meat, and phenols contained in the spice inhibited the formation of bacteria that spoiled the meat. The ancients especially appreciated the preservative benefits of the product. Already the ancient Egyptians used cinnamon for mummification, whose strong aroma eliminated the unpleasant smell of a dead body, and organic compounds conserved tissues. In turn, the Romans, although cinnamon was expensive, sometimes used it for funerals and burning corpses – in this way, unpleasant smells were hidden. There is a account saying that Emperor Nero once burnning his wife Poppea Sabina during the funeral in 65 CE, used all cinnamon in Rome.

In Rome, cinnamon was also added to anointing oils that were applied to the body. It was believed that it causes beneficial sexual stimulation and is a source of sexual strength and libido.

Cinnamon was also naturally used in the kitchen. Among others so-called leaves were used malabathrum, called foil – probably referring to cinnamomum tamala. Furthermore, cinnamon was used to distil the oil used in oyster caraway sauce. The Roman gourmet Apicius emphasized that cinnamon is a spice indispensable in any self-respecting cuisine, and cassia, in turn, a good taste addition to wine.

Cinnamon due to the fact that it was hardly available, its transport difficult to implement, and high demand, was extremely desirable. Pliny the Elder estimated that cinnamon of the same weight as silver was five times more expensive.

Sources
  • Ermatinger James W., The World of Ancient Rome: A Daily Life Encyclopedia
  • Klein Richard M., The Green World: An Introduction to Plants and People
  • Pliny the Elder, Natual History
  • Regazzi John J., Infonomics and the Business of Free: Modern Value Creation for Information Services

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