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Cumin in ancient times

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Fresco from Pompeii showing feast
Fresco from Pompeii

Ancient Rome used a range of overseas spices such as black pepper, long pepper, ginger, cardamom and cinnamon. However, the most frequently used raw materials, both in cooking and in medicine, that were grown locally – coriander, mint and Roman cumin. The last of them was used both as an ingredient of dishes, a cosmetic raw material and a ritual plant. Where was this spice traded? What diseases were treated with it? Answer in the article below.

Roman cumin in Greece

One of the oldest accounts of the use of cumin fruits are tables covered with Linear B script. They were found in a palace in Mycenae (14th century BCE). They also describe sesame and fennel. According to myths, the above property was the home of King Agamemnon. At a time when Rome’s glory days were yet to come, Roman cumin was already well known in Greece. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that in the fourth and third centuries BCE cumin, next to coriander and oregano, is mentioned in Greek tragedies. In subsequent centuries, the Romans also captured the above motif in the tragedies of Plautus (254-184 BCE) and Terentius (195-159 BCE) there is a figure of a cook who uses condimenta (Latin spices) from distant lands. These include Cilicia saffron, Egyptian coriander and Ethiopian cumin. Until 80 CE in the Middle East and the Mediterranean, the cumin trade, as well as olibanum and labdanum, were controlled by the Nabataeans – a Semitic people inhabiting the Arabian Peninsula.

Roman cumin in medicine

In the fourth century CE one of the most important Roman veterinarians – Pelagonius Saloninus wrote a work on horse medicine – Ars Veterinaria. The above book describes three drugs used in animal healing. One of them is a preparation for cartilage tumors consisting of cow excrement, ground cumin and vinegar. It had to be administered until the animal recovered.

Dioscorides wrote that cumin is “dry, hot and astringent”; the best sorts were to come from Ethiopia and Egypt. In combination with rabbit rennet, wine and sea turtle blood, it was supposed to act as a universal antidote and remedy for the bites of toxic animals. Other forms of the drug made from cumin at that time include suppositories (used for flatulence) and gruels (with the same indication). Due to this pharmacological effect, there are reports that cumin was the personification of the Roman god Crepitus (he was responsible for intestinal gases; there are indications that it is an invention of the first Christians).

Roman cumin in cooking

Non-medical in ancient Rome, cumin was mainly used as a spice. In the book attributed to Apicius (Latin De re coquinaria), three grades of cumin are described: Ethiopian cumin, Syrian cumin and Libyan cumin. One of the most interesting recipes based on it was an aid in digestion and anti-flatulence (ad digesitonem et inflationem). It was made by grinding Roman cumin (2 ounces) and nine ounces of cumin from Syria or Libya and combined with vinegar. After the vinegar was dry, the rest of the spices (an ounce of ginger, an ounce of rue herb, about half an ounce of dates, an ounce of black pepper) were added and combined with nine ounces of honey. The treatment dose was half a spoonful (0.011 l). The Roman ounce is approximately 27.2 g.

Author: Aleksander K. Smakosz
  • Apicjusz, O sztuce kulinarnej ksiąg dziesięć, Toruń, 2012
  • Cartwright. (2013, October 26). Roman Medicine. Ancient History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from
  • Dioscorides, De materia medica, Johannesburg, 2000
  • Pelagonius, Ihm, M. (red.). (1892). Artis veterinariae quae extant. Teubner.

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