Opium – a narcotic substance produced from opium poppy capsules (Papaver somniferum) – was already known in antiquity, from about 1000 BCE. We also have evidence that the cultivation of these plants was also present in ancient Rome.
Livy describes in his work Ab urbe condita1 the scene when the son of king of Rome Tarquinius Superbus – Sextus Tarquinius informs his father about the situation in the hostile Gabii in Latium, asking for advice on what to do. In response, Tarquinius Superbus was supposed to walk around his garden and cut down poppies. This is proof that the cultivated poppy was already before the rise of the Empire.
Poppy seed was used mainly as a painkiller. Pedanius Dioscorides, Greek author of a large work devoted to medicine and herbs – De Materia Medica – mentions the poppy and its sleeping effects. What’s more, for example, the emperor Marcus Aurelius reportedly used opium very often; dealing with stress. Nobody, however, was talking about addiction in those days, because there was no such medical term. Naturally, opium was also used by Roman medics during long operations.
Another source of information about opium is Pliny the Elder. He mentions that the leaves and fruits of the poppy were boiled in water to reach the juice. Then, the product was kneaded and formed into the desired shape. Pliny also mentions that the substance had a calming, relaxing and leveling effect. The Roman historian also reported that apart from the wild and cultivated poppy seed, an additional variation which scientists identify with the present eastern poppy (Papaver rhoeas) was distinguished.