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Silphium juice

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Image of Silphium on the reverse of a Cyrene coin
Image of Silphium on the reverse of a Cyrene coin

Silphium, that is, the sylphion was a plant that enjoyed extraordinary popularity in ancient times. Its juice was one of the main exports of the ancient Greek colony of Kyrene (today Libya), and it was known and used throughout the Mediterranean. To this day, it has not been possible to identify it unequivocally.

Numerous properties were attributed to it – it was considered a panacea, an antiseptic, laxative, contraceptive and abortive agent, and spice at the same time. He was to cure cough, sore throat, fever, indigestion, aches, warts and all kinds of other ailments.

The plant was used as both a medicine and a dietary component; incl. Apicius used silphium in his recipes.

After the conquest of Cyrenaica, this plant also became extremely important for the Romans. They kept silphium in a public vault, along with gold and silver. The plant was so valuable that after the creation of the Roman Empire it was covered by a state monopoly, and trade was strictly controlled.

Silphium was used until the end of antiquity when the plant probably became extinct. Interestingly, the plant grew only in a narrow coastal strip in Cyrenaica (approx. 201 by 56 km). One of the ancient theories assumed that Roman governors, after taking power from the Greek colonists, over-cultivated silphium, which led to the deterioration of the soil; Therefore, the best plant variety with high pro-health properties ceased to grow. Another theory is that the plant has died out as a result of the overgrazing of animals.

According to Pliny the Elder, the last plant of silphium was found in Cyrenaica and was given to Nero, as a curiosity1.

  1. Pliny the Elder, Natural history, XIX.15
  • Richard G. Lipsey, Kenneth Carlaw, Clifford Bekar, Historical Record on the Control of Family Size, 2005
  • Murray Oswyn, Narodziny Grecji, Kraków

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