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Herbs used in ancient Rome

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The ancient Romans greatly valued the health properties of garlic. It was used in the matter of protecting the skin from diseases; it was rubbed on the whole body with crushed garlic.

We do not need to mention that the herbs were known and used in antiquity. It is worth noting, however, that while in Egypt or Babylonia the main emphasis was placed on their magical significance, the Greeks and Romans tried to concentrate especially on their practical application and use in the kitchen, medicine and cosmetics.

The best example of this is the De Materia Medica of Pedanius Dioscorides – a Greek practitioner during the reign of Nero and Vespasian. The work, until the seventeenth century was the most comprehensive and the most accurate treatise on herbs and plants (containing descriptions and engravings of about 600 species). Each self-respecting Roman house, in addition to the vegetable garden, also had its own plot of herbs, most often used as spices in the kitchen, but not only. The most popular herbs include: anise, basil, savoury, garlic, mustard, hyssop, capers, cumin and caraway, catnip, coriander, fennel, oregano (marjoram), myrtle, oman, parsley, wormwood, rue, celery, laurel and verbena.

Herbs valued by Romans

  • Charlock (Brassica) – it was valued in Rome as an irreplaceable medicinal plant. Pliny gives as many as 40 medicines based on mustard. In addition, it was added to most of the sophisticated dishes of Roman cuisine.
  • Catnip (Nepeta) – from the Roman city of Nepeta, which was famous for its cultivation, used for medicinal and spice purposes.
  • Skirret (Sium) – a herb with an aromatic, edible root, often grown in ancient Rome. Emperor Tiberius valued it ​​so much that he allowed himself to be a tribute.
  • Lavender (Lavandula) from the Latin lavo, lavare – “wash”, valued for its properties antiseptic and supportive hygiene, hence popular as a cosmetic, but also used in the kitchen.
  • Lemon thyme, Thyme (Thymus) – from the Greek “courageous”, valued as a cosmetic, thyme oil was widely used in massage and bathing, especially Roman soldiers practiced swimming in water with thyme and adding it to the dishes, believing that it adds bravery. Thyme aroma was described and praised by Virgil. He was commonly used by women for his ailments, he was also an attribute of Aesculapius.
  • Marigold (Calendula) – from calendae, which is the beginning of the month, because it was believed to blossom on every first day of the month.
  • Oman (Inula) – Pliny says that Empress Julia Augusta began the day with the candied roots of oman. Pliny also said the Romans loved making preserves from it, so we can assume that the herb at that time it fulfilled the role of today’s sweets.
  • Parsley (Petroselinum) – Roman doctors recommended her intake due to health properties, she was also intertwined in garlands because of the aroma, which was supposed to remove unpleasant odours. Sterile men were advised to eat large amounts of this vegetable.
  • Houseleeks (Sempervivum) – “eternally alive”, according to legend, humanity got it as a gift from Jupiter as an amulet against lightning, thunders and fire, in front of every Roman house ceramic urns planted with turnip.
  • Salvia (Salvia from salvere) – “be healthy”, or salvoere – “save, heal” – considered as a sacred herb herd collected in a solemn way: first sacrifice of bread and wine was made, Roman recipes ordered to collect sage in a white dress, barefoot and without the use of tools, that is, by hand! According to Pliny – she removed tiredness and drowsiness.
  • Laurel (Laurus Nobilis, laurus) – triumph a nobilius – famous, noble, hence the laureate – honored with laurels, he was also a symbol of wisdom and glory, he was crowned with meritorious athlete and artist, he was also valued in the kitchen.
  • Verbena – according to Pliny, there was no more famous and holy herb in history, they were considered an “iron herb” or the best remedy for iron wounds, in Rome, it was celebrated with great reverence and considered sacred: broomsticks made of verbena were used for the ritual purification of Jupiter’s altars from the blood of sacrificial animals.

It is worth mentioning at the end that today again are popular so-called “Roman gardens”, where the vegetable patch is separated by a patch of herbs. Besides its aesthetic value, it also has practical significance – it supports plant development, repels pests and inhibits weed growth.

  • Lawrence I. Conrad, The Western medical tradition, 800 BC to AD 1800
  • Mark Grant, Galen on food and diet, 2000
  • Marina Heilmeyer, Ancient Herbs

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