How did Gallo-Roman physicians treat their patients?

How did Gallo-Roman physicians treat their patients? A look into the earliest pharmacopoeias of France
by D. Gourevitch, France

Traditional study of the pharmacopoeia of Roman antiquity, in Gaul as in the rest of the Empire, was long based solely on textual accounts,mostly medical and magical, sometimes historical, rarely epigraphic. The rise of new forms of archaeology (rescue, preventive, underwater, etc) has focused attention on subjects hitherto uncharted or miconstrued: the chemistry of dry collyria from Lyon (La Favorite necropolis), the petrographic analysis of collyrium stamps, which were particularly frequent in Gaul, comparison between these stamps and their collyria, botanical investigation of carbonized plants at medical sites (particularly in Switzerland and Germany), examination of the contents of shipwrecks or burned out medical premises (the Surgeon’s House in Rimini), chemical analysis of the contents of terracotta ware and glassware (notably in France, Germany, and Belgium), chance discoveries like that in London of an intact pyxis containing a skin cream, scientific investigation of the preparation of ancient remedies of the Roman era, application of today’s pharmaceutical formulation (simple or compound drugs) to ancient remedies, study of medicinal clays (Lemnian earth), virtual object displays, and the organization of archeological exhibitions and colloquia. All these methodological novelties in a way created a new historical material—ancient remedies—which were especially present in the Gallo-Roman, Germanic and Romano-British worlds.

Medicographia. 2012;34:238-249 (see French abstract on page 249)

Medicine in Roman Antiquity. Fresco from the “House of Siricus” (VII.1.47) in Pompeii. Depicted is a scene from the poet Virgil in the Aeneid: the injured Trojan Aeneas, accompanied by Menestheus and Achates, leans on the shoulder of his weeping son, Ascanius, while his mother, Aphrodite, looks on and the surgeon Iapix removes an arrowhead from his thigh. Naples Archeological Museum.

© Bridgeman Art Library.

Oculist examining a patient. 2nd-century AD relief. Museo della Civiltà Romana, Rome.

© Giraudon/Bridgeman Art Library.

The Gallo-Roman world

Gallo-Roman is a notion both geographical and cultural, like Romano-British, its counterpart for the British Isles. “Gallo” derives from Gallia, the Latin name for Gaul. At the end of the Roman Republic, when Julius Caesar conquered vast swathes of land beyond the Alps, following his victory over Vercingetorix at the famous battle of Alesia in 52 BC, he recounted his exploits in his Commentaries on the Gallic War, a paean to his own glory and to the glory of Rome. The regions conquered, from the Alps to Brittany and the Rhine, were soon transformed into an administrative circumscription bearing the name of provincia: Gallia, covering present- day France—minus Narbonese Gaul, which was already colonized—and a large part of Belgium and Switzerland. Under Caesar Augustus, the first princeps, the Empire followed the Republic and boldly organized administrative and religious bodies and built roads: in the Rhône Valley, an essential trading route since prehistoric times, at the confluence of the Saône and Rhône rivers, Lugdunum (modern- day Lyon), founded as a Roman town in 43 BC, became the capital of the Gauls in 27 BC, a vital crossroads and river route.

Diseases and physicians

This new civilization of free movement had all manner of effects. As for contagious diseases, it changed their epidemiology. The most striking example is the spread of the plague known as the “Antonine Plague” or “Plague of Galen,” in fact likely smallpox,* the dissemination of which was hastened by the return of troops from battlefields in Mesopotamia to their bases, notably various posts on the Limes Germanicus, the frontier fortifications dividing the Roman Empire and the unsubdued Germanic tribes. But Romanization happened more or less spontaneously and deeply depending on the region, with armies stationed at frontiers playing a major role in this acculturation, which in daily life was most manifest in private religious practice, eating habits, and medicine.

In Roman Britain, at Poundbury, a doctor pulled off the remarkable feat of performing an embryotomy that seems not to have killed the mother; at Vindolenda, in Northern Britain, a report shrewdly distinguishes among the unfit for daily duties the three categories of the sick, the wounded, and lippientes, ie, those suffering from a contagious eye-disease (the exact nature of which is unknown). Oculari, Roman oculists or eye specialists, traveled throughout Gaul, while divinities, specialized or not in the treatment of diseases, received from grateful patients votive offerings, often anatomic in nature, the wording clearly expressing their motivation: votum solvit libens merito, abbreviated to V.S.L.M. and meaning “willingly and deservedly fulfilled his vow.” Some of the best-known examples in Gaul have been found at temples at the sources of the River Seine in Burgundy (Dijon Museum), Chamalières near Clermont- Ferrand, and in the Halatte Forest (Senlis Museum).

Whereas military doctors were recruited taking certain precautions and subject to special requirements, civilian doctors were self-proclaimed and had no diploma. Some were well trained, thanks to their own self-imposed professional and philosophical standards, and in their youth had had the financial wherewithal to spend extended periods in the great centers of learning under the Empire (Alexandria in Egypt, and Pergamon in Asia Minor, notably). Others, whether honest physicians or quacks, were self-taught, and in the best cases had studied with a master.

Many, too many, practiced in the large towns, including Rome where the competition was frantic and cutthroat, while in the country physicians were few and far between, whence peripatetic medical practitioners, as witnessed by the stamps, discovered all over that they used to authenticate remedies, notably collyria.

Medicine box. Roman ivory box with six compartments, originally for keeping pills and salves, dated ca 400 AD, with sliding lid featuring Asclepius holding a book in his left hand, and a erpententwined staff in his right hand.

The box was discovered in 1943 in the sepulchrum of the main altar of the Cathedral of Chur, Switzerland, where it served as a reliquary, and is now part of the Churer Domschatz (Treasure of the Cathedral of Chur). Photo © Rätisches Museum Chur/Courtesy of Kathedralstiftung der Diözese Chur (Cathedral Foundation of the Diocese of Chur, Switzerland).

*Mirko Grmek (1924-2000), a French scientist of Croatian origin and one of the founders of the discipline of history of medicine would have described this as a change in “pathocenosis,” a term he coined and which refers to the coexistence of all diseases in a specific time, place, and society.

The pharmacopoeia of ancient Gaul

The pharmacopoeia of Roman antiquity, in Gaul as in the rest of the Empire, was long studied using only textual sources, above all medical and magical, at times historical, seldom epigraphic. The emergence of new forms of archaeology (rescue, preventive, underwater, etc) has shifted attention to subjects previously uncharted or misconstrued: the chemistry of dry collyria from Lyon (La Favorite), petrographic analysis of collyrium stamps, which were rather common in Gaul, comparison between these stamps and their collyria, botanical study of carbonized plants at medical sites, the examination of shipwreck cargoes or of equipment from burned out doctors’ houses, systematic sampling for analysis of the contents of medical containers made of terracotta and above all glass, but also metal (as in the case of the sensational discovery in London of a largely intact small tin canister, referred to as a pyxis, containing an ointment—about which more later), many examples of which have been unearthed in the Gallo-Roman, Germanic, and Romano- British regions. All these methodological novelties have contributed to highlight a new historical material—ancient remedies—and create a new science, the study of processes used in the manufacture of remedies during the Roman era, with attempts to apply the formulation techniques of today’s remedies and medicinal clays to early remedies, virtual object displays, and the organization of archeological exhibitions and colloquia.

Four medicinal plants used by Gallo-Roman physicians.

Clockwise from top: Hypericum perforatum (Saint John’s wort) – © Steven Foster; Hyoscyamus
niger (henbane) – © Steve Klics/Corbis; berries of Lycium barbarum – © Steven Foster; Papaver somniferum (opium poppy) and seed pod – © Joe Petersburger/National Geographic Society/

Medicinal plants: St John’s wort, henbane, mandrake, and others

The use of certain plants predated the Roman era, by when they were highly prized by the general public and by technical authors writing Greek or Latin: Pliny the Elder, Scribonius Largus (court physician to the Roman emperor Claudius), Quintus Gargilius Martialis (Roman writer on horticulture), Pseudo-Apuleius (author of a 5th-century herbal or book about plants and their medicinal and other virtues), Dioscorides (a physician in the Roman army and author of De Materia Medica, a herbal treatise produced ca 65 AD, which was influential for the next thousand years), Galen, and others. The Swiss Bronze Age site of Hauterive-Champréveyres yielded an exceptional concentration of St John’s wort seeds, the use of which can only have been medicinal: the bright yellow flowers yield fruit, which on drying split to release myriad small seeds. The flowers and seeds were used to treat wounds and injuries, internal infections, neuralgia, and for sedation in some mental disorders. Empirical knowledge of certain pharmacological effects, now scientifically acknowledged, and magical beliefs generally went hand in hand when plants were being chosen in the fields. Other plants, though attested in literary and archaeological terms, remain mysterious today. Herba Britannica or Radix Britannica, for instance, is supposed to have saved Roman sailors from what seems to have been scurvy, and its name figures on a box of medicines from Haltern (North Rhine– Westphalia). It may have been sorrel or broad-leaved dock, the root of which was reduced to powder and ingested.

When their properties were known, wild plants were cultivated, although gathering continued as before because domestication of plant species was believed to weaken their powers. It is not always easy to distinguish for which purpose plants were used: perfumes, medicines, or food. In the Netherlands, at Uitgeest, was discovered a fine 3rd-century AD bronze bottle filled with seeds evidently deemed precious: radish, celery, oregano, and mallow. Again in Gallia Belgica, a bronze container may have held either cleansing soap or medicated soap, used for some or other skin complaint. It was found together with a strigil, an instrument used by ancient Romans to scrape moisture off the skin after bathing. The container is finely worked, was tightly closed, and still contained a creamy substance based on animal fat. This discovery tends to confirm Pliny the Elder’s assertion that sapo (soap) was invented in Gaul.

Shipwrecks have yielded a good deal of valuable information. In one ship, which foundered at the end of the 1st century BC off Ladispoli, some 40 kilometers north of Rome, a large wooden box is of special interest. Perfectly intact, its lid closed by a minuscule bronze lock, it once contained cumin and coriander seeds in bags, traces of which remain. These two Umbelliferae, greatly appreciate das culinary ingredients, were also prized for their medicinal virtues, to stimulate and improve the digestion. It is unlikely that this modest vessel had a ship’s surgeon, so the doctor was probably a passenger, on call if needed. Unfortunately, for various reasons (primarily technical and financial), the analyses have yet to be done.

The inventorying of anesthetic plants dispels a myth regarding the history of ancient medicine—that of a medical practice indifferent to the pain suffered by the patient. Here we shall confine ourselves to the famous triad of poppy, henbane, and mandrake, the three herbs most used to assuage pain. Where as Roman medical practitioners did not routinely seek the reversible abolition of sensitivity to disease-related and surgical pain (for technical as well as for moral reasons, the latter essentially because of the influence of Stoic doctrine on the social mores of the time), they did not ignore it either. Often combined in a compound remedy, these three plants contain, as we now know, scopolamine, atropine, and hyoscyamine, and are unquestionably effective. Dangerous too, as they provoke transient or lasting hallucinatory effects, delirium, dulling of the senses, obnubilation, headache, and fits of “madness.” Mandrake has long been associated with dreamlike states, delirium, and hallucinations, and was used in magic rituals. Its name may possibly have been adopted through folk etymology from mandragora, since the roots tend to resemble the human form and because “drake,” believed by some to derive from the Old English “draca,” ultimately from draco, the Latin for dragon), is suggestive of magical qualities. It is also known as circaeum, the plant of Circe, the Greek enchantress who, having turned half her crew into pigs, attempted to bewitch Ulysses, but failed as he protected himself using a magic herb provided by Hermes.

Two strigils and container.

In Roman baths, the skin was softened with perfumed oil from the container and was scraped with the curved metal strigil, thereby removing the dirt.1st century AD, Glyptothek Munich © Matthias Kabe, all rights reserved.

Dioscorides wrote that:

The bark of the root is pounded and juiced while it is fresh, and placed under a press. After it is stirred the beaters should bottle it in a ceramic jar. The apples are also juiced in a similar way, but the juice from them becomes weakened. The bark from the root is peeled off, pierced with a thread, and hanged up in storage. Some boil the roots in wine until a third remains, strain it, and put it in jars. They use a winecupful of it for those who cannot sleep, or are seriously injured, and whom they wish to anesthetize to cut or cauterize. Twenty grains of the juice (taken as a drink with honey and water) expel phlegm and black bile upward like hellebore, but when too much is taken as a drink it kills.

Dioscorides himself practiced anesthesia not only for sedation during surgery, but also to soothe chronic pain, but it was up to the patients to decide whether or not to avail themselves of it.

Galen considered opium, or poppy juice, to be “the strongest of the drugs which numb the senses and induce a deadening sleep.” He sounded a cautionary note though: “Dulling intense pain may be beneficial … but if more potent or more liberally administered narcotics are used, the body becomes cold and dies.” As for henbane, it is well represented in the medical texts. The priestesses of Apollo allegedly used henbane, also known as herba Apollinaris, to yield oracles. The plant derived added prestige from its Greek name, υοσκυαμος (from “uos,” pig, and “kuamos,” bean), Hyoscyamus in Latin, which was associated with the Erymanthian Boar, a monster that roamed the Arcadian highlands and the capture of which constituted the fourth Labor of Hercules. According to some accounts, alone among all animals—who carefully avoid grazing on the highly toxic henbane—the Erymanthian Boar fed on its seed pods (“beans”), which explained its aggressive behavior. The speed of the toxic effect depends upon the dosage, the season, where the plant was collected, and its freshness.We have archaeological evidence of the medical use of henbane. At the ancient site of Novaesium (present-day Neuss am Rhein), historical studies have greatly benefitted from two accidents, one in the 1st century AD, when a fire ravaged a military hospital, and the other in 1962, when bulldozers uncovered the site. Archaeological digs revealed vessels containing foodstuffs, lentils, and carbonized peas, and also a burnt sort of hay, composed in fact of centaury, plus thirty-nine perfectly recognizable henbane seeds.

Medicinal clays: snake bites and counterfeit

Roman physicians also made much use of clays, dried and cut into pieces for storage. It is unlikely these were of much value for diseases of the internal organs, but could be genuinely useful, once moistened and softened, for treating certain wounds. Famous clays included those from Kimolos, one of the Cyclades islands (called Cimolian earth), Samos (an island in the eastern Aegean Sea), Eretria (on the Aegean island of Euboea), Chios (an island near the coast of present-day Turkey), and Selinunte (on the south coast of Sicily), but the most renowned of all was the clay of Lemnos, collected at the foot of Mosychlos, a mountain on this island in the northern Aegean. This pale red Lemnian earth was smooth, and soft to the touch, had a styptic and astringent taste, and as the most sought after medicinal clay was also the costliest and therefore the most commonly counterfeited. In the 160s, Galen, intrigued by strange rumors and wishing to procure authentic products, went to Lemnos to witness at first hand the making of the famous tablets, called Lemnian sphragis (meaning “seal” in Greek). He described how, observing a local rite, the priestess took the earth to the town of Hephaistias, mixed it with water to produce a slurry, which she stirred and left to settle.

The supernatant liquid was then decanted, and the earth deposited was removed, freed from stones, and dried into a soft mass which was afterwards cut into tablets and stamped with the sacred seal of Diana [an image of the goddess or of a deer, her sacred animal]. The priestess then placed the tablets in the shade, where they were allowed to remain until all moisture had evaporated and they had become hard and dry.

Galen read a book by a local singing the praises of Lemnian earth, and was convinced: “I was pleased to experiment with them and took away with me twenty thousand of those seals.” Unfortunately, these and other drugs and instruments, and a good part of Galen’s library, all of which he had deposited for safe-keeping in the Temple of Peace in Rome, were destroyed when the temple burned to the ground in 191.

Terra sigillata. Tablets of “sealed earth” (terra sigillata) produced in Germany, dated 14th century or later, very similar to the stamped
Lemnian earth tablets used during the Gallo-Roman period.

Medicinal earths and clays are attested as early as 2500 BC in Mesopotamia and as late as the 19th century in Europe. Science Museum London © Wellcome Images.

Galen also bought lyceum, or boxthorn, as a liquid medicament, in Cyprus, Syria-Palestine, and Phoenicia, as well as aloe from India.

Roman medical practitioners used Lemnian earth in ointment (to treat watering eyes, lacrimal fistula, eye pain), in a potion with vinegar or wine (for hemoptysis, spleen and kidney ailments, hypermenorrhea), as an antidote (sometimes combined with other antidotes) to bites by snakes and other venomous creatures, sea hares (Aplysia), blister beetles, and even rabid dogs, and in topical application (slow-healing wounds, bites, including by rabid dogs, old wounds). A collyrium stick found in Reims was used to smooth asperities on the inside of the eyelids, and its active ingredient was Lemnian earth, in this case called fragis.

Compound medicines: from painkillers to theriac, the cure-all

The literature, medical or paramedical, presents interesting mixtures. Galen refers to an “anodyne” in the old sense, a painkiller (an, without; odyne, pain), and writes of three goals: “to dull sensitivity to pain, to leave no damage around the affected part, and to be as effective as possible in countering with the morbific tendency.” He continues by speaking of a mixture of henbane and poppy juice made by Philo who wanted to produce a sleep redolent of deep coma and to numb the capacity to feel pain.

Compounding ingredients was hampered by a great lack of precision in weighing them out. The Romans of course knew how to weigh, but there was never-ending rivalry between their system of weights and measures and those of the Greeks, and this was problematical for the ancients as it is for us today. Accurate dosing was therefore hard to achieve as was mastery of the drug’s effects on individual patients. There was no coherent pharmacodynamics, despite a certain awareness of its necessity and the use of a system, which to us may seem strange, to classify the strength and quality of simple medicines as a function of the characteristics ascribed to the human body and of the finished product, considering that the properties of each ingredient may not only be additive, but also somehow potentiate each other. The most famous of this type of remedy was theriac, recipes for which vary greatly, and a find of what might be a jar of it revealed fifty-four ingredients: forty-seven plant species and some animal remains, including the essential snake or viper flesh. Whatever the final presentation, there was almost always a phase of grinding and/or cremation, cleaning and purification of individual ingredients, and then the mixture was finely powdered.

Pharmacist (a woman) with a bowl in her right hand, above a cauldron in which
medicinal plants are brewing, stirred with a caduceus-shaped ladle; on her left
knee, she holds a recipe tablet. Her assistant (upper right) examines a cylindrical
vial. 2nd century AD. Museo de la Civiltà Romana. Rome © Bridgeman Art Library.

Oculist’s collyrium stamp.
This four-sided stamp was used to mark semi-solid sticks of eye ointments
(collyria). The inscriptions are for four remedies prepared with saffron by Junius
Taurus from a prescription of Pacius. Stone (serpentine?), 1st-3rd centuries AD,
Naix-aux-Forges, France. © British Museum.

Pharmaceutical stamps: Gallo-Roman brand names and “advertising”

The practice of stamping was important for authentication of precious simples and for remedies like Lemnian earth, compound medicines that carried a risk, and certain specific remedies. There were several types of pharmaceutical stamps, rings, seals of hard wood, like boxwood, of bronze, and so forth. The collyrium stamps are the most informative, but care should be taken over the exact meaning of the word collyrium, which in those times designated not a liquid, but a convenient storage form in the shape of a small or elongated bread roll easy to transport and cut in small portions, kept in the physician’s case or in the pharmacy, usually for eye diseases (whence the modern meaning), but not always. More than 300 collyrium stamps have been recorded to date, and archaeological excavations are constantly adding new ones to the list. They shed light on how physicians practiced their art, and en- able comparisons between medicinal products advocated in the literature, the constituents indicated on tablets and dry remedies, and the ingredients actually included. They are authenticating medicine stamps, and at the same time genuine prescriptions on stone, generally greenish schist or steatite, since green was thought of as a restful color, good for the eyes, judging from those that have come down to us, which date from the first half of the 1st century AD to the 4th century AD. The inscriptions on the four edges of these small quadrilateral or oblong medicine stamps are cut retrograde (read from right to left), so when pushed into soft or doughy compound medicines their impress usually reads from left to right, and indicates information such as the name of the remedy (attributed according to its color, appearance, and effectiveness [“marvelous success”]), the indication (for this or against that), its effect (soothing, etc), the category of patients targeted (babies, soldiers, etc), the method of use, the diluent, the key ingredient, the name of the inventor or of the person presumed to be, the name of the prescribing physician. The large faces, sometimes slightly hollow, were used to grind the dry drug or to mix it with an excipient just before use. Many questions remain regarding these collyrium stamps and local scholars should be vigilant when new discoveries are made.

Oculist’s kit from the necropolis of La Favorite in Lyon.

Brass sheet box containing twenty dried collyria (displayed) shown open with its lid on the right; beveled slate plate to grind the collyria; sheath made of two brass cylinders fitting into each other, containing the three brass instruments displayed. Dated end 2nd to beginning 3rd century AD.
© Musée galloromain de Lyon-Fourvière.

Gallo-Roman oculist’s instruments.

3rd century AD. Musée Crozatier, Le Puy-en-Velay, France.
© Giraudon/Bridgeman Art Library.

Much rarer than the collyrium stamps are collyria that are themselves stamped during drying, and hence fragile, divisible, and friable. They are usually submitted to chemical analysis, a practice started notably by the great Marcellin Berthelot (1827-1907) for medicines found at Reims. But it was a superb discovery in Lyon, in a cremation tomb in the necropolis of La Favorite in 1983-1985, that greatly advanced our knowledge of these compound drugs: in a box with compartments belonging to an oculist, dated end of 2nd, beginning of 3rd century AD, were arranged twenty collyria, eleven of which were inscribed, in Greek and in Latin. Chemical analysis was used to classify the constituents by families, depending on the main ingredient, which is not necessarily the real active principle: clayey constituents, lead, zinc, copper, gum resins, iron, arsenic, carbon black. Pollen analysis can be used to detect eyebrights (Euphrasia) and mugworts (Artemisia). It is interesting to note the presence of blackcurrant because, given the period, it must have been imported as it was not yet grown in the Gallo-Roman world. Another surprise is the crocodes collyrium, which contains copper, zinc, potassium, iron, and lead, but no trace of the pollen of crocus, or saffron, its name suggests. Yet this pollen, obtained from the stigmata of Crocus sativus L. flowers, figures in the recipes of numerous collyria because of its astringent and anti-inflammatory properties. Perhaps we should not take crocodes literally, but rather as a simple reminder of the color yellow, tantamount to pharmaceutical fraud, to allay the customer’s mistrust, a type of falsification that was not rare and which was facilitated by the distant provenance and complex circulation of certain products. Overall, the scientific analysis of collyria has yielded results consonant with what we know from textual sources of the tendency of the ancients to a sort of polypharmacy, to wit the use of highly complex remedies in which it is difficult to know what is expected from the various ingredients. Inscribed collyrium stamps and collyria have been found above all in the Roman West, Gaul, Germania, and Britannia, though quite why is unclear, since what we know does not suggest that eye diseases were more prevalent in these regions.

Soft and liquid drugs

It is quite exceptional for a centuries-old soft medicinal form to be preserved, and the dermatological cream stored in a securely closed, intact, cylindrical tin pyxis discovered in 2003 in London, in the remains of a temple in Southwark, on the south bank of the Thames, created a sensation. It was opened at the Museum of London, with all due precautions, and, to everyone’s amazement, the small canister, which dates from the middle of the 2nd century AD, was virtually full of a white creamy substance in which could still be seen the user’s finger marks. After studies at Bristol and Bradford, it was established that the white translucency of this cream, which was intended for whitening of women’s skin or to heal sores and cuts, was due to tin oxide, which was mixed with starch and animal (cattle or sheep) fat that had been heated. Ancient cosmetics more often contain ceruse or lead acetate, and it may be that the tin (relatively easy to procure for the Romano- British who occupied the Cassiterides, meaning Tin Islands, traditionally thought to refer to the British Isles, because of tin deposits in Cornwall) was introduced into the mixture because of confusion with ceruse, or was deliberately used in a pharmaceutical fraud of the kind we saw in the case of saffron. Doubt therefore remains regarding the use made of such creams, cosmetic or dermatological, sometimes even culinary. Thus, the one hundred thirty-six cylindrical, turned boxwood containers discovered in a ship wrecked off the coast of Populonia (Tuscany, central Italy), around 100 BC, contained cinnamon, vanilla, and cumin. On the other hand, Egyptian makeup containing lead could have had beneficial effects in the treatment of eye ailments.

“Stela of the Medica” portraying a Gallo-Roman female physician. Funerary stela discovered in Metz, France.

Only part of the inscription remains, but still shows the word “MEDICA.” The medica, standing draped in her palla, holds a rectangular object in her left hand, either a medicine box or a book. 2nd century AD. Photo courtesy of Musée de La Cour d’Or Metz Métropole. © Kieffer Laurianne – Musée de La Cour d’Or – Metz Métropole.

The London pyxis.

Tin pyxis (diameter 6 cm, height 5.2 cm) dated 2nd century BC, discovered in 2003 in London (Southwark) containing a well-preserved dermatological cream. On permanent display in the Museum of London’s Roman Gallery. Photo courtesy of Museum of London. © Museum of London.

Among liquid drugs, sometimes viscous or syrupy, the most renowned was doubtless lycium, in Greek lycion, which Pliny the Elder and Dioscorides applied to a type of boxthorn which was in vogue from the 5th century BC onwards throughout the Mediterranean Basin. The best, from the Indies, was carried in camel skin or rhinoceros hide, whereas other products were transported in amphorae or bags, or in large dried balls. Lycium was extracted from the branches and roots of boxthorn from Lycia (part of present-day Anatolia, Turkey), or sometimes in preference from India. It was sold to Western customers in glass or terra cotta bottles marked with the name of the remedy or of its maker or prescriber, or with both, after the fashion of dry drugs. It has astringent properties and, without being a miracle drug, is effective against certain ulcerations and discharges, since its constituent berberine has antibiotic properties, although it is slightly toxic in some conditions. But from Pliny we learn that ersatz and counterfeit versions circulated in the Gallo-Roman world. The minuscule bottles discovered in Athens, Catania (Sicily), Tarento (Southern Italy), and elsewhere show that lycium was not cheap, and some bear medicine stamps analogous to those for dry collyria.


With ancient medicinal remedies, studying the link between textual sources and archaeological finds is especially crucial and its elucidation can only benefit from multidisciplinary research and collaboration between archaeologists, philologists, chemists, botanists, and others. To complete this presentation of products we also need to envision the containers, to which we have only alluded, and the instruments used to make them. These have much to teach us about the preparation, labeling, denomination, storage, circulation, and utilization of the remedies. _

Gallo-Roman terra-cotta so-called “baby-feeding bottle.”

Although such “bottles” were indeed intended to contain milk, it is now believed
that they may have been placed for ritual purposes in children’s tombs.
1st century AD. History of Medicine Museum, Paris V René Descartes University, Paris. © Musée d’Histoire de la Médecine, Paris.

Further reading

Danielle Gourevitch, Pour une archéologie de la médecine romaine, De Boccard, Paris, 2011. La Coupe d’Hygie : Médecine et Chimie dans l’Antiquité, actes de la journée d’études de juin 2011, organisée par Philippe Walter et Muriel Labonnelie, sous presse aux Presses de l’Université de Dijon.