Jump to content
UNRV Ancient Roman Empire Forums
guy

Silphium: Numismatic evidence

Recommended Posts

Silphium was the legendary plant from antiquity. Its heart-shaped fruit was a cure-all that was used as a remedy for many conditions, including warts, pneumonia, typhus, fever, and indigestion, as well as an aphrodisiac.

Most famously, it was supposedly used as to prevent pregnancy and even induce abortion.

It is supposedly extinct, but there is some numismatic evidence for its previous existence. (Be sure to scroll all the way down the page to see several coins with the silphium plant on the link below:)

http://www.wildwinds.com/coins/greece/kyrenaica/t.html

Nice summary on the numismatic evidence of silphium:

http://www.ancient-coins.com/resourcedetail.asp?rsc=8


A healthy skeptic would not fail to mention that there is also numismatic evidence for many mythological gods and other entities, but that doesn't prove their existence, either.

This plant purportedly only grew along a small region of the modern Libyan coastline known as Cyrenaica. The city of Cyrene was important for its trade and cultivation. Many coins from the city of Cyrene portrayed its image.

Ancient writers ranging from Herodotus, Strabo, Catullus, and Pliny mention it.

http://dalby.pagesperso-orange.fr/texts/SilphiumTexts.html

The Ancient Roman physician Soranus even recommended it's use for contraception.

http://www.islamonline.net/servlet/Satellite?c=Article_C&pagename=Zone-English-HealthScience/HSELayout&cid=1158321476806

 

Herbal Contraception in Ancient Times

By David W. Tschanz
( Desertwriter1121@yahoo.com )

...Silphium, was an herbal morning-after pill, readily available to our ancestors a hundred generations ago.

In the seventh century BC, Greek colonists established the city of Cyrene on the Libyan coast. Shortly after their arrival, wrote the Greek botanist Theophrastus (ca. 370-288 BC), they discovered silphium -- the plant that would make them rich and the city famous. A member of the genus Feula, (commonly known as giant fennel), a large group of plants with deeply divided leaves and yellow flowers, the pungent sap from silphium's stems and roots was used in cough syrups. It also gave food a rich distinctive taste when used as an additive. Of far greater importance was its value as a birth control agent.

Contemporary medical authorities were universal in their praise for silphium's value as a contraceptive. The Roman physician Soranus, antiquity's foremost gynecologist, wrote that women should drink the juice from an amount of silphium about the size of a chick pea, with water, once a month since "it not only prevents conception but also destroys anything existing." The herbalist and pharmacist, Dioscorides, author of Materia Medica, recommended silphium for contraceptive and abortive purposes.

...Another member of the Ferula species, asafoetida, which gives Worcestershire sauce its distinctive aroma, was also widely used (though considered less effective) since it was cheaper and more abundant.

Besides silphium and asafoetida, other plants were recognized as having both contraceptive and abortificant properties by ancient women. Hippocrates "the father of medicine" stated the seeds of Queen Anne's Lace, or wild carrot, when taken orally both prevented and terminated pregnancy and recommended their use.

Herbal Contraceptives in Ancient Literature

Silphium cannot be tested but experiments using crude extracts of asafoetida in rats, showed that it inhibited implantation of fertilized ova at rates up to 50 percent. Extracts of asafoetida's close relatives were nearly 100 percent effective in preventing pregnancy when given within three days of mating. In 1986 it was shown that compounds in Queen Anne's Lace blocked the production of progesterone, necessary for preparation of the uterus for a fertilized ovum. Women in rural North Carolina and Rajasthan, India both use the seeds to prevent pregnancy. Pennyroyal contains a substance, pulegone, that terminates pregnancies in both humans and animals


So why do I doubt its existence with all of its numismatic and literary evidence for this extinct plant? (I'm committing numismatic heresy here.)

These are some of the many reasons for my doubts:

First, I'm skeptical of any medicine which reportedly has such an unlimited potential for so many unrelated conditions, ranging from the treatment of warts to its use for contraception.

Second, Ancient "global warning" has been blamed for the extinction of the plant. The argument is that Ancient Roman, similar to the modern Western World, is the source of all destruction, including global warming.

Third, the argument is that the plant became extinct because it only could be cultivated in Cyrenaica and those [evil] Romans exhausted the supply of this priceless plant. Oh, isn't that nice. Supposedly, Nero (you remember, that gluttonous brute) was given the last stalk of the plant (and presumably ate it). This is a nice story, but too "convenient." So a plant as valuable as silphium couldn't grow anywhere else?

Fourth, the argument goes that between the confusion of war and excessive grazing by livestock, silphium became extinct. That is sort of like the "dog ate my homework" argument.

According to Pliny the Elder:

 

For these many years past, however, it has not been found in Cyrenaica, as the farmers of the revenue who hold the lands there on lease, have a notion that it is more profitable to depasture flocks of sheep upon them. Within the memory of the present generation, a single stalk is all that has ever been found there, and that was sent as a curiosity to the Emperor Nero.


http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Plin.+Nat.+19.15&redirect=true

Fifth, it is easy and fun to believe in mythical creatures and places and even plants. Unfortunately, reality can be harder to grasp.

By writing this, I am now a persona non grata in the numismatic community. I promise, however, once I find my lost unicorn, I will tirelessly search for the mythical silphium.

guy also known as gaius Edited by guy

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Ah, I've heard of this mythical plant before, but never really thought much about it. You're getting me very curious here.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

post-3665-000388500 1285422955_thumb.jpgpost-3665-054822900 1285423369_thumb.jpgpost-3665-090926800 1285423084_thumb.jpg

Here are some numismatic images of this mythical plant and its heart-shaped fruit. Below are more coins, as well as a map of the important Silphium trade city of Cyrene on the Libyan coast.

Interestingly enough, believers of the silphium story contend that the heart symbol for love was derived from the heart-shaped fruit. The connection being, of course, that silphium's contraceptive abilities allowed for more amorous encounters.

(One must be logged in to see the images):

http://www.unrv.com/forum/index.php?app=gallery&module=user&user=3665&do=view_album&album=173

Here's an interesting anecdote attributed to this coin. (It is from the article quoted in post #6.)

post-3665-010651200 1285512977_thumb.gif

 

This tetradrachm, dating from between 485 and 475 BC, shows Cyrene's eponym, the nymph Kyrene, gesturing toward a silphium plant; her other hand is in her lap. Behind her is silphium's heart-shaped seed.



guy also known as gaius

post-3665-006452900 1285423041_thumb.jpg

post-3665-046549700 1285423064_thumb.jpg

post-3665-061323700 1285423112_thumb.jpg

Edited by guy

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Ah, silphium! The Lindsey Davis novel Two for the Lions features her fearless Roman detective Marcus Didius Falco off in search of the legendary plant, along with his brother-in-law Justinus. I'll have to dig out that novel again, as I believe Davis quoted Pliny's description of silphium in it.

 

What fun to see the connection between the fictional work and the numismatic evidence! Many thanks, Guy also known as Gaius!

 

-- Nephele

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

What we need is some kind of expert plant biologist (anyone know one). From the physical description of Silphium, the nearest surviving relative could be identified.

 

There's your homework.

 

That said, I remain pretty skeptical about accepting any one given folklore-based medicinal property of a plant where it can no longer be proven. That isn't denying some properties are based in fact, (aspirin is a fine example) but we can't take a particular stated medicinal property of Silphium (e.g. natural contraception) and surmise the existence of the plant from a similar property of a near relative. Terribly unscientific.

 

PS This is my 100th post. What will my new status be? I can't wait to find out.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Here's a good article on silphium (or at least one its relatives):

 

http://www.saudiaramcoworld.com/issue/200904/devil.s.dung-the.world.s.smelliest.spice.htm

 

 

guy also known as gaius

 

Addendum:

 

One of the aspects of the silphium myth I find disturbing is that the studies done on the medicinal properties of these "silphium related" plants is that they were done a half century ago...and have not be repeated. Warning signals, anyone? :rolleyes:

Edited by guy

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

To clarify, Guy; are you skeptical about the existence of the plant itself, or its many and varied claimed properties?

 

Does anyone know of a similar case of a mystical plant that never existed? (and I'm not allowing Triffidus Masenii).

Edited by GhostOfClayton

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

To clarify, Guy; are you skeptical about the existence of the plant itself, or its many and varied claimed properties?

 

Ghost:

 

Thank you for reading my posts.

 

I do think that if silphium did exist (and I have some doubts), I am certain that no plant could have as diverse and varied a range of medical uses as reported (treating everything from warts and cough to being an effective contraceptive).

 

Exaggerated claims of medical benefits are not uncommon. Remember when Vitamin C was thought to cure everything from the common cold to cancer? And let us not forget the long list of benefits attributed to cabbage by Cato:

 

Of the medicinal value of the cabbage: It is the cabbage which surpasses all other vegetables.

 

http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Cato/De_Agricultura/K*.html

 

I'm suspicious of silphium's extinction, if it ever existed. It seems unlikely that a plant would become extinct from such an unusual confluence of events (overgrazing, war, global warming, Roman greed, resistance to cultivation, etc.)

 

Although I can accept silphium's existence, I doubt that that any plant could have such great therapeutic potential. The fact that such a plant is extinct creates a mythology that cannot be tested by any scientific method.

 

 

guy also known as gaius

Edited by guy

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Excellent. I don't want to sound like an overly scientific cynic, but I think that (whilst many ARE grounded in fact), most folk remedies arise from either:

  • Quack doctors whose motivation is financial gain
  • Misplaced optimism
  • An actual (but random) improvement in someone's condition
  • False logic (like the slightly disturbing "The Frog's Got Your Sore Throat" scene in The Whicker Man

 

These instances then become lore. So, we can talk no more about medicinal properties and get on with the real question. Vis, did this plant exist or not. There are three possibilities:

 

1. It never existed.

2. It existed in the past, but is now extinct.

3. It's still kicking about somewhere in the world.

 

Occam's Razor says that if (2) or (3) are true, then physical evidence (spores, etc.) would've been identified by cleverer folk than you or me (me, at any rate). However, Occam's Razor is a tad unscientific for my liking (even though it's usually right!)

 

Through my rambling, I've talked myself back into my original plan. There must be a modern plant that looks a bit like it (from the picture.) I will take this further. Watch this space.

Edited by GhostOfClayton

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

There have been some interesting points made already most notably the link to food writer Andrew Darby

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

 

 

. Where [Pliny] quoted folklore he sometimes explicitly stated his lack of faith in either his sources or the purported outsome. On this basis as I didn

Edited by guy

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

 

Thank you for your response. I would remind readers that anything written after AD 69 (if we believe the sources) is based on hearsay and legend since Silphius was extinct by the end of Nero's reign.

 

Since anything written is based on faith or legend and not science, I am reluctant to accept the numerous and miraculous reputed properties of a plant whose very existence is (for me, at least) a matter of debate.

 

The miraculous properies of "magic crystals" have long been touted, too. B) At least I can still buy "magic crystals."

 

guy also know as gaius

 

A good point but Pliny was writing in the early 1st century AD and most of Andrew Darby's references predated Pliny by several centuries - admittedly Darby suggests that in this case Theophrastus (@310BC)was probably Pliny's main source. It is interesting that most seem to have written as if silphium was a well known and presumably expensive plant with every inclination that it had medicinal rather than primarily culinary uses.

 

You queried why so many 'conflicting' claims were made for the attributes of the plant and have probably already given the answer.

 

The plant always seems to have been confined to one particular area and most of the writers were writing in a period where 'scientific' enquiry was in its infancy.

 

Some may have simply accepted folklore while others are apaprently citing their experience of how the plant was (or had been) used.

 

However the argument will probably always be circular as we do not and cannot know which was which since the plant itself now seems to have become extinct and all that is left is the later inferior substitute. :pokey:

 

[slightly edited 28/9/10]

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

This is a fascinating plant - I looked at it a while back, but must admit, it never occurred to me that it might be a fantasy. It's a salutary reminder that anything from ancient history needs sceptical examination.

 

That said, the two main points made here against it being real are exclusivity of habitat, and contraceptive qualities.

 

These should not betaken as de facto proof of non-existence. Artemesium would also have been assumed as having mythical anti-malarial properties if these were not real and measurable by modern science. Likewise opium as a pain-killer (which the Romans also knew and used.)

 

We know that some plants do contain chemicals which affect the female reproductive system. There is for example that legendary symbol of fertility, the pomegranate, which actually contains natural esterone, which is one of the family of estrogens also manufactured by the female body.

 

In fact there is an entire branch of plants which produce estrogen-related steroids (look up Phytoestrogens). Some of these mimic estrogen, and others - significantly- are antigenic to it. Therefore the existence of a plant which can significantly but temporarily interfere with the reproductive chemistry of a fertile female is not scientifically improbable.

 

In terms of rarity, even in the modern world there are plants which obstinately refuse to grow outside their native habitat. The round-leaf Birch(Betula uber) refuses to grow anywhere but along a small river in Virginia, and Barker's Larkspur defied all attempts to grow it outside a limited habitat in California and is now extinct.

 

We don't need to blame the Romans for silphium becoming extinct - the Sahara desert grew from almost nothing to its present size in the last 10,000 years and is still expanding. Climate change is not an exclusively modern phenomenon. However, agricultural mismanagement might have helped this fascinating plant to become extinct - if indeed it did exist.

 

A final thought. I can't think of any reason for limiting a mythical plant to one geographical area. Like unicorns or griffins anyone can claim to have once had them - ut only one place ever claimed to have grown silphium.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

 

However the argument will probably always be circular as we do not and cannot know which was which since the plant itself now seems to have become extinct and all that is left is the later inferior substitute. :pokey:

 

[slightly edited 28/9/10]

 

I want to thank people who read my post and responded. Trust me, I am not adamant about my beliefs on this.

 

That said, I would rather discuss Silphium (and its purported medical value or reasons for its extinction) than almost any current political issue.

 

Then again, the heated debates today around here in California concerning the legalization of marijuana and its supposed medical benefits and possible risks make for interesting discussions, too.

 

:P

 

guy also known as gaius

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

 

A final thought. I can't think of any reason for limiting a mythical plant to one geographical area. Like unicorns or griffins anyone can claim to have once had them - ut only one place ever claimed to have grown silphium.

 

Maty, this is exactly why I have my doubts about the legendary plant. There are not many places I can visit if I want to see the Loch Ness monster or consult the Oracle of Delphi. (The Oracle, at least, had a great influence over several societies for centuries. Does this make it any more real?)

 

Rarity makes silphium even more in demand. It (or some imitator) was a major source of income for the city of Cyrene and the surrounding region. It is profitable to be unique.

 

On the subject of gods or goddesses to consult, my favorite goddess has to be this fine lady found at the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus (source: Wikipedia):

 

post-3665-028019700 1285725068_thumb.jpg

 

post-3665-063319200 1285725049_thumb.jpg

 

 

And on the subject of numismatic evidence, here is your mythical griffin on a coin with the mentioned endowed lady of Ephesus in more modest attire (source: acsearch.info):

 

post-3665-019039200 1285725174_thumb.jpg

 

Otherwise, I think your argument is very persuasive. :) Thank you for responding.

 

 

guy also known as gaius

Edited by guy

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now

  • Map of the Roman Empire

×