Silphium was a plant that was used in classical antiquity as a seasoning and as a medicine. It is also known as silphion, laserwort, or laser. It was the essential item of trade from the ancient North African city of Cyrene. Most of the coins from Cyrene show a picture of the plant. The valuable product was the plant's resin (called laser, laserpicium, or lasarpicium).
Silphium was an important species. The Egyptians and the Minoan civilization of Knossos used a special glyph in their writing for the silphium plant. It was used by most ancient Mediterranean cultures. The Romans considered it "worth its weight in denarii" (silver coins). Legend said that it was a gift from the god Apollo.
Which plant species silphium was is unclear. It is commonly believed to be a now-extinct plant of the genus Ferula. The still-living plant species Ferula tingitana has been suggested as another possibility. Another resin from different Ferula species, asafoetida, was used as a cheaper substitute for silphium. Asafoetida is still available.
References[change | change source]
- J.L. Tatman, "Silphium, Silver and Strife: A History of Kyrenaika and Its Coinage" Celator 14.10 (October 2000:6–24).
- Hogan, C. Michael (2007). "Knossos fieldnotes". Modern Antiquarian. Retrieved 13 Feb 2009.
- Did the ancient Romans use a natural herb for birth control?, Straight Dope, 13 October 2006
- Dalby, Andrew (2002). Dangerous Tastes: The Story of Spices. University of California Press. p. 18. ISBN 0-520-23674-2.
Further reading[change | change source]
- Herodotus. The Histories. II:161, 181, III:131, IV:150–65, 200–05.
- Pausanias. Description of Greece 3.16.1–3
- Pliny the Elder. Natural History. XIX:15 and XXII:100–06.
- Tatman, John. "Silphium: Ancient wonder drug?". Jencek's Ancient Coins & Antiquities. Archived from the original on 2007-03-30. Retrieved 2007-02-05.
- Theophrastus. Enquiry into plants and minor works on odours and weather signs, with an English translation by Sir Arthur Hort, bart (1916). Volume 1 (Books I–V) and Volume 2 (Books VI–IX) Volume 2 includes the index, which lists silphium (Greek σιλϕιον) on page 476, column 2, 2nd entry.