Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2007.09.63

Marina Heilmeyer, Ancient Herbs. Translated by David J. Baker.   Los Angeles:  The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2007.  Pp. 101.  ISBN 978-0-89236-884-6.  $19.95.  

Reviewed by Kyle P. Johnson, New York University (
Word count: 1165 words

Table of Contents

It is a rare book in the field of Classics that opens with a legal disclaimer: "This book is intended neither as a cookbook nor as a guide to self-medication" (copyright page). So begins Marina Heilmeyer's (henceforth H.) Ancient Herbs, a beautifully published (cloth-bound, 8 x 9 inches), non-academic review of forty of the most common herbs and plants of private, ancient Roman gardens. While this work would make for a great gift for an amateur gardener or one interested in ancient botany, Ancient Herbs is not suited for research or the classroom. The book consists of two parts, first a fifteen-page introduction and, second, eighty pages of alphabetically- arranged synopses (each averaging approximately four hundred words) of flora which found frequent use in the Roman household for medicinal and culinary purposes. Facing each entry is a full-color illustration taken from hand-colored lithographs of the late-seventeenth or early-eighteenth centuries, most from the botanist and pharmacologist Theodor Friedrich Ludwig Nees van Esenbeck's Plantae medicinales (Düsseldorf 1828-1833). There are neither notes or indices, only a brief appendix entitled "Suggestions for Further Reading."

The introduction offers a brief and well-informed overview of aspects important to the study of ancient herbs and gardening. First, H. introduces the most important agricultural, botanical, and culinary writers in Latin, including Cato, Varro, Columella, Virgil, the Elder Pliny, and Apicius. Dioscorides of Anazarbus is the sole Greek representative. Next follow sweeping (and on the whole accurate) accounts under the headings "The Roman Vegetable Garden," "The Use of Plants," "Garden Celebrations," "The Significance of Plants in Religion and Mythology, " and "Herbs for the Kitchen." The section treating the "Use of Plants" is particularly successful, explaining how, for the Romans, herbs found application as food, medicine, cosmetics, and sacrificial offerings. It is pleasing to see work done, however cursory here, connecting plants of the ancient world to their literary, social, and religious context, something scholars of ancient botany are not always mindful of.

Two basic decisions govern the creation of any encyclopedic work: what to include and what to say about each subject. As to the former, H. unfortunately obscures the governing principle of inclusion in the introduction, which begins discussing the Getty Villa at Malibu and in passing mentions its "recreated kitchen garden" (p. 1). Later, H. writes that included "are ancient recipes for virtually all of the Malibu Villa's herbs" and that "all of the entries describing these herbs from the Villa's garden include at least one and often several medicinal uses" (p. 8). Does this mean that the forty entries in Ancient Herbs have been chosen because they may be found in the newly renovated Villa's herb garden? Those lucky enough to have seen this garden know that there are other common herbs not included in this book, for example oregano. That this non--academic work lacks a hard and fast method is forgivable. Yet I cannot help but think that this work is a lost opportunity, for as it stands Ancient Herbs would have made a terrific guidebook to the Malibu Getty's herb garden, much like Jim Duggan's Plants in the Getty's Central Garden (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2004). It would be a joy to walk the Villa's herb garden with a vade mecum full of cherry-picked stories and prescriptions from antiquity.

Most entries in Ancient Herbs contain a smattering of nugae from the Elder Pliny's Historia naturalis, Dioscorides's De materia medica, and the De re coquinaria ascribed to Apicius. Other writers who make an appearance (in addition to those mentioned in the introduction) are Aristotle, Theophrastus, Horace, Catullus, Cicero, Petronius, Apuleius, Martial, and Ovid; the Hebrew Bible and the Corpus Hippocraticum are each cited several times. Basil is a typical entry (pp. 24-25). First, H. records a use of basil from De re coquinaria. Next, we read of the herb's origin in India, a few remarks about some of what Dioscorides and Hippocrates write about it, a remedy for melancholy and nausea, respectively. Pliny, we are told, refutes the notion that basil causes insanity and liver ailments. Columella is also consulted. Ancient Herbs reads like a notebook: "He [Columella] liked using the herb to flavor olives for his table. One further note on basil's care in the garden is from Pliny, who said that the plant should be watered at midday" (p. 24). The four works from which H. has drawn, of course, say much more about basil than what is mentioned in this entry. Are H.'s choices good ones? Basically, yes, although there is no system or overarching interest which guides H.'s decisions about what to include. I must leave it to each reader to decide whether the remedies mentioned above are more interesting than those left out, for instance that too much basil causes dim-sightedness (De materia medica 2.141.2) or that it is an aphrodisiac for horses (NH 20.123).

Ancient Herbs contains a large number of errors. Among them are the following. H. writes that moretum, means "a plowman's lunch" (p. 3), although strictly speaking it is an herbed cheese (OLD). In the introduction, the sentence, "In the twelve tables of Roman law, composed as early as the fifth century A.D." (p. 6) should read, of course, B.C. Pliny the Elder is described as "renowned for his gardens and their valuable descriptions" (p. 18). H. seems to have simply mistaken Pliny the Younger's famous gardens which are described in two letters about his Tuscan villas (Epistulae 2.17 and 5.6).1 Under "Cretan dittany, " which quotes Aeneid 12.411-424, H. wrongly attributes the citation to lines 412-424 (p. 42). Under "Dill and Fennel," the Latin line numbers from Columella's De re rustica are off, reading 10.315-319 instead of 10.315-317 (p. 46). "Junipers 'berries' were used ... " should read "junipers'" (p. 62). H. claims under "Mugwort" (Latin artemisia) that it was also known as valentia due to its effectiveness (p. 68); however, I can find no such association of the two in Classical Latin. H. erroneously explains an occurrence of puleium (pennyroyal) at Cicero Ad fam. 330 SB: "So proverbial was the plant's harmonious qualities in gardens that Cicero once compared the sensitivity of a friend with the nature of pennyroyal" (p. 78). In fact, the text itself reads: ad cuius rutam puleio mihi tui sermonis utendum est, "I shall need the sweet of your conversation to counteract the bitter of his company" (trans. D. R. Shackleton- Bailey, Cicero: Letters to Friends. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001). Ovid Met. 8.662-663 is incorrectly cited as 8.661-664 under "Spearmint" (p. 92). A perplexing slip comes under the entry for St. John's wort, where H. writes that when ingesting the plant in liquid form, "the patient should be sure to bundle up warmly, as heavy perspiration enhances the desired effect" and ascribes this prescription to "Dioscorides 3.172." Nowhere in the De materia medica are any of the eleven terms representing some six species of St. John's wort (3.154-157) prescribed along with an unusual amount of clothing.2


1.   It could possibly be argued otherwise, since at least one of the Younger Pliny's two villas were probably inherited from his uncle. See Sherwin-White's note at 5.6.10 (The Letters of Pliny: A Historical and Social Commentary. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1965). Despite this proviso, the fame of Pliny the Younger's gardens stem from his descriptions in Epistulae 2.17 and 5.6 and these letters' importance to the history of the modern garden.
2.   The species (followed by their Greek name) are: Hypericum perforatum L. (ἄσκυρον, ἀσκυροειδές, ἀνδρόσαιμον); Hypericum crispum (ὑπερικόν); Hypericum crispum L. (ἀνδρόσαιμον, κόριον, χαμαίπιτυς); Hypericum perfoliatum L. (ἀνδρόσαιμον, Διονυσιάς); and Hypericum empetrifolium Willd. and Hypericum coris L. (κόρις, ὑπερικόν). Following Lily Y. Beck, Pedanius Dioscorides of Anazarbus: De materia medica. Hildensheim: Olms-Weidmann, 2005, pp. 470-472. It should also be noted that there is no 3.172 in Wellman's standard edition, in which St. John's wort is treated from 3.154 to 3.157. The closest to the De materia medica comes to this claim about the use of clothing that I am aware of is at 2.164.2, about cyclamen: "the person drinking it must stay in bed, in a warm house, covered with several layers of clothing that he may perspire" (trans. Beck).

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