Happy plants and laughing weeds: how people of the ancient world used – and abused – drugs

Did the people of the ancient world use – and abuse – drugs? They certainly did. Yet you would hardly know it from reading ancient texts, as Philip Matyszak explains

The ancient Greek physician Dioscorides

The few references to drug taking in the ancient world that do exist are few and far between. Where they do appear, drugs are mentioned in passing, and focus on medicinal and religious aspects, passing hastily over any recreational use. Yet there was an international drug trade as far back as 1000 BC, and archaeology has combined with science to clarify a picture that seems to have been carefully obscured by ancient writers and their later translators.

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There were more than a dozen ways of altering reality in the ancient world of the Mediterranean, but two drugs dominated – opium and hemp. Careful investigation over the past two decades has begun to reveal patterns in the use of these drugs, previously unsuspected even by 20th-century Classical historians.

Opium’s emergence

One of the first clues that the ancients considered the poppy to be more than just a pretty plant comes from its prevalent use as a motif on statues and engravings. Archaeologists have found that, as early as 1600 BC, little flasks were being made in the shape of poppy ‘capsules’ – the bulging ball under the flower’s petals that yields opium. The shape of these artificial capsules allowed for a reasonable guess as to what was contained within, but until recently it was impossible to be certain.

In 2018, the journal Science reported that new techniques for analysing the residues in excavated capsules had revealed that the plant material within contained not just opium, but sometimes other psychoactive substances. These jars and capsules have been found throughout the Levant, Egypt and the Middle East. Their uniformity suggests that they were part of an organised system of manufacture and distribution.

Yet even earlier, opium was grown in Mesopotamia. Some researchers have no doubt that the Assyrians were aware of the plant’s properties. Indeed, the Assyrian name of the poppy can be read (depending how one interprets the cuneiform tablets which mention it) as Hul Gil, meaning ‘Happy Plant’.

Jugs containing opium residue have also been found in Egyptian tombs, which is unsurprising given that the poppy was extensively cultivated in Egypt. In the Classical era, the extract of the plant was known as ‘Opium Thebiacum’ after the city of Waset, which the Greeks knew as Thebes. Another version was named Opium Cyrenaicum, a slightly different version of the plant, grown to the west in Libya.

Sleep eternal

There is a highly suggestive passage in Homer’s The Odyssey, in which Helen of Troy dopes wine with a drug “that took away painful memories and the bite of pain and anger. Those who took this drug dissolved in wine could not shed a tear even at the death of a parent. Indeed not even if his brother or son were put to the sword before his eyes”. This drug, said Homer, had been given to Helen by Polydamna, wife of Thon – a woman of Egypt.

The name Thon is significant, because the Roman doctor Galen reports that the Egyptians believed that the use of opium was taught to mankind by the similarly named god Thoth. The Greek writer Dioscorides describes his harvesting technique: “Those who make opium must wait until the dew has dried away to cut lightly with a knife around the top of the plant. They take care not to cut the inside. On the outside of the capsule, cut straight down. As fluid comes out wipe it with a finger onto a spoon. Returning later one can harvest more of the residue after it has thickened, and yet more the following day.

An ancient Greek depiction of opium poppies
Depictions of opium poppies occur frequently in carving and sculpture across ancient cultures, such as on this Greek funerary stele. (Photo by: Christophel Fine Art/UIG via Getty Images)

Dioscorides also warns against overdosing. “It kills,” he says bluntly. In fact, many Romans purchased opium for just that reason. Suicide was no sin in the Roman world, and many people suffering from old age and disease chose to instead float from life on a gentle wave of opium. It is unlikely that the Greek divinities Hypnos (the god of sleep) and “anatos (his twin brother, the god of death) are both depicted with wreaths or bouquets of poppies by coincidence. Opium was a common aid to sleep while, writes Greek philosopher Theophrastus, “from the juice of the poppy and hemlock comes easy and painless death”.

The Romans used an opium-based drink called ‘cretic wine’ as a sleep aid, and also ‘mekonion’ from poppy leaves – which was less potent. The opium could be purchased as small tablets in specialist stalls in most marketplaces. In the city of Rome itself, Galen recommends a retailer just off the Via Sacra near the Forum.

In Capua, drug sellers occupied a notorious area called the Seplasia, after which ‘Seplasia’ became a general name for mind-altering drugs, perfumes and unguents. Cicero makes a tongue-in-cheek reference to this, remarking of two dignitaries: “They did not display the moderation usually found in our consuls … their gait and behaviour were worthy of Seplasia.”

6 more ways the ancients altered their reality

Ergot

Known of as early as 600 BC, Ergot was not taken voluntarily. The fungus was common in rye and sometimes found in other cereals, causing delirium, hallucinations and – frequently – death.

Blue Lotus

Immortalised in Homer’s The Odyssey, in which the titular hero has to drag his crew from the ‘land of the lotus eaters’. The psychoactive alkaloid in blue lotuses causes mild euphoria and tranquillity, combined with increased libido.

Mad honey

Honey from rhododendron flowers contains neurotoxins that cause altered consciousness, delirium and nausea. It was taken recreationally in Ancient Anatolia and occasionally by careless beekeepers elsewhere.

Henbane

Pliny described the effects of this plant as similar to drunkenness, when either breathed as smoke or ingested. It was typically taken as part of a cocktail of hallucinogenics for magical or medicinal purposes.

Deadly nightshade

Poets such as Ovid suggest that witches used nightshade in spells and potions. While the most common symptom following consumption is death, carefully measured doses can result in hallucinations that last for days.

Dreamfish

Native to the Mediterranean, this species of sea bream produces vivid hallucinations when eaten, and may have been consumed in Ancient Rome.

More than old rope

Hemp has a longer history than opium, brought to Europe before records began. It came from Central Asia along with the mysterious Yamnaya people, and the plant has been in northern and central Europe for over 5,000 years. Doubtless it was appreciated for its uses in making rope and fabric, but braziers have been found containing charred cannabis, which shows that the less practical aspects of the plant were also explored. It is known that the Chinese were cultivating cannabis significantly stronger than the wild plant at least 2,500 years ago, and both the product and knowledge of how to make it would have travelled along the Silk Road.

In the Middle Eastern city of Ebla, in what is now Syria, archaeologists found what appears to have been a large kitchen not far from the city palace. There were eight hearths used for preparations, and pots capable of containing up to 70 litres of finished product.

There were no traces of food remnants, as is usually the case in ancient kitchens; analysis of the containers found there leaves little doubt that this room was used solely for the preparation of psychotropic pharmaceuticals. In other words, the ancient world had largescale drug factories 3,000 years ago.

The Greek physician Dioscorides was also familiar with cannabis and reported that extensive use tended to sabotage the user’s sex life, to the point that he recommends using the drug to reduce sexual desire in persons or situations where such impulses might be considered inappropriate. Another Classical author interested in better living through chemistry was Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder. His Natural History lists the properties of many plants, among them “laughing weed”, which he says is “intoxifying” when added to wine. Galen describes how hemp was used in social gatherings as an aid to “joy and laughter”. Half a millennium beforehand, Greek historian Herodotus reported something similar.

It appears the Scythian people living near the Black Sea combined business with pleasure. Herodotus – who was an extraordinarily good anthropologist, as well as the world’s first historian – remarks that they made garments of hemp so fine that it was impossible to distinguish them from linen.

“The Scythians thereafter take seeds from the hemp and throw them on red-hot stones, where [they smoulder] and give off fumes,” writes Herodotus. “They cover this with mats and crawl under while fumes emerge so densely that no Greek steam bath could produce more. The Scythians howl with joy at their vapour bath.”

Blind to the truth?

This passage is rather typical of mentions of drug usage in the ancient world. Was Herodotus really so naive that he didn’t recognise the drug’s influence? Or was there a taboo about discussing the subject – either in the Classical world or in the monasteries where the ancient texts were copied and preserved?

It seems strange that while archaeological finds suggest recreational drug use was far from uncommon in antiquity, all references to it are at least as oblique as that of Herodotus, and vanishingly rare in even such cases.

Even medicinal uses of cannabis are hard to find in ancient texts – but are being found now that archaeologists know what to look for. For example, a fourth-century AD Roman tomb of a 14-year-old girl who had died in childbirth was found near the city of Beit Shemesh (near Jerusalem) in the 1990s. A substance found in the skeleton’s abdominal area was assumed to be incense, until scientific analysis revealed it to be tetralydrocannabinol – a component of cannabis. It seems likely that the drug was used to ease the girl’s travails, and eventually to aid her passing from life itself.

When it comes to drugs in ancient world, we need to read between the lines – as is the case with so much of history.

Philip Matyszak has a doctorate in Roman history from St John’s College, Oxford and is the author of many books on classical civilisation.

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This article first appeared in the August 2019 issue of BBC History Revealed