The Roman civilisation was one of the biggest the world has ever seen; it spawned countless great thinkers in the fields of science, philosophy, literature, and medicine. But were any of the herbs and plants used by the Romans safe and effective by modern standards?
Herbs and Plants Used by the Romans
It’s often said that the Romans copied everything they knew from the Greeks and were, in that sense, just a copycat civilisation not held back by incessantly feuding city states. To an extent, this is true. But it’s not quite that simple.
The Romans also borrowed ideas from the Etruscans, who had been heavily influenced by Hellenic culture, and even the Greeks borrowed a lot of what they knew from the Egyptians and Mesopotamian societies.
We tend to think of these civilisations existing in a vacuum, independent and irrespective of one another. But not only did they fight and trade—they also shared ideas of medicine, which meant that each successive empire was more medically advanced than the last.
As always, there were still some extreme and dangerous beliefs, such as the use of medicinal plants we would deem poisonous. But the Romans also got a lot of things right with regards to herbal remedies, including:
We have written about marshmallow before, and our guide was up long before we actually started to sell our Blue Mallow Tea. In fact, we started selling that tea purely because many of our customers requested it after reading that guide, and we can’t blame them.
Marshmallow has been used as a cough suppressant and digestive aid for thousands of years and was particularly popular with the Romans. They likely borrowed their knowledge about this plant from Hippocrates’s many writings on the subject, but their beliefs about its benefits were a little different.
Hippocrates, the great Greek physician, spoke about its ability to heal wounds, whereas the Romans, and Pliny in particular, recommended it as a cough medicine, which is more in line with how it’s used today.
It was also used to treat toothaches and a host of other minor complaints and would often be eaten, used as an ointment, or consumed as an infusion (a tea, basically).
The yarrow plant, like many plants, is a strong anti-inflammatory and possesses antibacterial effects. Research suggests that it can hasten the healing process, so it’s quite amazing to think that it was used by the ancients for this very reason many thousands of years ago.
The first mention of yarrow being used for this purpose was in Homer’s Iliad, which was written nearly 3,000 years ago. In that story, the great warrior Achilles used the root of this plant to treat a friend’s wounds.
This knowledge was common amongst the Greeks and eventually passed to the Romans, with yarrow becoming common in field hospitals throughout the Roman world.
Pliny, also known as Pliny the Elder, wrote Natural History in the first century AD and told us most of what we know about Roman medicine and culture. In this book, he mentioned that camomile could be used for the treatment of headaches and bladder issues.
Camomile is abundant throughout Europe and has been added to elixirs and tonics for millennia. Modern science suggests that it does have a plethora of benefits, but few of those are related to headaches and bladder issues.
Camomile is best known for its ability to induce calm and combat insomnia and anxiety, but it does much more than that and can also be used to ease digestive complaints. It’s actually prescribed for this purpose in some European countries.
The sage plant was considered to be sacred by the Romans, and many pagan cultures still treat it with reverence. The official name, salvia officinalis, basically means “health plant”, and the Romans treated it with utmost respect while believing it to possess a wealth of benefits.
Sage continues to be used for both health benefits and religious/sacred reasons, with modern science suggesting it possesses a strong antibacterial effect while also acting as an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory.
We’ve discussed the health benefits of sage before, noting how potent it is and how little respect many consumers give it, often limiting purchases to chopped, dried sage that we leave to gather dust in a spice drawer for years on end.
Treat this herb with the same respect that the Romans gave it and you could reap the benefits.
Other Herbs and Spices Used by the Romans
The Romans conquered many territories in several continents. They learned from the greatest minds before them and were influenced by the smartest people from Egypt to Greece and Asia. As a result, they were not short on herbal remedies and had a catalogue of hundreds, all prescribed for specific purposes.
Here are a few more herbs and remedies used by the Romans:
Mint: Popular with both the Greeks and the Romans, mint was used to flavour foods and drinks and was also prized for its digestive properties, which is the main reason we use mint to this day.
Cinnamon: This spice was revered for its flavour and its medicinal benefits, with the Romans believing it could reduce inflammation and help with poisonous bites. There may be some truth to the former, but it likely won’t help you if you’re bitten by a spider or snake.
Rosemary: Just like sage, rosemary is a highly nutritious culinary herb that’s packed with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. It possesses some potent antiseptic properties, and it seems the Romans may have known this, at least to some extent, as they used it to preserve food and drinks.
Anise: The main purpose of this spice was to add flavour to sweet foods, which is how it continues to be used. But Pliny also suggested it could cure poisonous bites and other ailments. Anise, like many spices, contains some anti-inflammatory compounds, but it’s not quite that powerful.
Basil: When you think of basil, you think of Italy, and that’s no accident. This herb has been growing in Italy for centuries, and Italians helped introduce it to the rest of Europe. Today, it’s a healthy herb added to pesto and pizzas, but back then, it was integral to their way of life and believed to possess a number of health benefits.