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"Libraries: The medicine chest of the soul."
Library at Thebes, inscription over the door
The ancient city of Pompeii in Italy lay hidden for centuries after the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D.; archaeological excavation uncovered some surprising secrets, including those of an aromatic variety!

Medicinal Plants in Ancient Pompeii

Pompeii was an ancient, bustling metropolis. The city of Pompeii consisted of many extravagant houses and gardens; some gardens were not only ornamental, they were also practical, in that they contained many of the medicinal plants and herbs used today.  Preserved by the lava and ash of the Vesuvius eruption, archaeological evidence suggests that Pompeians used many plants in much the same way as we use them today.

Pompeii lay under the shadow of the fertile slopes of Vesuvius and was consequently blessed with a rich fertile soil which was perfect for growing plants; a moderate climate also helped.  Many of the smaller Pompeian houses used land for growing crops rather than elaborate gardens.  As well as plants and herbs used for medicinal purposes and  perfume making, archaeologists discovered evidence that trees such as figs, pears and chestnuts were grown for culinary use.

Aromatic Plants for Perfumes in Pompeii

Many plants and herbs were grown around Pompeii due to favorable growing conditions. It was cheaper to grow locally than to import from a more expensive and foreign land.  Plants grown in ancient Pompeii included rose (Rosa damascena), fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), myrrh (Commiphora myrrha), laurel (Laurus nobilis), myrtle (Myrtus communis) and lily.

Plants and herbs were used to make perfumes for Pompeian ladies; examples of these perfumes were:

Rhodinum  -a combination of rose, fennel, myrrh and incense
Mirtum-laurum - included lily, laurel, myrtle and myrrh
Susinum made up of lilies of Pompeii
Melinon - marjoram, almonds and grapevine leaves
Iasminum  - made from jasmine.

Perfumes made from plants and herbs, with no additives like synthetic perfumes today, had the additional use of being both therapeutic and medicinal, as well as being able to disguise some of the more unpleasant smells associated with basic living conditions.  Herbs and plants were also used to scent laundry, treat ulcers and combat sweat.  Chamomile was used to calm the nerves, particularly during athletic competitions.  Thyme flowers were reputedly used in some form of cosmetic base.

Archaeological Evidence of Aromatic Plant Use in Pompeii

Pliny the Elder wrote frequently about the gardens of Pompeii and it is recorded that the region of Campania was the most prolific in producing perfume from the roses grown there.  Botanical research and excavation of the remains of Pompeii has shown that plants such as hyacinth, dill, rosemary, thyme, basil, iris, violet, rose and lily were very much in use.

Ancient frescoes found in the House of Vettii in Pompeii depict the collection of plants and flowers and the process of perfume making;  archaeological excavations have uncovered the remains of perfume shops and plant remains have been preserved in lava ash.  There is little doubt that medicinal and aromatic plants were in common usage in ancient Pompeian times, in a similar way to use in modern day aromatherapy.

References:

Amery, Colin, Curran Jr, Brian, 2002 The Lost World of Pompeii USA: Getty Publications
Giordano, Carlo, Casale, Angelandrea, Profumi, Ungenti e Acconciature in Pompei Antica (Perfumes, Ungents and Hairstyles in Pompeii) Roma, Italia: Bardi Editore

This article was written by Sharon Falsetto and appeared in its original format on Suite101 as Lost Medicinal Plants of Pompeii

It is expressively prohibited to copy or use this article in any way unless written permission is given by the author Sharon Falsetto.  If it is discovered that copyright laws have not been complied with, legal action will be pursued by the author Sharon Falsetto.


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