Ancient authors who wrote about poisons distinguished the plant ephemeron from a compound poison that had both the same name and effect (i.e., it killed on the very same day it was consumed). Yet, the indication of time in the name of the plant was subject to other interpretations also. The scholiast on the Alexipharmaka, or “Antidotes,” by Nicander of Colophon, a poet of the Hellenistic period, locates the plant on the banks of the River Tanais in the Scythian steppes and in Colchis, where ephemeron emerges from the ground at dawn, develops fully during a single day, and withers at sunset. Colchis naturally recalls Medea, and Nicander calls ephemeron “Medea’s loathsome fire” (Antidotes 249), explaining how ingestion leads to the lips of the poisoned burning as from nettles, a sensation that Scribonius Largus (a Roman medical author of the first century CE) describes as similar to chewing on pepper (Compounds 193). Following Nicander’s association of ephemeron with the Black Sea, Dioscorides (On Medical Materals 4.83) states that ephemeron is also called kolchikon (Colchicum autumnale L.), which is commonly known in English as meadow saffron. Dioscorides notes that the plant blooms in autumn with flowers similar to crocus and is extremely poisonous; as the most effective antidote, he names cow’s milk.
Yet Theophrastus presents a different set of information, stating: “They say that for ephemeron the antidote has been found: for that there is another root which counteracts that herb: and that it has a leaf like hellebore or the madonna lily: and that this is generally known” (History of Plants 9.16, trans. Hort with emendation). How should we imagine the transmission of botanical knowledge in this situation? The enslaved ἀνδράποδα knew about the poisonous properties of the ephemeron but seem to have been unaware of the exact dose required or unable to procure or produce it within the confines of their enslavement. Yet they also seem to know of an antidote. Where is this plant from? Did it grow where they were enslaved? Did it travel with them? If not, how did they gain knowledge of it?
We are accustomed to reading about Hellenistic kings testing poisons and antidotes on condemned criminals at their courts, but we know almost nothing—aside from this passage from Theophrastus—about slaves experimenting on themselves. Our plant ephemeron shows us the walls of the slave quarters are not impenetrable: drugs, knowledge and persons circulated in society through them. In fact, because botanical investigations such as those of Theophrastus, Nicander, and Scribonius Largus included plants from across the Mediterranean and its environs, we should also apply the lessons of Black Botany: plant knowledge likely travelled with enslaved peoples and developed within the conditions of their enslavement. Enslaved people in the ancient world learned about the pharmaceutical properties of plants and applied this knowledge to their own circumstances. The results of such experiments found their way into the botanical tradition and leave clues about ancient lives and their ecologies.