The Best Doctor Is Also a Historian

The Rootcutter's inaugural essay series aims at exploring connections between ancient and modern medicines—and not only the connections we make, but also why we make those connections and what impact they have on how we think about and conduct modern medical practices, both as healthcare experts and as service users. This series has been generously funded by the Society for Classical Studies Ancient Worlds, Modern Communities grant.

Image: Detail from Colchicum Autumnale in Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz (Otto Wilhelm Thomé), 1885.

Public Domain (Wikipedia Commons).

Slavery and Pharmacology: Theophrastus on the poisonous root ephemeron

by Svetlana Hautala

October 4, 2022


A brief discussion of poisons and their antidotes in Theophrastus' History of Plants touches upon the use of ephemeron (meadow saffron) by "angry slaves." Hautala explores how this passing reference suggests that botanical and pharmacological knowledge circulated within communities of enslaved people.

Dr Svetlana Hautala is a researcher of the anthropology of the ancient world with affiliation at the University of Oulu.

The recent shift in focus within history of science from “science” as a formal practice and its familiar places (universities, laboratories) to “knowledge” and its circulation in communities has made botany and pharmacology into tools for gaining insight into places and people that are often kept out of the historical record. This is a basic premise of the recent exhibition Black Botany at the New York Botanical Garden, which examined how enslaved Black people in the Americas gained, transmitted, and used knowledge about their natural world. This exhibition focused on five plants: cotton, rice, the peacock flower, peanuts, and the vanilla orchid, and explored the complicated and intimate knowledges that Black people gained of certain plants that were, in part, driving forces in their enslavement. In addition, the exhibition also showed how enslaved women used the Peacock flower, Caesalpinia pulcherrima, to cause abortions, highlighting how they leveraged their botanical knowledge to regain some measure of control over their own bodies.

Image: Caesalpinia pulcherrima (Peacock flower).

CC BY-SA 4.0 Jim Evans (2016)

Black Botany’s curators are confident that many other stories could be told with different sets of plants. Indeed, we might imagine a similar exhibition for the ancient world, and to do so, we might turn to a short passage in the History of Plants, an encyclopedic work written by Theophrastus in the late fourth century BCE. In Book 9 of the History of Plants, Theophrastus describes a plant called ephemeron (lit. “on the same day”), a little root that gets its name from the fact it kills in one day. His discussion provides a window into how enslaved people in antiquity could use plant knowledge within the conditions of their captivity, albeit here to horrific ends. Theophrastus first discusses wolf’s-bane (aconite), a deadly poisonous plant, and the device with which he moves on to ephemeron is the existence (or not) of an antidote. While there is no antidote for wolf’s-bane, Theophrastus writes, an antidote for ephemeron has been found:

"It is also said that enslaved prisoners (ἀνδράποδα) often resort to [ephemeron] in a fit of anger and then heal themselves with this very antidote, since ephemeron makes death neither quick nor easy but painful and slow, unless it has been treated and prepared in the appropriate way" (Theophrastus, History of Plants 9.16)


In these few words, we have an epitome of the conditions of slavery translated into a botanico-pharmacological code: out of despair, captive people take poison, but the torment turns out to be so severe and prolonged that they interrupt this pain in order to return to the unbearable conditions that they wanted to end.

The famous Greek humanist Theodore Gaza, who first translated the History of Plants into Latin in the fifteenth century, rendered Theophrastus’ ἀνδράποδα as famuli (“slaves”) and παροργισθέντα as irati (“angry”). The expression “angry slaves” stuck and found its way into other languages also. Suzanne Amigues, in her 2006 edition of the ninth book, was the first editor and translator to emphasize that ἀνδράποδα are specifically “prisoners who have been enslaved,” which may indicate that they were prisoners of a military campaigns from a specific region, were themselves captured soldiers, or were born to captured peoples and then sold into slavery. The conditions of their enslavement have been lost. We can say much more about the plant.

Image: Ephemeron (meadow saffron) in Limana, Italy.

CC BY-SA 3.0 Enrico Blasutto (2006)

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.

Sources

Theophrastus, History of Plants (in Hort's translation: Enquiry into Plants)

RECOMMENDED READINGS

Black Botany: The Nature of Black Experience (exhibit guide available here)

Totelin, L. (2008). Hippocratic Recipes: Oral and Written Transmission of Pharmacological Knowledge in Fifth- and Fourth- Century Greece. Leiden: Brill: 2009.

Hardy, G. and Totelin, L. (2016). Ancient Botany. London: Routledge.

Scarborough, J. (1978). "Theophrastus on Herbals and Herbal Remedies," Journal of the History of Biology 11(2), pp. 353–385.

Scarborough, J. (2010). Pharmacy and Drug Lore in Antiquity: Greece, Rome, and Byzantium. Farnham, Vt.: Ashgate Variorum.


Further Resources

Center for Plants and Culture – Slavery and Botany

National Museums Liverpool – A Green Resistance: Plants and Enslavement

The Philosophical Life of Plants

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. Consider what other plants (or uses of plants) might provide an insight into the experiences of enslaved people in the ancient Mediterranean or elsewhere. What might we learn through an investigation into olives, for example, or grapes? What about imported plant products?

  2. What are some of the necessary differences between an exhibition such as Black Botany and any exploration of slavery and botany or pharmacology in the ancient Mediterranean world? You might think, for example, about the differences in modes of enslavement and labour, the plants available, the role of herbs and herbal remedies in the wider cultural context, or the kind and quality of the evidence.

  3. How is our understanding and taxonomy of plants, especially "useful" plants shaped by the history of colonialism, warfare, and enslavement and other exploitative labour practices?