SILPHIUM: ANCIENT WONDER DRUG?

by John Tatman

Silphium, also known as silphion or laser, is an extinct plant species of the genus Ferula.  It was described as having a thick root, a stalk like fennel, large alternating leaves with leaflets like celery, spherical clusters of small yellow flowers at the top and broad leaf-like, heart-shaped fruit called phyllon.  Some of the best known representations of silphium are the stylized images used on the ancient coins of Kyrenaika (modern-day Libya).  The plant was valued in ancient times because of its many uses as a food source, seasoning for food, and, most importantly, as a medication.  Perfumes were made from the flowers, the stalk was used for food or fodder while the juice and root were used to make a variety of medical potions.

Reported medical uses for the juice included remedies for cough, sore throat, fever, indigestion, fluid retention, seizures, aches and pains.  The sap was supposed to be able to remove warts and other growths.  In addition, Pliny wrote that silphium could be used for a variety of diverse conditions including treatment of leprosy, to restore hair, cleanse retained afterbirth from the womb and as an antidote for poisons.  Potions made from silphium were supposedly among the most effective birth-control methods known at the time.  Preparations used for birth control included a tea made from the leaves, a "pea-sized" ball of sap mixed with wine and a suppository containing the juice.  The timing of administration suggests it probably functioned as an abortifacient similar to preparations made from related plant species.

Apparently, silphium only grew in a restricted area, approximately 125 miles by 35 miles, on the coastal plateaus of Kyrenaika.  The Greeks believed the plant was a gift from Apollo which appeared after a heavy rain storm flooded the area at about the time the city of Kyrene was founded in the seventh century BC.  Of course, there is evidence that sliphium was used much earlier in Egypt, Libya and even Greece.  Silphium supposedly resisted attempts at cultivation and transplantation, which made it one of the major revenue sources contributing to Kyrenaika's wealth.  Pliny described it as "one of the most precious gift from Nature to man." It was considered to be "worth its weight in denarii" during Roman times because of its varied medical uses and scarcity.  The plant reportedly became extinct around the first century A.D., perhaps because of overutilization.  Other plants, also referred to as "silphium," grow in other locations around the Mediterranean, but were considered to be of inferior quality.  As a result, the loss of silphium from Kyrenaika was greatly lamented in Rome.
 
 

REPRESENTATION OF SILPHIUM ON THE COINAGE OF KYRENAIKA*


Type I
Type II
Type III

* adapted from Robinson ESG.  A Catalogue of Greek Coins in the British Museum - Cyrenaica. vol 29. pp ccliii-ccliv.  Oxford University Press. London. 1927


A CHRONOLOGY OF THE HISTORY OF KYRENAIKA AND ITS COINAGE


EVENT
COINAGE
IMAGE
631 BC 
Kyrene founded by Battus and Dorian followers from Thera as instructed by a Delphic oracle*
590-500 BC
Greek immigration
571 BC
Barke founded
525 BC
Kamryses captures region to start Persian rule with Battids as satraps
510-470 BC
archaic "Attic weight" AR coins with silphium fruits, plant / reverse incuse.
470-375 BC 
"Asiatic-weight"** AR coins with head of Zeus Ammon / silphium plant
431 BC
Arkesilas IV, last Battid king, assassinated
431-331 BC
republic period
430-420 BC
alliance with Barke?
400-331 BC
AR coins with facing head Zeus Ammon, magistrate's name / silphium plant, AV coins with Zeus / quadriga
331-323 BC
allegiance to Alexander the Great
331-323 BC
increased AV coinage
323-322 BC
invasion by Thibron from Crete
322-277 BC
Ptolemy I rules region with Ophellas as satrap
322-277 BC
AR "Rhodian" didrachms with head of Apollo / silphium, AV and AE coinage

313-312 BC
local revolt
312-309 BC
revolt of Ophellas
309 BC
Ophellas' disastrous campaign against Carthage
308-277 BC
Magas as Ptolemaic satrap
305-300 BC
local revolt
305-300 BC
“Alexander the Great”-type AR tetradrachms and AV staters
 
277-261 BC
revolt of Magas
277-261 BC
Ptolemaic AR and AE coins with "MAG" monogram
250-246 BC
Demophanes and Ekdemus of Arcadia help establish a federal government
250-246 BC
AR and AE coins with Zeus Ammon / silphium inscribed "KOINON"
246 BC
marriage of Berenike II (Magas’ daughter) and Ptolemy III reunites region with Egypt
246-96 BC
Ptolemaic coinage
163-146 BC
independent kingdom of Ptolemy VIII
96 BC
Ptolemy Apoin wills region to Rome
67 BC
region becomes part of a Roman province
67 BC - 180 AD
AE Roman provincial coinage
36-31 BC
region controlled by  Marc Anthony
31 BC
AR denarius with head Jupiter Ammon (also for Octavian)
115 AD
Jewish revolt
365 AD
severe earthquake damage
420-533 AD
Vandals control region
533-623 AD
Byzantine occupation
642 AD
Arab conquest completed
600-700 AD
Kyrene abandoned 
present
Kyrene is one of the best-preserved ancient Greek site, ~1/3 excavated



APPENDIX TO CHRONOLOGY

*  Read “The Histories” by Herotodus for an excellent account of the founding and early history of Kyrenaika.

**  The “Asiatic” weight standard is actually coins based on a “drachm” that is one-fifth of an Attic-weight tetradrachm, i.e., an “Asiatic-weight tetradrachm” is 80% of the weight of an Attic tetradrachm.


SILPHIUM & KYRENAICA BIBLIOGRAPHY

1. White D.  Cyrene.  in Stillwell R, MacDonald WL, McAlister MH (eds) Princeton Encyclopedia of Classical Sites. 1976. at www.perseus.tufts.edu

2. Herodotus.   The Histories. II:161, 181, III:131, IV:150-165, 200-205. (various translations)

3. Theophrastus.  Enquiry into Plants and Minor Works on Odors and Weather Signs. II:13- 21. (translation by Hort A. Cambridge,1949.)

4. Pliny the Elder.  Natural History. XIX:38-46 and XXII:100-106.(various translations)

5. Gemmill CL.  Silphium.  Bull History of Med 40(4): 295-313. July-Aug, 1966.

6. Riddle JM, Estes JW, Russell JC.  Birth Control in the Ancient World.  Archeology, pp 27-33, March-April, 1994.

7. Riddle JM.  Eve's Herbs: a History of Contraception and Abortion in the West. pp 44-46.  Harvard University Press, Cambridge. 1997.

8. Fisher N. Laser-Quests: Unnoticed Allusions to Contraception in a Poem and a Princeps?  Classics Ireland 3:73-97. 1996.

9. Koerper HC, Kolls AL.  The Silphium Motif Adorning Ancient Libyan Coinage: Marketing a Medical Plant.  Economic Botany 53(2):133-143. April-June, 1999.

10. Robinson ESG.  A Catalogue of Greek Coins in the British Museum - Cyrenaica. vol 29.  Oxford University Press.  London. 1927.

11. Naville L.  Les Monnaies d’Or de la Cyrenaique de 450 a 250 Avant JC: Contribution a l’Etude des Monnaies Grecques Antiques.  Geneva. 1951.

12. Price M, Waggoner N.  Archaic Greek Silver Coinage: the Asyut Hoard.  pp 111-114, 120.  London. 1975.

13. Buttrey TV.  Part I: The Coins from the Sanctuary of Demeter and Persephone. in White D (Ed).  Extramural Sanctuary of Demeter and Persephone at Cyrene Libya, Final Reports: Vol. VI.  pp 1-66.  Philadelphia. 1997.

14. Sear DR.  Greek Coins and Their Values: Vol II - Asia and Africa. pp 578-591.  Seaby.  London. 1996 reprint.

15. Tameanko M. The Silphium Plant: Wonder Drug of the Ancient World Depicted on Coins.  Celator 6(4):26-28.  April, 1992.

16. Marotta M. The Purse of Eratosthenes: Coinage and Commerce of Cyrene.  Celator 8(l):18-20.  January, 1994.

17. Favorito EN, Baty K. The Silphium Connection.  Celator 9(2):6-8.  Feb, 1995.

18. Tatman JL.  Silphium, Silver and Strife: A History of Kyrenaika and Its Coinage.  Celator 14(10):6-24. Oct, 2000.

19. Wright WS  Silphium Rediscovered. Celator 15(2):23-24. Feb 2001.
 



MORE INFORMATION

A review of the history of Kyrenaika and its coinage is in the October, 2000 issue of the Celator.  A recent article by W.S. Wright on the possibility that silphium still exists is in the February, 2001 issue of the Celator. (See references)