The Drugs Used by the Ancient Greeks and Romans

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The Drugs Used by the Ancient Greeks and Romans

Many of us who live in the parts of the world where marijuana has recently been legalized may consider ourselves a very modern pleasure. And given the ever-increasing sophistication of the cultivation and processing techniques that underlie what has become a formidable cannabis industry, we may be at some level. But as intellectually avid enthusiasts of psychoactive drugs do not hesitate to tell you, their use stretches further back in time than the story itself. “Just as long as there has been civilization, there have been mind-altering substances,” he writes Science‘s Andrew Lawler. But was there anyone who used them in the predecessors of Western civilization as we know it today?

For quite some time, researchers believed that unlike e.g. Mesoamerica or North Africa, “the ancient Near East would have seemed strangely drug-free.” But now, “new techniques for analyzing the remains of excavated pots and identifying tiny amounts of plant material suggest that ancient Near Easterners indulged in a variety of psychoactive substances.”

Recent evidence suggests that as early as three millennia ago, “substances such as cannabis had arrived in Mesopotamia, while people from Turkey to Egypt were experimenting with local substances such as blue water lily.” That these habits seem to have continued in ancient Greece and Rome is suggested by archaeological evidence summarized in the video above.

In 2019, archaeologists excavated a few precious artifacts from a fourth-century Scythian burial mound near Stavropol, Russia. There were “golden bracelets, golden cups, a heavy gold ring and the greatest treasure of all, two spectacular golden vessels,” says narrator Garrett Ryan, who received a PhD in Greek and Roman history from the University of Michigan. The interior of the latter “was coated with a sticky black residue,” confirmed in the laboratory to be opium with traces of marijuana. “In other words, the Scythians became tall” – so did “their Greek and Roman neighbors.” Ryan, author of Naked statues, fat gladiators and war elephants: frequently asked questions about the ancient Greeks and Romans, continues to create intriguing connections between scattered but relevant pieces of archaeological and textual evidence. We know that some of our civilizing ancestors grew tall; how many and how high are questions for future scholastic study.

Related content:

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Pipes with cannabis spores found in Shakespeare’s garden, suggesting that the bard enjoyed a “noticed weed”

1,000 year old illustrated guide to medicinal use of plants now digitized and put online

Beer archeology: Yes, that’s one thing

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: A Walk Through 21st Century Los Angeles and the video series The city in the cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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