The word ‘drugs’ is often associated with substances like cocaine, heroin, marijuana, among other ‘recreational’ drugs but the word primarily describes chemicals consumed when one faces some kind of physical distress. To the Greeks and the Romans, drugs ranged from medicines and poisons to perfumes and psychoactive substances. They extracted oils and liquids from different plants and some animals and studied their properties carefully. From using drugs to cure ailments to consuming them recreationally to using these discrete weapons to assassinate prominent political leaders, they have done it all. In this paper, I discuss how drugs and the field of pharmacology came to hold an important place in the lives of the premodern people.
View on Drugs in Antiquity
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The most important use of drugs in antiquity was to cure diseases. At the time, there was no clear distinction between the act of prescribing medicines and the act of providing drugs, since people were aware of the fact that any medicine when consumed without inhibition would be lethal. Physicians took oaths, promising that they would not administer poisons. Learned doctors held different views on the usage of drugs. A select few (including Plato) believed that turning to medicines as a cure was a last resort. The majority of doctors compared medicines to “the hands of the gods” and recommended the use of drugs to alleviate physical distress. Pliny believed that the whole concept of paying vast amounts of money to prolong one’s life was a sham. He said that the only medicines humans need were readily available, cost nothing, and derived from the same sources as that of the food we eat. Despite these differences, the doctors at the time performed a thorough study of the drugs available to them. Most of their drugs were sourced from plants, like mint, fennel, myrrh, among others. Oils were extracted from the roots, leaves, seeds and then combined with varying quantities of water or alcohol to form concoctions that could cure a variety of maladies, including earaches, deafness, sleeplessness, and abscesses. These prescriptions have been recorded and preserved in ancient Greek and Roman texts since they were one of the greatest resources they had at the time. The pharmacists at the time also used a host of minerals and animal products to develop salves and oils that could cure just about anything. They used animal excrement, secretions, venoms, and ground-up organs as potential drug sources. They found that jellyfish could treat gout and dog urine could assist with leprosy. They evaluated every animal they could get their hands on, ranging from mammals to crustaceans. The field of pharmacology was truly one of the greatest resources that the Greeks and Romans possessed. Although the primary goal of developing different medicines was to cure ailments, the mixtures were also used to manipulate the different processes in the human body. Certain plant-based blends were effective methods of contraception, where the key ingredients were pennyroyal, rue. The same ingredients were used in some medicines to terminate unwanted pregnancies, although this knowledge was lost during the Middle Ages. The detailed study of pharmacy (philosophy of remedy, poison, and scapegoat) led to the discovery of ‘performance-enhancing substances’ – special diets were put together to improve an athlete’s performance in the Olympian games. The pharmacists recognized testosterone as a performance booster, and hence advised athletes to eat the testes of animals, to improve the levels of testosterone. Certain substances like myrrh and frankincense, known for their powers of intoxication, were also added to wines to alter the effects of intoxication. The practice of adding water to wine was not only to ensure social etiquette but also to reduce the potency of the additives which in larger doses could be lethal. Some of the ‘desired effects’ of the drug-infused alcohol were induced hallucinations and uncontrollable laughter. If consumed in concentrated forms, then these brews could damage the nervous system, restrict respiration, and even lead to death. The state of being intoxicated is often linked to the powers of foresight possessed by the oracles. A lot of their rituals would include lighting up fires of myrrh, ivies, and opium, the smoke of which had psychoactive effects on the oracles.
Evidence found in the literature describes an attendant priest who would burn hemp, barley grains, and laurel in an oil lamp to induce a half-conscious state in the oracle, who would then relay messages from the gods for the attending priest to decipher. Greco-Roman pagan rituals also involved similar practices, where herbs like myrrh and frankincense were orally consumed as part of a special diet and burned, the fumes of which were inhaled to heighten the experience. Literary evidence by Herodotus suggests that one of the Scythian funeral rites was to burn the seeds of hemp (marijuana) in a closed tent, to induce a euphoria-like state. It was seen as a method of overcoming the grief of death.