Book review - Ancient Herbs
- This sounds rather gorgeous.
Marina Heilmeyer, Ancient Herbs. Translated by David J. Baker. Los
Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2007. Pp. 101. ISBN
Reviewed by Kyle P. Johnson, New York University (kpj204@...)
Word count: 1165 words
To read a print-formatted version of this review, see
Table of Contents
It is a rare book in the field of Classics that opens with a legal
disclaimer: "This book is intended neither as a cookbook nor as a guide
to self-medication" (copyright page). So begins Marina Heilmeyer's
(henceforth H.) Ancient Herbs, a beautifully published (cloth-bound, 8
x 9 inches), non-academic review of forty of the most common herbs and
plants of private, ancient Roman gardens. While this work would make
for a great gift for an amateur gardener or one interested in ancient
botany, Ancient Herbs is not suited for research or the classroom. The
book consists of two parts, first a fifteen-page introduction and,
second, eighty pages of alphabetically- arranged synopses (each
averaging approximately four hundred words) of flora which found
frequent use in the Roman household for medicinal and culinary
purposes. Facing each entry is a full-color illustration taken from
hand-colored lithographs of the late-seventeenth or early-eighteenth
centuries, most from the botanist and pharmacologist Theodor Friedrich
Ludwig Nees van Esenbeck's Plantae medicinales (Du+sseldorf 1828-1833).
There are neither notes or indices, only a brief appendix entitled
"Suggestions for Further Reading."
The introduction offers a brief and well-informed overview of aspects
important to the study of ancient herbs and gardening. First, H.
introduces the most important agricultural, botanical, and culinary
writers in Latin, including Cato, Varro, Columella, Virgil, the Elder
Pliny, and Apicius. Dioscorides of Anazarbus is the sole Greek
representative. Next follow sweeping (and on the whole accurate)
accounts under the headings "The Roman Vegetable Garden," "The Use of
Plants," "Garden Celebrations," "The Significance of Plants in Religion
and Mythology, " and "Herbs for the Kitchen." The section treating the
"Use of Plants" is particularly successful, explaining how, for the
Romans, herbs found application as food, medicine, cosmetics, and
sacrificial offerings. It is pleasing to see work done, however cursory
here, connecting plants of the ancient world to their literary, social,
and religious context, something scholars of ancient botany are not
always mindful of.
Two basic decisions govern the creation of any encyclopedic work: what
to include and what to say about each subject. As to the former, H.
unfortunately obscures the governing principle of inclusion in the
introduction, which begins discussing the Getty Villa at Malibu and in
passing mentions its "recreated kitchen garden" (p. 1). Later, H.
writes that included "are ancient recipes for virtually all of the
Malibu Villa's herbs" and that "all of the entries describing these
herbs from the Villa's garden include at least one and often several
medicinal uses" (p. 8). Does this mean that the forty entries in
Ancient Herbs have been chosen because they may be found in the newly
renovated Villa's herb garden? Those lucky enough to have seen this
garden know that there are other common herbs not included in this
book, for example oregano. That this non--academic work lacks a hard
and fast method is forgivable. Yet I cannot help but think that this
work is a lost opportunity, for as it stands Ancient Herbs would have
made a terrific guidebook to the Malibu Getty's herb garden, much like
Jim Duggan's Plants in the Getty's Central Garden (Los Angeles: J. Paul
Getty Museum, 2004). It would be a joy to walk the Villa's herb garden
with a vade mecum full of cherry-picked stories and prescriptions from
Most entries in Ancient Herbs contain a smattering of nugae from the
Elder Pliny's Historia naturalis, Dioscorides's De materia medica, and
the De re coquinaria ascribed to Apicius. Other writers who make an
appearance (in addition to those mentioned in the introduction) are
Aristotle, Theophrastus, Horace, Catullus, Cicero, Petronius, Apuleius,
Martial, and Ovid; the Hebrew Bible and the Corpus Hippocraticum are
each cited several times. Basil is a typical entry (pp. 24-25). First,
H. records a use of basil from De re coquinaria. Next, we read of the
herb's origin in India, a few remarks about some of what Dioscorides
and Hippocrates write about it, a remedy for melancholy and nausea,
respectively. Pliny, we are told, refutes the notion that basil causes
insanity and liver ailments. Columella is also consulted. Ancient Herbs
reads like a notebook: "He [Columella] liked using the herb to flavor
olives for his table. One further note on basil's care in the garden is
from Pliny, who said that the plant should be watered at midday" (p.
24). The four works from which H. has drawn, of course, say much more
about basil than what is mentioned in this entry. Are H.'s choices good
ones? Basically, yes, although there is no system or overarching
interest which guides H.'s decisions about what to include. I must
leave it to each reader to decide whether the remedies mentioned above
are more interesting than those left out, for instance that too much
basil causes dim-sightedness (De materia medica 2.141.2) or that it is
an aphrodisiac for horses (NH 20.123).
Ancient Herbs contains a large number of errors. Among them are the
following. H. writes that moretum, means "a plowman's lunch" (p. 3),
although strictly speaking it is an herbed cheese (OLD). In the
introduction, the sentence, "In the twelve tables of Roman law,
composed as early as the fifth century A.D." (p. 6) should read, of
course, B.C. Pliny the Elder is described as "renowned for his gardens
and their valuable descriptions" (p. 18). H. seems to have simply
mistaken Pliny the Younger's famous gardens which are described in two
letters about his Tuscan villas (Epistulae 2.17 and 5.6).[] Under
"Cretan dittany, " which quotes Aeneid 12.411-424, H. wrongly
attributes the citation to lines 412-424 (p. 42). Under "Dill and
Fennel," the Latin line numbers from Columella's De re rustica are off,
reading 10.315-319 instead of 10.315-317 (p. 46). "Junipers 'berries'
were used ... " should read "junipers'" (p. 62). H. claims under
"Mugwort" (Latin artemisia) that it was also known as valentia due to
its effectiveness (p. 68); however, I can find no such association of
the two in Classical Latin. H. erroneously explains an occurrence of
puleium (pennyroyal) at Cicero Ad fam. 330 SB: "So proverbial was the
plant's harmonious qualities in gardens that Cicero once compared the
sensitivity of a friend with the nature of pennyroyal" (p. 78). In
fact, the text itself reads: ad cuius rutam puleio mihi tui sermonis
utendum est, "I shall need the sweet of your conversation to counteract
the bitter of his company" (trans. D. R. Shackleton- Bailey, Cicero:
Letters to Friends. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001).
Ovid Met. 8.662-663 is incorrectly cited as 8.661-664 under "Spearmint"
(p. 92). A perplexing slip comes under the entry for St. John's wort,
where H. writes that when ingesting the plant in liquid form, "the
patient should be sure to bundle up warmly, as heavy perspiration
enhances the desired effect" and ascribes this prescription to
"Dioscorides 3.172." Nowhere in the De materia medica are any of the
eleven terms representing some six species of St. John's wort
(3.154-157) prescribed along with an unusual amount of clothing.[]
1. It could possibly be argued otherwise, since at least one of the
Younger Pliny's two villas were probably inherited from his uncle. See
Sherwin-White's note at 5.6.10 (The Letters of Pliny: A Historical and
Social Commentary. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1965). Despite this
proviso, the fame of Pliny the Younger's gardens stem from his
descriptions in Epistulae 2.17 and 5.6 and these letters' importance to
the history of the modern garden.
2. The species (followed by their Greek name) are: Hypericum
perforatum L. (<greek>A)/SKURON, A)SKUROEIDE/S, A)NDRO/SAIMON</greek>);
Hypericum crispum (<greek>U(PERIKO/N</greek>); Hypericum crispum L.
(<greek>A)NDRO/SAIMON, KO/RION, XAMAI/PITUS</greek>); Hypericum
perfoliatum L. (<greek>A)NDRO/SAIMON, *DIONUSIA/S</greek>); and
Hypericum empetrifolium Willd. and Hypericum coris L. (<greek>KO/RIS,
U(PERIKO/N</greek>). Following Lily Y. Beck, Pedanius Dioscorides of
Anazarbus: De materia medica. Hildensheim: Olms-Weidmann, 2005, pp.
470-472. It should also be noted that there is no 3.172 in Wellman's
standard edition, in which St. John's wort is treated from 3.154 to
3.157. The closest to the De materia medica comes to this claim about
the use of clothing that I am aware of is at 2.164.2, about cyclamen:
"the person drinking it must stay in bed, in a warm house, covered with
several layers of clothing that he may perspire" (trans. Beck).
The BMCR website (http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/bmcr/) contains a complete
and searchable archive of BMCR reviews since our first issue in 1990.
It also contains information about subscribing and unsubscribing from
Please do not reply to this email as this is an unmonitored mailbox.
You can contact us by sending e-mail to bmr@....
BMCR-L mailing list
[Non-text portions of this message have been removed]