Thursday, 11 April 2013

Popping Pills With The Romans

I was recently reading a book (the historical fiction, Conspiracies of Rome by Richard Blake if you were to wonder) and early on in the book there were a few references to pills. Of the medicinal kind. 'Buying pills from the Apothecary'. ' Pills rattling in a metal pill box'.
This got me to thinking about pills in Ancient Rome. I had not come across any reference to them in an early Roman setting before, not in non fiction and not in fiction.  That is not to say that there are none, just none that I have come across or remember. And, as is the way with me when I sense there is something new for me to learn about periods of history that interest me, my mind was awash with questions.
What would these early examples be like?  Was there even such a thing or was it artistic license?  Would they be herbal lozenges or grassy wads that resembled rabbit droppings? Or balls that resembled compressed hashish? Or, in the case of opiates, white powder compacted and shaped like discs in a primitive pill press?

I did think of asking the author - who is an historian as well as an historical fiction writer - about pills in the Roman era and where had he gotten his information. Not in a 'prove it' kind of way, but out of curiousity so that I may get answers without having to do the leg work myself.
Before I had a chance to ask Richard Blake what he knew about pill making in Roman times, I stumbled, in a most serendipitous manner, across an article on an exciting Roman find that was made at the bottom of the ocean. A pill find would you believe! A Roman pill find!  The Pozzino Tablet find to be precise.

The tablets sealed into pyxis
Image source:
The pill was found in the wreck of a Roman shipping vessel (the Relitto del Pozzino) which sank around 120BCE off the coast of Tuscany.  Along with all the equally fascinating finds such as lamps from Asia Minor and glass cups from Palestine, was what remained of a 2000 year old Roman Doctor's medicine chest.

So how does a pill survive these conditions for 2000 years? There lay the miracle. The Medicine chest itself was in ruins, but despite its condition it was found to contain a surgical hook, a mortar, over 130 drug vials made of timber and some cylinders made of tin called pyxides. These pyxis were x-rayed and it was discovered that one held within it six flat medicinal lozenges. Or pills. Roman pills!  Grey and circular. Dry still after all this time and presenting an exciting opportunity to find out what kind of ingredients the Romans were incorporating into their pills during this era.
According to the Italian chemists charged with unravelling the mysteries of these Pyxis contents, this is what they found.

 "Hydrozincite and smithsonite were by far the most abundant ingredients of the Pozzino tablets, along with starch, animal and plant lipids, and pine resin. The composition and the form of the Pozzino tablets seem to indicate that they were used for ophthalmic purposes: the Latin name collyrium (eyewash) comes from the Greek name κoλλυ´ρα, which means “small round loaves.”
Source: The paper published by the Proceedings in the National Academy of Sciences - Ingredients of 2000 Year old Medicine

Image source:
In more simple terms that means zinc compounds, iron oxides, starch, animal and plant derived substances such as fats, beeswax, pine resins, oils (possibly olive oil)  and that the tablets purpose may have been to treat eye infections.
One of the pills also appeared to have the impression of fabric on its surface which indicates that it may have been kept wrapped in fine material to prevent it from degrading or falling apart.

All very fascinating to say the least and helps to answer some of my own personal queries on Roman Era pills, whilst yours have only just begun no doubt.  Happy, as always, to make my problems yours.

For further reading on the finds see: Pozzino ShipWreck: Ancient Medicine Ingredients Probed

- MM


  1. I am always awed by things that have survived for later generations to find. It's also interesting to note that many of the ingredients used then are still used in medicine today. We might think them primitive, but sometimes they did get it right despite the limitations of 'science' as it were.

    (p.s. your photo links aren't working for me :( but I did go view the pill from the 'further reading' link)

    1. Never mind, they work now... *glares at interwebs*

    2. You'd think that a tin cyclinder with pills in it at the bottom of the sea would never survive. I found it amazing too.

  2. After a long day of yard work on Saturday I took so ibuprofen. I feel so Roman now.

    1. Haha! Next time someone says, 'what did the Romans ever do for us?' (Although I think it is only Monty Python who says that)......we can answer, they gave us tablets of course!

  3. You may also be interested to know that they did further testing on the pills in your article and found that they contained clay. The article is here:

    A type of clay called fuller's earth was used in Edwardian times, perhaps earlier, as a carrier and compression agent in the making of tablets.

    I learned this by reading several volumes on the subject published prior to 1925.

  4. Currently reading "Tablet Manufacture: Its History, Pharmacy, & Use" by Joseph Remington Woods. Published 1909 by J.B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia & London, in 1909. Book available as electronic e-book at Google Books:

    A footnote on page 9 gives the following account, which corroborates the information you posted on ancient pills being for the eyes...


    1 " Stamps have been found in England which have been shown to have been used by the Romans to stamp remedies for producing clearness of vision, or for doing away with dimness of sight. The object aimed at by the medicament was specified in the stamp. It is noteworthy that the stamps so far discovered were designed for remedies for ocular diseases. The preparations were hardened with gum or some viscid substance and were thus ready to be liquefied at any time. Thus our supposedly very modern device of triturates or compressed tablets is only a revival of an ancient Roman custom." (American Medicine.)

  5. The ancient Egyptians and Greeks were making pills, too. They were made wet, then dried - not compressed. Here is a link to the the article, which I shall poartially (space restrictions) copy/paste below for your reading convenience:


    The Colorful History of Pills Can Fill Many a Tablet
    March 25, 2002|ROSIE MESTEL

    We recently learned that the inventor of Life Savers candies was inspired, in the early 20th century, to make his candy after witnessing a pharmacist make pills with an old-fashioned pill machine.

    All very fine and creative. But who, we'd like to know, invented pills?

    Someone way, way back when, says George Griffenhagen, a retired pharmacist with a penchant for history who resides in Vienna, Va. (Griffenhagen has made quite a study of the pill question. He's even written about pill history.) Pills, he says, date back to roughly 1500 BC--and they were presumably invented so that measured amounts of a medicinal substance could be delivered to a patient. Earlier than that--say, 4,000 years ago--recipes were generally for liquid preparations. For instance, a tasty-sounding medicinal recipe inscribed on an Assyrian clay tablet instructs the user to pulverize various seeds, plant resins and leaves together--then dissolve them in beer.

    The first pill references crop up in ancient Egyptian times, Griffenhagen says. One famous set of papyruses is filled with medical remedies, including pills made from bread dough, honey or grease.

    Plant powders, or other active ingredients, would be mixed with these substances--then little balls, or pills, would be formed with the fingers. (Early ingredients of pills included saffron, myrrh, cinnamon, tree resins and a slew of other botanicals.)

    Not that the word "pill" was used then. In ancient Greece, the round balls or other shapes were called katapotia (meaning "something to be swallowed"). It was the Roman scholar Pliny--who lived from 23-79 AD--who first coined the word "pilula."

    Pills came in various sizes as well as flat and round, and other assorted shapes (and, if they were anything like their modern counterparts, some of them were doubtless large and nigh-impossible to swallow). As far back as 500 BC, some were trademarked with special indentations in the pills.

    Beginning in medieval times, people would coat their pills with slimy plant substances and other materials so they'd go down more easily or taste less bitter.

    "They rolled them in spices, and later decided to put gold and silver on them," says Griffenhagen. The latter, unfortunately, rendered the pills pretty inert, since they'd pass right through the digestive tract without releasing any of their medicinal compounds. (Gilding of pills, amazingly, continued well into the 19th century.)

    Some early pills still exist in museums, such as a famous one dating from 500 BC. that was known as Terra Sigillata--consisting of clay from a particular island that was mixed with goat's blood then shaped into pills. (Terra Sigillata was supposedly good for practically everything that ails you, Griffenhagen says, including dysentery, ulcers and gonorrhea.)

    Also residing in museums are pieces of ancient Roman pill-making equipment, such as a stone in the British Museum. The stone has long flat grooves into which the pill maker would press clay or other substances to make long, snaky strings. Then the pill maker would prize the strings out and cut them into discs to form pills--much the way one cuts dough for cookies.

    Medicines in pill form were all the rage in 17th century England and thereafter. Pill manufacturers were even granted special patent rights from the king for their top-secret formulas.

    One famous patented product from the 18th century: "Hooper's Female Pills," which were guaranteed to contain "the best purging and anti-hysterik ingredients..." (truncated)