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: Smithsonian.com
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: Smithsonian.com|
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