The Drugs Used by the Ancient Greeks and Romans

Many of us liv­ing in the parts of the world where mar­i­jua­na has recent­ly been legal­ized may regard our­selves as par­tak­ing of a high­ly mod­ern plea­sure. And giv­en the ever-increas­ing sophis­ti­ca­tion of the grow­ing and pro­cess­ing tech­niques that under­lie what has become a for­mi­da­ble cannabis indus­try, per­haps, on some lev­el, we are. But as intel­lec­tu­al­ly avid enthu­si­asts of psy­choac­tive sub­stances won’t hes­i­tate to tell you, their use stretch­es far­ther back in time than his­to­ry itself. “For as long as there has been civ­i­liza­tion, there have been mind-alter­ing drugs,” writes Sci­ence’s Andrew Lawler. But was any­one using them in the pre­de­ces­sors to west­ern civ­i­liza­tion as we know it today?

For quite some time, schol­ars believed that unlike, say, Mesoamer­i­ca or north Africa, “the ancient Near East had seemed curi­ous­ly drug-free.” But now, “new tech­niques for ana­lyz­ing residues in exca­vat­ed jars and iden­ti­fy­ing tiny amounts of plant mate­r­i­al sug­gest that ancient Near East­ern­ers indulged in a range of psy­choac­tive sub­stances.”

The lat­est evi­dence sug­gests that, already three mil­len­nia ago, “drugs like cannabis had arrived in Mesopotamia, while peo­ple from Turkey to Egypt exper­i­ment­ed 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 unearthed a few pre­cious arti­facts from a fourth-cen­tu­ry Scythi­an bur­ial mound near Stavropol in Rus­sia. There were “gold­en arm­bands, gold­en cups, a heavy gold ring, and the great­est trea­sure of all, two spec­tac­u­lar gold­en ves­sels,” says nar­ra­tor Gar­rett Ryan, who earned a PhD in Greek and Roman His­to­ry from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan. The inte­ri­ors of those last “were coat­ed with a sticky black residue,” con­firmed in the lab to be opi­um with traces of mar­i­jua­na. “The Scythi­ans, in oth­er words, got high” — as 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, goes on to make intrigu­ing con­nec­tions between scat­tered but rel­e­vant pieces of archae­o­log­i­cal and tex­tu­al evi­dence. We know that some of our civ­i­liza­tion­al fore­bears got high; how many, and how high, are ques­tions for future scholas­tic inquiry.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Alger­ian Cave Paint­ings Sug­gest Humans Did Mag­ic Mush­rooms 9,000 Years Ago

Dis­cov­er the Old­est Beer Recipe in His­to­ry From Ancient Sume­ria, 1800 B.C.

Pipes with Cannabis Traces Found in Shakespeare’s Gar­den, Sug­gest­ing the Bard Enjoyed a “Not­ed Weed”

1,000-Year-Old Illus­trat­ed Guide to the Med­i­c­i­nal Use of Plants Now Dig­i­tized & Put Online

Beer Archae­ol­o­gy: Yes, It’s a 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 Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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