History of drugs: getting high with the ancient Greeks and Romans

From ayahuasca to cocaine, psychoactive substances have played an important role in many Native American societies. Derived from what are often referred to as “plants of the gods”, these substances produce feelings of ecstasy and out-of-body experiences. For this reason, they were used to communicate with deities and ancestors, and incorporated into rites of passage.

While human consumption of psychoactive plants in North and South America has been well documented thanks in part to surviving cultures, their use in the Old World remains poorly understood due to lack of evidence.

Evidence for ancient drug use generally comes in one of two forms: artifactual and paleobotanical. Artifact evidence refers to artifacts that have been used to store or process psychoactive substances, such as jars or sachets. Paleobotany, on the other hand, refers to the chemical traces that drugs have left behind, whether on the surface of their containers or inside the preserved bodies of the people who consumed them.

Neither type of evidence provides us with definitive proof that Old World cultures used psychoactive substances. As researcher MD Merlin explains in an article on the subject, paleobotanical evidence indicates the presence of a substance but offers no clues as to the socio-cultural context in which it was used. Artificial evidence, although more open to interpretation, may contain clues to the symbolic meaning of the substance.

The first evidence of drug use in Europe

Researchers have yet to agree on when Old World cultures began using drugs. Some feel confident saying that drugs have been around since the end of the Pleistocene, more than 12,000 years ago. Others believe that drug use predates the evolution of our own kind and that we may have inherited the practice from our non-human ancestors. (See the “Stoned Ape” hypothesis for more on this.)

Opium poppies are among the first psychoactive plants to be consumed by humans, and the earliest known evidence of their use has been found in Italy. According to Merlin, the artifactual evidence comes in the form of sphere-shaped pendants that strongly resemble opium capsules. These were worn by women of the pre-Roman Dauni culture, who lived in the southeastern regions of the Italian peninsula more than 2,500 years ago.

Preserved poppy seeds have been found under Lake Bracciano in Italy. (Credit: KGM007 / Wikipedia)

The earliest known paleobotanical evidence of opium use also comes from Italy, near Lake Bracciano northwest of Rome. Preserved under three meters of limestone at the bottom of the lake, researchers found the preserved remains of poppy seeds which may have been used for oil, food or medicine – or they may have had a “possibly cultic use”. These seeds were found to be considerably older than the pendentives, as the surrounding area was last populated 7,700 years ago.

Poppy seeds from Lake Bracciano represent one of the greatest challenges in the study of ancient substance use, as psychoactive plants can be used for a variety of purposes. Hemp, another drug commonly found in the Old World, could have been used to feed livestock or made into rope and oil in addition to being consumed by humans.

Smoking among the Scythians

Add to that the fact that ancient humans may have used drugs for a variety of purposes. Indeed, Old World cultures may have used cannabis or opium as medicine or as part of their rituals and ceremonies. They may even have used drugs recreationally, like many people today.

Many Greek and Roman sources mention cannabis, but not in the contexts one would expect. The playwright Ephippus included cannabis in a list of delicacies such as cakes, fruits and nuts. Atheneaus and Pausanias – a rhetorician and a traveler, respectively – said hemp was used in the production of ropes and textiles, and could also repel mosquitoes.

drug history
According to Herodotus, the Scythians of Central Asia burned hemp in tents to commemorate the dead. (Credit: Dimitri Pozdnyakov/Wikipedia)

The only possible reference to the recreational use of cannabis in classical antiquity comes from the historian Herodotus, who described the practices of a culture known as the Scythians. When a Scythian died, his friends and family burned hemp inside a tent, billowing in smoke. As Herodotus said: “The Scythians enjoy [this smoke] so much that they would scream with pleasure.

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The Romans may also have appreciated the psychoactive properties of hemp. Like their Greek counterparts, the Romans considered cannabis seeds a delicacy, which they fried and consumed after dinner as a dessert. According to Galen, a Greek physician who lived in Rome, the seeds were eaten “in order to stimulate the appetite for drinking”. They also created “a sensation of heat” which, when consumed in large quantities, sends people’s minds into a “hot, poisonous vapor”.

Marc Aurèle: the first opium addict

The Roman Empire’s drug of choice, however, was opium. Doctors prescribed it to relieve pain and help their patients sleep at night. Opium was even used to treat coughs and diarrhea. With such an addictive substance being so prevalent, it’s a little odd that none of Rome’s observant writers thought to comment on the addiction issue.

That’s not to say the addiction hasn’t been fully documented. Among the growing number of opium users in the Roman Empire was none other than its head of state, Marcus Aurelius. According to historian Cassius Dio, Aurelius took opium several times a day to ease his chest and stomach pains while he was at war. “That habit,” Dio said, “allowed him to put up with that and other things.”

Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius used opium to soothe his nerves while at war. (Credit: Bob3321 / Wikipedia)

When Aurelius tried to quit opium, he became prone to what Galen called “dry moods”, but which modern readers will recognize as withdrawal symptoms. Without opium, the Emperor would become unable to address his troops or prepare for battle. He also struggled with the many side effects of opium. While this helps him sleep at night, it also makes him too drowsy to complete daytime tasks.

Is the use of opium by Marc Aurèle qualified as recreational? Thomas W. Africa, author of Opium Addiction by Marcus Aurelius, suggests it might. Although the emperor started taking the drug to ease his chest and stomach problems, he did not suffer from any serious medical issues. Instead, the main purpose of opium was to improve his quality of life. It also inspired his famous writings. “The drugs,” Africa concludes, “did not so much incapacitate Marcus as it isolated his nature reserve and pushed his philosophical insight to the climax of vision.”

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