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Silphion/Silphium: Cyrenean didrachm
Ancient Greek coins from Cyrenaika


Among the Greeks, the plants was known as silphion [σίλφιον] almost invariably. In ancient Ro­man cookbooks, the spice was known both as silphium and laserpicium (variant forms include laser or lasar); the latter name was transferred to asafetida (which was considered an inferior substitute).

Used plant part

Some kind of resin obtained by cutting the root or the stalk; occasionally, stems, leaves and root were eaten as a vegetable, especially in the more early era.

Plant family

Apiaceae (parsley family).

A minority of scholars considers the assignment of ancient Silphion into the parsley family as errorneous and, based on ancient depictions, includes Silphion rather into the daisy family; the New World genus Silphium (Asteraceae) was explicitly named after the ancient herb.

However, this seems very improbable given the only ancient description we have. It stems from Theophrastos [Θεόφραστος], who lived at a time when silphion was still extant and who could base his description on reports of people from Libya, familiar with the plant. He describes the leaves, for which he gives the local name maspeton, as resembling celery: to de phyllon, ho kalousi maspeton, homoion to selino [τὸ δὲ φύλλον ὃ καλούσι μάσπετον ὅμοιον τῷ σελίνῳ] yet the leaf, which they call maspeton, [is] similar to celery. This alone should settle the question.

Moreover, in the entire chapter devoted to silphion, Theophrastos compares it to a total of three other plants, all of the Apiaceae family (some of which, admittedly, are not clearly identified), most often to narthex [νάρθεξ] (Ferula spp.). He also remarks that while silphion is often confused with magydaris [μαγύδαρις] (Prangos spp.), experts can tell the two apart.

Somewhat confusing, Theophrastos also writes about a sperma platy [σπέρμα πλατύ] flat (or broad) seed, which he says is also called phyllon [φύλλον] leaf. Indeed, many members of the parsley family (notably, also in genus Ferula) have fruits that are winged by two extended longitudinal ribs, which gives them a flat, leaf-like appearance. This can be easily verified in dried dill fruits. It is really hard to defend an Asteraceae affiliaton against this detailled source.

Sensory quality

Unknown, but extremely pleasing.

Silphion was not only used as a spice, but also had a reputation as a powerful herbal medicine and even for birth control. The latter probably explains why the plant appears in the erotic context of one of the famous love poems of Catullus: He asks how many kisses he would like from his lover, and concludes that not even quam magnus numerus Libyssæ harenæ lasarpiciferis iacet Cyrenis as large as the number of Libyan sand-grains that lie in silphion-bearing Cyrene could satisfy his desire.

Main constituents

Unknown. Given that ancient Silphion was eventually replaced by the Central Asian asafetida (which was also termed Iranian Silphion), we may assume that both plants had similar flavour and, thus, similar constituents. This would, then, indicate a spectrum of sulfurous aroma compounds.


Northern Africa, about today’s Libya. Several North African cities controlled the silphion trade and built their wealth thereon (Carthage, Kyrene). According to Theophrastos, the Cyrenean people believed that Silphion first appeared seven years before the foundation of their city. Indeed there no earlier records of the herb, and apparently, the product became known to the Ancient World only after the foundation of Kyrene in the century.

Theophrastos claims that the plants grows over a large stretch of 4000 stadia or more than 600 kilometers, but it was most abundant in the Great Syrtis (Gulf of Sidra) after [probably: west of] the [Greek colony of] Euhesperides; this points to the location of the later Berenice [Βερενίκη] and today's Benghazi [بنغازى] in Libya.


Greek silphion [σίλφιον] is probably a Semitic loan.

Selected Links

Silphium: Ancient Wonder Drug Birth Control Silphion — ein Nachruf (Österreichische Apothekerzeitung 23/2001) From Silphium to Asafoetida: A Tale of Two Ancient Spices The Apicius Cookbook M. Gavius Apicius: De re coquinaria Cato: On Farming M. Porcius Cato: De agricultura ( M. Porcius Cato: De agri cultura ( The Satyricon — Volume 02: Dinner of Trimalchio (Project Gutenberg) C. Petronius: Satyricon (English interlinked with Latin) Dinner with Trimalchio – a nice discussion of the work ( Die Speisen in Trimalchios Gastmahl ( via Recipe and Discussion: Moretum (Roman cheese and herb paste) ( via Poem by Vergilius Moretum, English Translation ( Bibliotheca Augustana: Moretum ( The Banquet of Jupiter, including moretum recipe ( via Carmina Catulli: Quæris quot mihi basiationes … ( Informazione sulla Colatura di Alici di Cetara ( Apicius Book One — richly commented ( Artikel bei Die Küche im Alten Rom

Silphion/Silphium: Cyrenean Gold Drachm
Cyrenean gold drachm showing silphion image

Silphion: Libyan silphium coin
Ancient silphion coin
Silphion is mentioned in Marcus Gavius Apicius’ De re coquinaria (On cooking); Apicius had lived in the first century A.D., but the famous cookbook published under his name is much younger — either it was a later and changed edition, or an independent work just using the name of the then already legendary gourmand.

A late ( century) collection of recipes, claiming to originate from the Apicius-cookbook and being compiled by a certain Vinidarius, starts with a long list of items that should be stocked by any good cook. Its beginning refers to spices: (see translations with mouse and CSS1):

Brevis pigmentorum que in domo esse debeant ut condimentis nihil desit: crocu, piper, zingiber, lasar, foliu, baca mirte, costu, cariofilu, spica indica, addena, cardamomu, spica nardi.

De seminibus hoc: papaber, semen rude, baca rute, baca lauri, semen aneti, semen api, semen feniculi, semen ligustici, semem eruce, semen coriandri, cuminu, anesu, petrosilenu, careu, sisama.

De siccis hoc: lasaris radices, menta, nepeta, salvia, cupressu, origanu, iuniperum, cepa gentima, bacas timmi, coriandrum, piretru, citri, pastinaca, cepa ascalonia, radices iunci, anet, puleiu, ciperum, aliu, osprea, samsucu, innula, silpiu, cardamomu.

Quite remarkably, some of these spices (e. g., saffron, sage, cloves) are rarely found in the main texts of the various Apicius cookbook versions; on the other hand, the important fresh leaves are not in the list. It is very probable that both silpium and laser refer not to the original silphion root, which was long extinct, but to its Eastern substitute, asafetida. The following translation of that passage gives classical Latin names as a mouseover tooltip.

Short list of spices that should be kept in the house so that the sauces will not lack anything: saffron, pepper, ginger, silpium resin, Indian bay-leaves, myrtle berries, costus, cloves, Indian spikenard, addena, cardamom, spikenard.

Of the seeds the following: poppy, rue seeds, rue berries, bay berries, dill seeds, celery seeds, fennel seeds, lovage seeds, rocket seeds, coriander seeds, cumin, anise, parsley, caraway, sesame.

Of the dried herbs the following: silpium root, mint, calamint, sage, cypress, oregano, juniper, onion, thyme berries (possibly ajwain), coriander, pellitory, citron, wild parsnip, shallot, reed root, dill, pennyroyal, Cypriotic (grass), garlic, pulses, marjoram, elecampane, Silpium, cardamom.

The Apicius is the only ancient cookbook that has survived in full; thus it is a most important source of knowledge about the cuisine of Ancient Rome (see also onion for a much older cookbook from Mesopotamia). Besides a few isolated recipes scattered over the literature, another work to mention is the early farming handbook De agricultura by Marcus Porcius Cato (2.nd century BC) which serves down-to-earth but tasty fare, e.g., lentils flavoured with silphion. Social life in the first century AD and is eccentric feasts are very vividly described in an entertaining narrative Cena Trimalchionis (The Banquette of Trimalchio), which is part of a larger cycle, Satyricon, attributed to the renowned aesthete and courtier of Nero, Gaius Petronius Arbiter Elegantiæ (of Quo Vadis? fame). Last but not least, one should mention Virgil’s poem moretum which glorifies country life and describes poetically the preparation of a paste made from raw garlic, ripened cheese and herbs; see also rue.

Silphion was highly praised first by Greek and later by Roman cooks and also highly prized. The plant proved impossible to cultivate; it thrived only in areas free of any human cultivation. For centuries, the silphion populations were carefully conserved and harvested by fixed, time-approved rules; but in the first century BC, the plant became increasingly rare due to both overharvesting and damage by wars. Possibly, the populations would have recovered if they had been strictly protected, but grazing sheep destroyed whatever silphion plant was left, as Plinius reports: unus omnino caulis nostra memoria repertus Neroni principi missus est the only stem found in our memory was sent to Emperor Nero.

Cuisine in ancient Rome was fundamentally different from the cooking style now most associated with Italy: Noodles (pasta) were unknown, tomatoes did not grow outside of the American continent, and even garlic was significantly less popular than today. Yet olive oil has been used since millennia in the Mediterranean, both for cooking and as a lamp fuel.

Ferula communis: Flowers of Giant Fennel
Flowers of giant fennel, Ferula communis, a plant often thought related to ancient silphion.        © G. Gandolfo

Besides a host of herbs some of which are still characteristic of today’s Italy (lovage, celery, bay leaves) and some herbs that have fallen into disfavour since (the bitter rue and pennyroyal, Mentha pulegium, a specific kind of mint) and their favourite condiment mustard, the ancients used other flavourings not found in today’s Italian cooking. There was a general preference of lavishly flavoured foods, and cooks often employed strong flavours many contemporaries would have problems getting used to; even wine was flavoured with rose flowers or, as a cheaper substitute, citron leaves.

Most essential was liquamen, a fish sauce obtained as a by-product in the production of anchovy (fermented fish) and probably similar to products found in today’s South East Asia (nam pla [น้ำปลา] in Thailand, nuoc mam [nước mắm] in Vietnam); it was used for the pungent sauces that accompanied boiled meat or sea food analogous to the sauces for which today French cuisine is so famous. Most popular among the Eastern spices used for such sauces were cumin, black pepper and ginger; even more praised was long pepper, whose high prize and but sporadic availability, though, limited culinary usage. Other spices, like cinnamon, cassia, cloves and Indian bay-leaves (malobathrum, malabathrum) were known but played a lesser rôle in cooking; these were more important for perfumery.

Probably even more amazing compared to today’s taste was the marked preference for sweet–sour–spicy or even solely sweet–spicy combinations. The most important source of sweetness was honey; dried fruits (e. g., raisins or dates) played a much less prominent rôle. Honey was also used for preservation, even of meat. On the other hand, sweetmeats were commonly enriched with a dash of black pepper (see also poppy).

To set sour accents, the Romans mostly used vinegar (and sometimes a decoction of sumac berries), because citrus fruits were unknown except citron, a close but juiceless relative of lemon. Concentrated grape juice, made by boiling young must down to one half (caroenum) or even one third (defrutum) of its original volume, was also frequently employed. A very similar concoction, verjus, was part of French cooking until the end of the Renaissance.

One could speculate that silphion has somehow survived and is now known by another name. Some think that it is a member of genus Laserpitium (named after the ancient spice), other consider it more similar to Ferula, where asafetida belongs to. However, the description of Theophrastus emphasizes that silphion avoids cultivated soil: It is typical for this plant, he writes,

ἀεὶ συνεργαζομένης καὶ συνημερουμένης ἐξαναχωρεῖν ὡς οὐ δεομένου δῆλον ὅτι θεραπείας ἀλλ᾽ ὄντος ἀγρίου
aei synergazomenes kai synemeroumenes exanachorein hos ou deomenou delon hoti therapeias all’ ontos agriou
always to leave [land] which is brought into cultivation and tamed, for it plainly does not miss [human] attendance but is a wild being.

There is little hope for wild things in these times. With its avoidance of human-inhabited areas, silphion is extremely improbable to have endured in the densely populated coastal area of North Africa. Further South, the Sahara has considerably grown in the last two millennia, and if there have been any retreats of silphion, they must be buried under desert sand by now.

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