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Silphium on a Cyrenian silver coin

Silphium , the Greeks known as Silphion or Sylphion ( σίλφιον ), the Romans as laserpicium and the juice as a laser , is a very likely extinct spice and Allheilpflanze that are likely to genus of Ferula ( Ferula ) in the family of Umbelliferae belonged.

Silphium grew exclusively in the area of Cyrene , located in Cyrenaica , in what is now Libya . It was extremely sought after by both the Greeks and the Romans. The plant obviously died out in antiquity . Pliny the Elder XIX 38 calls the plant Laserpitium and the sap Laser; in its time this most famous plant of antiquity was so rare that the sap was weighed with silver denariums. Otherwise his reports agree with those of Theophrastus . A branch of the plant was sent as a princely gift to Emperor Nero in Rome. Already in ancient times a plant growing in Armenia and Persia was used as a substitute and often referred to by the same name (e.g. Dioscurides), this is probably Asant ( Ferula assa-foetida ), which is still used today as medicine - and aromatic plants are used.

The naming and identification of the plant among the ancient authors is not uniform. Theophrastus already reported that there was a Magydaris plant that was different from Silphium and that grew towards Syria; this is also called silicon by some. In his “De materia medica” Dioscurides mentions occurrences of Silphium from both regions, even if he differentiates the respective plants according to their effect. Since his interest was medicinal rather than botanical, it is possible that he placed less emphasis on the actual plant species.

The original Silphium


Silphium grew exclusively in Cyrenaica. According to Herodotus , the growing areas were "... from the island of Platea to the mouth of the Syrte." Almost all ancient writers who describe this area mention the plant, which must have had great economic importance. Silphium or parts of it are depicted on all Cyrenean coins. Pliny, Theophrast and Hippocrates agree that it was not possible to cultivate the plant. Hippocrates reports of failed attempts at culture in Ionia and the Peloponnese .


According to Pliny, the plant had numerous strong roots and a sturdy stem that resembled that of the giant fennel . The leaves, known as "maspetum" (or "maspeton"), were similar to parsley and were shed every year. The seeds were leaf-shaped. Dioscurides also mentions the leaf-shaped broadened seeds, according to him the leaves resemble those of celery. The stem (also the root in Dioscurides) was called magydaris . The leaf-shaped, broadened seeds fell off when the dog star rose early in the middle to late summer. By making incisions in the root and the stem, a juice was obtained, which was then thickened and made durable. It is also called another Magydaris growing in Libya; the root is similar to that of Silphion, but less thick, sharp and loose and without sap. It does the same as the Silphion.

Identity of the plant

The identity of ancient Silphium has not yet been clarified beyond doubt. This may never be possible, as the descriptions of the ancient authors are too vague for a safe botanical classification. Since the ancient authors knew and described the more widespread and common Ferula species, an identity with any of them seems unlikely. Some authors take the view that it is an extinct species, as no species that conform to the ancient descriptions can be found in Libya today and most of the proposed candidates have been excluded.

Use and effect

If sick cattle ate Silphium, it either healed immediately or, in rare cases, died. The Greeks and Romans mainly used the sap of Silphium (laser) as a medicine and an antidote . Applied externally, it allegedly warmed frozen limbs, and when drunk it alleviated tendon diseases. It was also used to promote menstruation , cure poisoning, remove corns, and cure epilepsy. Silphium was also considered a contraceptive . This context explains the mentions of Silphium in an erotic context, such as the love poem No. 7 by the Roman poet Catullus . He wonders how many kisses he might have exchanged with his Lesbia; and he replies: "As many as Kyrenes Silphium Coast has grains of sand." However, its effectiveness as a contraceptive is not clear from the sources and is contested by some authors.


The demand for silicon rose in Roman times. Pliny reports that under the consulate of C. Valerius and M. Herennius in 93 BC Chr. At the expense of the Roman state 30 pounds silphium were brought to Rome. According to him, at the beginning of the civil war , Julius Caesar had 1500 pounds of silphium fetched from the treasury in addition to gold and silver.


About the disappearance of the Silphium around 50 AD, Pliny reports that the deposits perished because the places where the plant grew in excess had been used as pasture, which would have enabled a higher yield from the land. An unbelievable note from Strabo reports that the plant almost perished because envious nomads tried to destroy all the roots when they invaded Cyrene. Overuse or climate change may contribute to extinction, but it has not been proven. Quite a few researchers are also of the opinion that Silphion was cultivated on a larger scale around the year 400. The main source for this is a report by Bishop Synesius of Cyrene (died before 415).

Numerous African researchers in the 19th and early 20th centuries believe that they found the plant in North Africa. Gerhard Rohlfs in his "Routes in Cyrenaica in the summer of 1869" describes the following:

" Barka today still offers the same productions as some centuries before and after Christ's birth. But the dense olive groves now show only overgrown trees, figs are not fruit-bearing, which carob trees shed their pods unused to the earth, and the fragrant wood of Thyia -tree is no longer processed into the dainty wine tables at which the philosopher Aristippus taught his students the lessons: to worry neither about the past nor the future, to only deal with the charms that the moment offers: to wrap life with roses and from these only suck in the scent, without ever touching the thorns. Just one plant, and precisely the one that was exterminated at the time of the fall of Pentapolitania , the Silphium, now called Drias by the inhabitants, is blooming again everywhere where it was at home in the heyday of Roman rule, and if Drias had the same price with us today as it had before because of that alone Barka will be a rich country. "

The species found by Rohlfs was (after the Arabic name he gave) in reality Thapsia garganica (sterling herb, Garganic hummingbird). Other details include e.g. B. also Prangos ferulacea with the ancient Silphium same.

Substitute plants

With the disappearance of the coveted silicon, another plant was brought onto the market that is said to have had a similar effect, but was considered inferior to the real silicon. This plant, known as "Medisches" or "Persian" Silphion, was very likely Asant ( Ferula assa-foetida ), which is still widespread in Persia today (the plant was introduced via the province of Syria and was then occasionally called Syriac; an occurrence in today's Syria is unlikely). Pliny names media, Persia and Armenia as places of growth. This silphium was according to him, also with rubber , the rubber of the Serapion herb ( sacopenium ) and bean flour falsified.

Literature and Sources

Individual evidence

  1. Pliny the Elder: Naturalis Historia. Book 19, chap. 15th
  2. ^ Theophrast: Historia plantarum. Book 6, Section 3, 7
  3. Pedanius Dioscurides: De materia medica. Book 3. (online translation)
  4. Valentina Asciutti: The silphium plans: analysis of ancient sources. Masters thesis. Durham University 2004. (download)
  5. Herodotus: Histories . Book IV, 168 (description of Libya)
  6. Theophrast: Natural history of plants.
  7. ^ Corpus Hippocraticum De morbis. 4th
  8. Pharmacology of Dioscurides Dioscurides 3/84
  9. Monika Kiehn: Silphion revisited. In: Medicinal Plant Conservation. (Newsletter of the Medicinal Plant Specialist Group of the IUCN Species Survival Commission) Volume 13, 2007, pp. 4-7.
  10. Ken Parejko: Pliny the Elder's Silphium: First Recorded Species Extinction. In: Conservation Biology. Volume 17, No. 3, 2003, pp. 925-927. doi: 10.1046 / j.1523-1739.2003.02067.x
  11. ^ Strabo: Geographika. Book 17, Chapter 3, Section 22.
  12. ^ Wilhelm Capelle: Theophrast in Cyrene? (with an excursus on the fate of the silicon plantations). In: Rheinisches Museum für Philologie. 7 1954, pp. 169-189. (Excursus from p. 185) (pdf)
  13. ^ Journal of the Society for Geography in Wikisourse
  14. ^ Routes in Cyrenaica in the summer of 1869 in Wikisource
  15. Volker Zimmermann: The Heidelberg Pharmacopoeia Ysack Leuj. Contributions of Jewish Doctors to Medieval Medicine. Franz Steiner, Stuttgart 2018, ISBN 978-3-515-12174-3 , p. 62.
  16. ^ Antonino De Natale, Antonino Pollio: A forgotten collection: the Libyan ethnobotanical exhibits (1912-14) by A. Trotter at the Museum O. Comes at the University Federico II in Naples, Italy . In: Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine . 8, 2012, p. 4.

Web links

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