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.
|The tablets sealed into pyxis
Image source: Smithsonian.com
The pill was found in the wreck of a Roman shipping vessel (the Relitto del Pozzino) which sank around 120BCE off the coast of Tuscany. Along with all the equally fascinating finds such as lamps from Asia Minor and glass cups from Palestine, was what remained of a 2000 year old Roman Doctor’s medicine chest.
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.
“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|
In more simple terms that means zinc compounds, iron oxides, starch, animal and plant derived substances such as fats, beeswax, pine resins, oils (possibly olive oil) and that the tablets purpose may have been to treat eye infections.
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