Popping Pills With The Romans


I was recently reading a book (the historical fiction, Conspiracies of Rome by Richard Blake if you were to wonder) and early on in the book there were a few references to pills. Of the medicinal kind. ‘Buying pills from the Apothecary’. ‘ Pills rattling in a metal pill box’.
This got me to thinking about pills in Ancient Rome. I had not come across any reference to them in an early Roman setting before, not in non fiction and not in fiction.  That is not to say that there are none, just none that I have come across or remember. And, as is the way with me when I sense there is something new for me to learn about periods of history that interest me, my mind was awash with questions.
What would these early examples be like?  Was there even such a thing or was it artistic license?  Would they be herbal lozenges or grassy wads that resembled rabbit droppings? Or balls that resembled compressed hashish? Or, in the case of opiates, white powder compacted and shaped like discs in a primitive pill press?

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.

Before I had a chance to ask Richard Blake what he knew about pill making in Roman times, I stumbled, in a most serendipitous manner, across an article on an exciting Roman find that was made at the bottom of the ocean. A pill find would you believe! A Roman pill find!  The Pozzino Tablet find to be precise.

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.

According to the Italian chemists charged with unravelling the mysteries of these Pyxis contents, this is what they found.

 “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.

One of the pills also appeared to have the impression of fabric on its surface which indicates that it may have been kept wrapped in fine material to prevent it from degrading or falling apart.

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

38 responses to “Popping Pills With The Romans

  1. healthiestbeauty

    Reblogged this on The healthiest beauty.

  2. I have come across drugs being used in Ancient Rome, plants and other drugs have been recorded as being used by them, and as I recall
    were taken by infusion in liquids. The Romans also did lot’s of surgery using gladiators to advance their skills and science,

  3. Mr Harry Price

    I know from books I have read many years ago The Romans had field hospitals, they did many amputaions in the battles to take Romania, some
    of the highest recorded, they also used poisions to kill, and viper venom
    in arrowheads, I have a book on roman battlle plans should indicate if
    they used pills in field hospitals.

  4. I just had a quick flick through my Roman Library very small these day’s, they did take many drugs and knew how to extrat them from plants, when they invaded Britian they introduced (radix) as a drug, they also had various treatments for eye disorders which very very common, they used stone dies to which they pressed into patients eyes to treat conditions or eye inflammations, found at Chester they have the aniti-irritant salve of Quintus Julius martinus. Eye conditions were also common in the army, with one record from Vindolanda recording ten men unfit due to eye inflammation, they had drugs and treatment in liquid forms but I was unable to find any reference to pills, but they could process foods and herbs, so they may well have had the skills to make them, they had numerous quacks and doctors, surgeons, so the use of pills is possible even if not recorded in offical Roman Records.

  5. Roman surgery was good.

    Better (for example) than American surgery during the Civil War.

    Dealing with ateries and veins whilst cutting off arms and legs.

  6. I have record here that the Roam Surgery for amputations was better than
    that of the 1st World War, they did so much of it, the perfected it.

  7. I think my keyboard is playing up, but never mind I ‘ll give a clean in morning, missing characters. Anyway, I did have a look through some facts tonight which are quiet interesting, “Ancient Rome” The romans suffered from very many illnesses life was alway’s precarious most present day illnesses existed in rome, diseases such as malnutrition were rife amongst the poor, bad teeth, colds, flu, mortality was high as they were sometimes smitten by deathly plagues, they did have medical students at Alexandria and other centres, although much of the substance of the education suggests it originated from Ancient Greece. They could do a number of operations, including hernias, treat deep wounds, and carry out other surgical proceedures, they had no anaesthetics, other than the “Mandrake Root” which was given to offer some alleviation to the pain, they also derived other drugs from roots, and used Garlic as a form of anit-infection, doctors and surgeons had a range of tools for the various proceedures, many made from cast metal such as bronze, probably the best doctors were on service with the Roman Legions, they appear to have got most experience in the area of surgery, I read in another book many years ago, they also used cauterization to treat wounds, Trajans column show images of roman field hospitals at work, and a detailed history of the military campaigns. But sorry. I found not one shred of any evidence of pills in my library. I presume pills were discovered at a later period in history, most things were taken in liquid form, or by eating the plant or root it’s self, from what I can see from very accurate records for the period. however, when I have a few hours I will research this further out of my own personal interest.

  8. The Romans were a bit naughty, they did posion people, the Roman General Luculls suffered fatal posion wounds whilst on military campaign, 1 BC, after he took an arrow dipped in the venom of “Russells Viper” the Romans also learned by experience and started identical practices, with converted arrow heads that could hold small drops of venom or posion.

  9. Yes they did have pills, just found out, they have found some over 2,000
    years in extremely good condition, the answer is yes,they made them from derived herbs
    and plants.

  10. I just did a bit of research on the pills, and it seems the Romans were indeed pill poppers, according to a report on the web, lab tests showed some pills found contained the following substances, these taken from 2,000 year old samples. Zinc, Neosporin (Anti-biotic) Bees wax, plant pollen, animal fat, and plant extracts, it seems they also had circular pill boxes to store them in, so I think the evidence is conclusive they did indeed have pills. it seems my books are a few decades old now and these new historical facts were made after these were written.

  11. Of course Seans article on Roman pills, shows us how perception of history changes with modern developments, we still have much to learn about our ancestors, although sometimes we are certain we are well versed on the subject, of course this came as no surprise to me after reading about Romans for many decades, they proved to be a very intelligence race of people, they did indeed have a down side,they posioned many of their political opponents and enemies, they discovered cyanide, Nero reputedly hired his own professional poisoner, writings suggest they liked to invite people for dinner and induce poison in their food. They aquired knowledge in the field of poisonous venoms, which may have come from Greece, which they apparently put to good use in battle. The one thing they never discovered was gun powder, yet ironically it appears they had all the elements to make it, had they discovered this formular, no doubt Rome would have probably defeated all her enemies, the world would no doubt today be a very different place.

  12. The Romans added their own contribution – and they were building on the civilisations of others (the Greeks, the Etrusicans, the Cathiginians, and so on).

    It is not fashionalble to talk of the “Dark Age” but it was dark – vast amounts of practical knowledge was lost (for example drainage and sanitation did not recover till the Victorian Age, and then in new ways).

    But the Roman Empire also showed stagnation. It is doubtful (as least I doubt it) that the pills of the 5th century were any better than those of five hundred years before.

    Even weapons technology stagnated – indeed worse than stagnated.

    I have seen late Imperal Roman arms – and they are terrible.

    Flat oval shields (and bits of wood – not the composite layers of early shields) and helmets that seem to have been made for men with square heads.

    Of course we may be seeing a bit of that even now.

    Sean Gabb had a recent post about “Starship Troopers” saying how their hand weapons were underpowers for the enemy they faced – and suggesting what modern soldiers carry instead.

    Actually the rifles that modern soldiers carry give less of a punch than what soldiers carried 50 years ago.

    We have gone down from 762.

    And the SA80 is not really more advanced from the G3 or the FN FAL (more than 50 years before).

    Indeed the weapons of the past are more effective than the modern rifle.

    Longer range – and inflect more damage.

    “But it and its ammo are heavy….”

    So we have gone back to that have we?

    “We are not wearing our armour and helmets Emperor – because they are too heavy”. When Diolcletian set up the state arms factories they may have produced good stuff (I do not know) – but later their production was a sick joke.

    Still we are advancing in other ways – the Romans (generally) did not.

    Roman Legions from the late Republic (or Early Empire) could have crused the armies of the Late Empire with ease – indeed they could have marched over Harold in 1066 without difficulty (or shot him to bits from range – with field artillery he could not match).

    William’s cavalry would have given them a problem (if it had worked round flank and rear – head on Roman infantry would have destroyed it, marched straight at it, in close order) – but Roman cavalry was better than people think (although, to be fair, it is in cavarly that the late Empire makes what improvements it does make).

  13. Mr Karl M Fenn

    Yes a good article, of course the Romans fought their best on open ground where they could use the full potential of the sheild, they liked to pen in and stab, they liked cutting the tendons in the legs which was another trick they used to disable opponents, they did not do so well in woodland conflict, or on hilly rocky ground, they appear to have took far more casualties at these battle sites, in wales they used artilary in one battle, rather than risk an up hill assualt on uneven ground, location was important in deciding how best to fight them and inflict maxium damage on their legions, Sparticus gave them a shocker. Of course although they had cavlary they did not alway’s have great numbers, when in Britanica at one point they only had a 124 available at one large garison, you have to consider also the army sometimes had high sick rates, which effected thier fighting ability, as records clearly show, as for their weapons some were good, they had a varity of different spares, the heaviest will still make easy meat of the door of a truck and probably kill the person inside, these were designed to punch holes in sheilds and kill the person behind, by clever transfer of kinetic energy, concentrating it on to the narrow barb, of course they had the Praetorian Guard, these were the highly paid cream of the army, of course like all great empires, they all have a destiny, they all have an expiry date. These facts of history are conclusive.

  14. Mr Harry Price

    Of course the pilum was a very important piece of military kit to the romans
    It came in two types heavy or light, the heavy version being weighted with lead, it could penertrate cuirass with ease (armour) and had a range of about 70ft effective, the romans also had a range of Javlins that were effective, that again had alleged armour punching capabilities, and not to underestimate their archers that had a good reputation on the field. I think in fair comment, not the sort of army anyone would freely desire to meet on the battle field, better by necessity than choice.

  15. I was a bit irritated by the various Sparticus series – the New Zealand company did a generally good job (even the way people spoke sounded like the Latin system – at least to my uneducated ear) accept……..

    The Romans never once (in any episode) faught like Romans – they waved their swords about thrash-thrash (like barbarians).

    A Roman unit (at least of the great period) is a threshing machine (not individual warriors) – stab three inches, stab three inches, stab three inches.

    A real Roman unit would walk straight through barbarian warriors (just leaving the dead and dying behind them) and the wild swings of the barbarians would hit shields that were curved, layered, and almost a palm thick.

    So YES Karl is right – and on cavalry, always a temptation to rely auxilleries.

    Harry is right to – Roman units had a lot of firepower (and if they did not kill you – they would deprive you of your shield, then killing you would be easy).

    And do not forget the sling – its lead bullets were not friendly.

    The Romans were very practical …..

    For example piles of shaped stones were found at forts.

    People tried to work out what sort of machine they were shaped for – after all in the Middle Ages everything would be shaped for a MECHANICAL purpose (even a peasant would not touch food directly with his or her hand – it was considered a vile thing to do, very unlike the Roman ways – of course the Romans could WASH their hands).

    But that was the point – there was no machine for these small stones, they were shaped FOR THE HAND.

    Throwing (shaped) stones from a wall or tower is quite deadly – even a shield or helmet will not save someone hit by them.

  16. Yes, paul I think your right, not my idear of a good day out being traped in a shield pen and then being stabbed, don’t fancy the cut tendons in the leg either, I dead read once they had stragglers following behind who finished off the injured, they did it in the first world war but in a more civilised way. I made one of those pilums about 20 years ago just out of curiosity, I used hardened steel for spare head, and 3×3 for the main handle, at 30ft it would go straight though an old wood door and clean out the other side, even today they would make easy meat of a sheild or armour, they would go straight through a fridge, I have pondered for many years on how I would beat the legions, my best answer would be don’t meet them on open ground, preferably don’t meet them at all. I think the best way to deal with them, would be hit supplies to the garisons and attack them when they came out in small numbers, something like the Iceni did. To see the legions assembled
    must have been a great site to say the least. What an army in it’s prime.

  17. Yes.

    But Romans were good at hunting down small bands.

    Meet then in marsh country (the Romans would not have done well in Ireland – and not just because their shields would have fallen apart, not water resistant glue for the layers and you can not keep the shield in its leather case all the time).

    Or meet them in dense woodland (but make sure it is wet – otherwise they will just burn the lot).

    Or use cavalry to suddenly hit them in flank and rear (whilst the infantry attack the front – and make sure the infantry have large powerful weapons that can cut through Roman shields and helmets).

  18. Yes, I fogot, they did use fire as well, silly me, mind you they did have unprotected feet, you could train fighters to target these with a small axe
    whilst others held them in sword combat, using two units.

  19. Children would be ideal, they could sneak in under the cover of the fighting,
    a small army of Iceni child foot amputators.

  20. Julius C. mixed infantry with calvarly to hamstring enemy cavalry.

    I would have failed just as Pompey did.

    Infantry to the centre and use superior numbers of cavalry to try and work round flank and rear.

    Pompey’s tactics were textbook – I would have done the same.

    And LOST just as he did.

  21. I don’t think the cavalry at the flank would be a good idear, they would hear the charge, rear unit could turn 180 and use the javilins, might turn into a disaster, best idear attack at night, they had a big camp not far from where I live, when they Marched North, they had tents, made themselves quite cosy, this is the time to attack when they least expect it, use the cavarly to run the tents into the ground, get them when they are still half a sleep.

  22. Infantry have to be PINNED by other infantry before the flank attack can be effective.

    Never attack a Roman Camp.

    Still Happy St George’s Day.

  23. Yes happy St Georges day, still think my plan best, take the camp, no
    prisoners, load up with weapons supplies, then head for wet woodland
    or mash, attack just as the light comes over the horizon it’s a winner. And
    you get the bonus of living to fight another day.

  24. On second thoughts, bring the woman and children, they will be useful for
    cooking. Anyway I’m off to bed enough war games for one night.

  25. This “take the camp” thing Karl – it is not a British camp you know.

    You will face a ditch and stakes and …….

    Had the Zulu of “Zulu Dawn” been trying to take a Roman camp it would have been a very different outcome. The Zulu (read Barbarian) weapons would have made no impression on Roman defences (or even Roman shields and helmets) and their bare chests bellies would have made perfect targets for Roman weapons (which would go right though Zulu shields as if they were not there.

  26. Anyway paul, take your point on Kerry example, but as I said this is a very common senario indeed. Back to the Romans I think your attack plan would not work, I explain why, firstly the legions could move quick, they could effectively turn any flank into a front line very quickly, the were trained to maneuver very quiclky in organised fashion, if you initiated a rear attack, archers and spares could be untilised in minutes, bringing down cavalry, if you attacked the front line with heavy weapons there would be even a bigger problem, the legions held lines of front line fighters so the could replace them every ten minutes if required, the heavy weapons would make the attackers tire quickly, the Romans had a reserve of fresh men in line, who are able to take rest periods, I think once the attackers tired due to use of heavy weapons the Romans would bring them down quite quick. Not all camps were heavily defended the marching camps would be easy meat, they would be tired after a long day’s march, the dawn raid would be the best idear, best chance of success, of course the Romans liked prostitutes, you could send some in before hand to do reconnaissance, to plan best attack options. Even with a small breach of defences you can pour in hundreds of men in a few minutes, sending small units to make even further breaches. I think my plan is better.

  27. Yes but paul, for the Zulu it is a great honour to die in battle, I doubt they would care anyway, they would still attack them.

  28. Karl – I was cheating, I know of battles where Roman infantry was pinned by being in combat to the front, and then was hit in flank and rear by cavalry (the results were nasty for the Roman force – if they were caught outside a fortified camp).

    Remember I am not the Divine Julius (I do not think up new battle tactics out of my head) – I am more like Pompey (a textbook man).

    As for Zulus versus Romans……

    Well then both sides would be happy – the Zulu would have the honour of dying in battle, and the Romans would have the honour of killing them.

  29. Although you are quite right about the flexibilty of a Roman force – in the classical period.

    Trying to use cavarly in flank and rear attacks, if the Roman force is not actively pinned in combat, is not likely to work.

    And it is not certain to work even if the infanty force is pinned.

    After all that is what Pompey tried to do (as all the standard military doctrine established) and he LOST.

    Just as I would have – against Julius C..

    Most men can not be like the Divine Julius – if we try to be. everything ends in a total (and bloodsoaked) mess. As we try (and fail) to do really complex stuff very quickly (covered by the “fog of war”).

    The best we an do is to try to be like Pompey (a good soldier) – and hope we never come up against someone like Julius.

  30. Anyway paul, the Romans have gone now, I decided to out my war game
    into practice, also marched my troops to the port, and Potter Higham, it
    all went well.

  31. Congratulations Karl.

    Seriously – I often wish I did wargaming and reenacting.

    If I had my life to live again I might live it very differently.

    No political stuff – none (including no internet blogs). Looking back political stuff has been a waste of decades (too late – it is who I am now).

    Learn to be a librarian – and do lots of walking (hills and forests), wargaming, and reenacting in my spare time.

  32. Yes, it was a peice of cake, I decided to go for the temporary camp at Horsted just a few miles away, sent in prostitutes to gather intelligence found out they only had a single defence ditch around the camp, we made ramps from trees to breach this, but we had the biggest stroke of luck the night of the attack, we had an mightly thunder storm, we attacked in the rain, wiped them out, by sunrise I decided to march towards Acle the port on the Gariensis Esuary, I attacked the port, burned their ships and wiped out all their experienced naval officers and seaman, we then made our way back to the Fens, destroying their manufacturing settlements at Potter Heigham along the way, alas on the journey home we learned three legions were on their way from Rome, 15.000 men, with orders for our crucifixion, well paul, those “Toy Soldiers” how will they get me out of this one, we shall and see.

  33. Well I’m growing a beard quickly, and going to become an eel fisherman.

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