Ancient silver coin from Cyrene depicting a stalk of Silphium.

Silphium (also known as silphion or laser) was a plant that was used in classical antiquity as a rich seasoning and as a medicine.[1] It was the essential item of trade from the ancient North African city of Cyrene, and was so critical to the Cyrenian economy that most of their coins bore a picture of the plant (illustration, right). The valuable product was the plant's resin (laser, laserpicium, or lasarpicium).

Aside from its uses in Greco-Roman cooking (as in recipes by Apicius), many medical uses were ascribed to the plant.[2] It was said that it could be used to treat cough, sore throat, fever, indigestion, aches and pains, warts, and all kinds of maladies. It has been speculated that the plant may also have functioned as a contraceptive, based partly on Pliny's statement that it could be used "to promote the menstrual discharge".[3] Given that many species in the parsley family have estrogenic properties, and some (such as wild carrot) have been found to work as an abortifacient, it is quite possible that the plant was pharmacologically active in the prevention or termination of pregnancy.

Silphium was an important species in prehistory, as evidenced by the Egyptians and Knossos Minoans developing a specific glyph to represent the silphium plant.[4] It was used widely by most ancient Mediterranean cultures; the Romans considered it "worth its weight in denarii" (silver coins). Legend said that it was a gift from the god Apollo.

The exact identity of silphium is unclear. It is commonly believed to be a now-extinct plant of the genus Ferula,[1] perhaps a variety of "giant fennel". The still-extant plant Ferula tingitana has been suggested as another possibility.[3] Another plant, asafoetida, was used as a cheaper substitute for silphium, and had similar enough qualities that Romans, including the geographer Strabo, used the same word to describe both.[5]


Identity and extinction

The identity of silphium is highly debated. It is generally considered to belong to the genus Ferula, probably as an extinct species (although the currently extant plants Ferula tingitana, Ferula narthex, and Thapsia garganica have historically been suggested as possible identities).[1][3][6] K. Parejko, writing on its possible extinction, concludes that "because we cannot even accurately identify the plant we cannot know for certain whether it is extinct."[7]

The cause of silphium's supposed extinction is not entirely known. The plant grew along a narrow coastal area, about 125 by 35 miles, in Cyrenaica (in present-day Libya).[8] Much of the speculation about the cause of its extinction rests on a sudden demand for animals that grazed on the plant, for some supposed effect on the quality of the meat. Overgrazing combined with overharvesting may have led to its extinction.[9] The climate of the Maghreb has been drying over the millennia, and desertification may also have been a factor. Another theory is that when Roman provincial governors took over power from Greek colonists, they over-farmed silphium and rendered the soil unable to yield the type that was said to be of such medicinal value. Theophrastus reports that the type of ferula specifically referred to as "silphium" was odd in that it only grew in the wild, and could not be successfully grown as a crop in tilled soil. The validity of this report is questionable, however, as Theophrastus was merely passing on a report from another source. Pliny reported that the last known stalk of silphium found in Cyrenaica was given to the Emperor Nero "as a curiosity".[9]

Silphium retained a ghostly literary half-life in lists of aromatics copied one from another, until it makes perhaps its last, spectral appearance in the list of spices that the Carolingian cook should have at hand— Brevis pimentorum que in domo esse debeant ("A short list of condiments that should be in the home") — by a certain "Vinidarius", whose excerpts of Apicius[10] survive in one eighth-century uncial manuscript. Vinidarius's dates may not be much earlier.[11]

Connection with the heart symbol

jb (F34) "heart"
in hieroglyphs
Ancient silver coin from Cyrene depicting a seed/fruit of silphium

There has been some speculation about the connection between silphium and the traditional heart shape (). The symbol is remarkably similar to the Egyptian "heart soul" (ib).[citation needed] The sexual nature of that concept, combined with the widespread use of silphium in ancient Egypt for birth control, and the fact that silphium seeds were heart-shaped, leads to speculation that the character for ib may have been derived from the shape of the silphium seed.[citation needed]

Contemporary writings help tie silphium to sexuality and love. Silphium appears in Pausanias' Description of Greece in a story of the Dioscuri staying at a house belonging to Phormion a Spartan, "For it so happened that his maiden daughter was living in it. By the next day this maiden and all her girlish apparel had disappeared, and in the room were found images of the Dioscuri, a table, and silphium upon it."[12] Silphium as Laserpicium makes an appearance in a poem (Catullus 7) of Catullus to his lover Lesbia (though others have suggested that the reference here is instead to silphium's use as a treatment for mental illness, tying it to the 'madness' of love[13]).


Il silfio d’oro reciso di Cirenaica

In the Italian military heraldry, Il silfio d’oro reciso di Cirenaica (silphium couped or of Cyrenaica) was the symbol granted to the units that fought in the campaigns in North Africa during World War II.[14]

Modern references

A fruitless search for silphium by Romans in the reign of the emperor Vespasian is an amusing sub-plot of the crime novel Two for the Lions by Lindsey Davis.



  1. ^ a b c J.L. Tatman, "Silphium, Silver and Strife: A History of Kyrenaika and Its Coinage" Celator 14.10 (October 2000:6-24).
  2. ^ Pliny, XXII, Ch. 49
  3. ^ a b c Did the ancient Romans use a natural herb for birth control?, Straight Dope, 13 October 2006
  4. ^ Hogan, C. Michael (2007). "Knossos fieldnotes". Modern Antiquarian. Retrieved 13 Feb 2009. 
  5. ^ Dalby, page 18.
  6. ^ Alfred C. Andrews, "The Silphium of the Ancients: A Lesson in Crop Control"., Isis 33.2 (June 1941:232-236).
  7. ^ Parejko, K. (2003), "Pliny the Elder's Silphium: First Recorded Species Extinction". Conservation Biology 17: 925–927. doi: 10.1046/j.1523-1739.2003.02067.x
  8. ^ "Off this tract is the island of Platea, which the Cyrenaeans colonized. Here too, upon the mainland, are Port Menelaus, and Aziris, where the Cyrenaeans once lived. The Silphium begins to grow in this region, extending from the island of Platea on the one side to the mouth of the Syrtis on the other." (Herodotus, iv.168-198 on-line text)
  9. ^ a b Pliny, XIX, Ch.15
  10. ^ A generic term for a cookery book, as Webster is of American dictionaries.
  11. ^ Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat, Anthea Bell, tr. The History of Food, revised ed. 2009, p. 434.
  12. ^ Pausanias, 3.16.3
  13. ^ A. C. Moorhouse, "Two Adjectives in Catullus, 7." The American Journal of Philology 84.4 (October 1963:417f); Stephen Bertman, "Oral Imagery in Catullus 7", The Classical Quarterly, New Series, 28.2 (1978), pp. 477-478
  14. ^ "Si distinsero i soldati del 28° Reggimento Fanteria "Pavia" il cui scudo reca nel terzo quarto una pianta di silfio d'oro reciso e sormontata da una stella d'argento"." (Gaetano Arena, Inter eximia naturae dona: il silfio cirenaico fra ellenismo e tarda antichità, 2008:13

Further reading

  • Buttrey, T. V. (1997). "Part I: The Coins from the Sanctuary of Demeter and Persephone". In D. White (ed.), ed. Extramural Sanctuary of Demeter and Persephone at Cyrene Libya, Final Reports: Vol. VI. Philadelphia. pp. 1–66. 
  • Favorito, E. N.; and K. Baty (February 1995). "The Silphium Connection". Celator 9 (2): 6–8. 
  • Fisher, Nick (1996). "Laser-Quests: unnoticed allusions to contraception in a poet and a princeps?" (– Scholar search). Classics Ireland 3: 73–97. doi:10.2307/25528292. JSTOR 25528292. Retrieved 2006-12-14. [dead link]
  • Gemmill, Chalmers L. (July–August 1966). "Silphium". Bulletin of the History of Medicine 40 (4): 295–313. PMID 5912906. 
  • Koerper, Henry; and A. L. Kolls (April–June 1999). "The Silphium Motif Adorning Ancient Libyan Coinage: Marketing a Medicinal Plant". Economic Botany 53 (2): 133–143. doi:10.1007/BF02866492. 
  • Riddle, John M. (1997). Eve's Herbs: A History of Contraception and Abortion in the West. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. pp. 44–46. ISBN 0-674-27024-X. 
  • Riddle, John M.; J. Worth Estes, and Josiah C. Russell (March–April 1994). "Birth Control in the Ancient World". Archaeology 47 (2): 29–35. 
  • Tameanko, M. (April 1992). "The Silphium Plant: Wonder Drug of the Ancient World Depicted on Coins". Celator 6 (4): 26–28. 
  • Tatman, J. L. (October 2000). "Silphium, Silver and Strife: A History of Kyrenaika and Its Coinage". Celator 14 (10): 6–24. 
  • Wright, W. S. (February 2001). "Silphium Rediscovered". Celator 15 (2): 23–24. 
  • William Turner, A New Herball (1551, 1562, 1568)

External links

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • Silphium — (Ferula historica), den Griechen bekannt als Silphion oder Sylphion (σίλφιον), den Römern als Laserpicium und der Saft als Laser, ist eine ausgestorbene Gewürz und Allheilpflanze, die vielleicht zur Gattung der Steckenkräuter (Ferula) in der… …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • silphium — ⇒SILPHIUM, subst. masc. I. ANTIQ. ,,Nom générique d un végétal connu dans l Antiquité, mais que les modernes n ont pas encore réussi à identifier. Il s agit probablement d une ombellifère (LAVEDAN 1964). Nous trouvons aussi une référence au… …   Encyclopédie Universelle

  • SILPHIUM — Cyrenensibus σἰρφι aut σίλφι, item σέρφι, unde Graecis σίλφιον et σίλπον, Latinis Sirpe, Silpe, et Serpe, atque porro lac serpicium, unde Laserpicium; aliquando pro succo ipso sumitur, unde σιλφιωτα, lasere inspaersa, atque haec propria notio… …   Hofmann J. Lexicon universale

  • Silphĭum — (S. L.), Pflanzengattung aus der Familie der Compositae Senecionideae Silphieae, 19. Kl. 4. Ordn. L.; Arten: S. connatum, S. asteriscus, S. perfoliatum, S. ternatum u.a.m., mit gelben Strahlenblumen, in Nordamerika heimisch, in europäischen… …   Pierer's Universal-Lexikon

  • Silphĭum — Silphĭum, bei den alten Griechen eine wohlriechende, in der nordafrikanischen Landschaft Kyrene wachsende Pflanze und eine widrig knoblauchartig riechende, im Orient, namentlich in Persien, verbreitete Pflanze. Letztere hält man allgemein für den …   Meyers Großes Konversations-Lexikon

  • Silphium — Silphĭum, s. Kompaßpflanzen; S. cyrenaĭcum, s. Thapsia …   Kleines Konversations-Lexikon

  • silphium — plant genus, 1771, from L., from Gk. Silphion, name of a N. African Mediterranean plant whose identity has been lost, the gum or juice of which was prized by the ancients as a condiment and a medicine. Probably of African origin …   Etymology dictionary

  • Silphium —   Silphium …   Wikipedia Español

  • Silphium — Cette page d’homonymie répertorie les différents sujets et articles partageant un même nom. Silphium est un genre de la famille des Asteraceae. Le silphium désignait durant l antiquité divers végétaux et produits végétaux à usages culinaire et… …   Wikipédia en Français

  • Silphium — noun tall North American perennial herbs • Syn: ↑genus Silphium • Hypernyms: ↑asterid dicot genus • Member Holonyms: ↑Compositae, ↑family Compositae, ↑Asteraceae, ↑fam …   Useful english dictionary

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