Ancient Greece and Rome

The long culture of herb use in Europe begins with the ancient Greeks and Romans. Greek mythology offers dozens of elaborate legends that explain the origins of important plants and herbs. For instance, as Hera, the queen of the gods, nursed her son Hercules, a few drops of milk are said to have fallen to the ground. In this spot, the first white lily grew. According to another legend, Aphrodite, the goddess of love, is said to have pricked her foot on the thorn of a white rose on the way to meet her lover, Adonis. Her blood turned the rose red, making it the ultimate symbol of love.

One of Greece’s most enduring herbal legacies comes from the myth of Apollo and Daphne. Apollo berated the young Cupid one day, saying that a god of love should not play with bows and arrows. In revenge, Cupid fired an arrow into Apollo to ignite love, and another into the beautiful maiden Daphne to repel love. From then on, Apollo pursued Daphne relentlessly until, finally, Daphne begged the river god, Peneus, to help her escape, and he transformed her into a laurel tree. Upon seeing her new form, Apollo declared the laurel (Laurus nobilis) sacred and wore a wreath of laurel around his head as a sign of his undying love and honor. This is why athletes in the first Greek Olympic Games were crowned with laurel, and it is the origin of many terms depicting high honors.

Several other herbs gained special, and sometimes superstitious, significance in ancient Greece and Rome. Many Greeks avoided bush basil (Ocimum minimum) because they believed that scorpions would breed under pots of it, while the Roman name for basil was basilescus because Romans believed that ingesting it protected warriors from the deadly gaze of the basilisk, a mythical serpent. Dittany of Crete (Origanum dictamnus) was a symbol of love and peace. The Greeks believed that anointing themselves with this small-leafed herb before they went to sleep would cause them to dream of their future spouses. They also planted it on graves to comfort the dead and provide them eternal peace.

The Getty Villa and garden in Los Angeles

The Getty Villa and garden in Los Angeles, which was inspired by blueprints of an ancient Roman villa, features symmetrical beds of flowers, fruit trees, and herbs, as well as ponds and statues. The herb garden contains wormwood, calamint, lavender, rosemary, and other period herbs.

Greek students wore rosemary braids around their necks or in their hair because they believed it would improve their memory when taking written tests. Romans who were overly fond of food would chew stalks of fennel because they believed it would control obesity. Both the Greeks and Romans used thyme in massage oils, bath oils, perfumes, and incense, and Roman soldiers bathed in thyme-scented water for good luck and honor before going into battle.

According to written records, the Romans ate vegetables and herbs with almost every meal. A light lunch, or prandium, often included olives, nuts, and figs. Dinner, or cena, was a more elaborate affair, especially for wealthy Romans. The main course typically was meat accompanied by vegetables such as carrots, parsnips, celery, and peas, seasoned with dill, coriander, chervil, and even opium. Wild blackberries, strawberries, and crabapples were served along with cultivated plums, grapes, medlars (Mespilus spp.), mulberries, and other fruits.

The Romans grew many of their herbs using gardening techniques developed by the Greeks, Persians, Egyptians, and Mesopotamians, but the enclosed courtyard villa gardens they designed were uniquely Roman. In these villa courtyards, raised flowerbeds were arranged symmetrically alongside herb beds of dill, fennel, bay, rosemary, myrtle, and parsley, all interspersed with topiaries, trees, canals, fountains, and statues collected from Greece. Even in the cities, Roman houses were designed with garden rooms open to the sky. Their orderly rows of herbs and flowers extended to the walls, which were painted with scenes of plant rows extending into the distance to give the impression of a larger villa garden.

Greek and Roman Medicine

Herbs played a prominent role in ancient Greek and Roman medicine. Hippocrates (460–375 BCE), author of the Hippocratic Oath and described by many as the father of modern medicine, was among the first in the Western world to reject the idea that diseases were caused by magic, hexes, or the gods. He offered rational explanations and believed that the body should be treated as a whole, considering all aspects of life to be potential contributors to both sickness and health. Hippocrates assigned health effects to the different herbs used in food, categorizing them as hot, cold, dry, or damp. His natural healing process included a balance of these herb types, along with exercise and fresh air. He rarely prescribed drugs to his patients, instead believing in a gentler approach and that, in many cases, the body would rebalance itself over time.

Like most Europeans throughout history, the Greeks and Romans drew much of their herbal knowledge from other civilizations, such as Egypt, Assyria, Persia, and India. The first of the Greek philosophers and doctors to compile this collected learning was Theophrastus (371–287 BCE). As inheritor of the library of Aristotle and an avid student of the many regions conquered by Alexander the Great, Theophrastus might have known more about the world’s botany than any man before him. His two surviving works, Historia Plantarum (The History of Plants) and De Causis Plantarum (The Growth of Plants), described the structure, growth, habitat, cultivation, and medicinal uses of hundreds of herbs and became the basis of all botanical understanding for centuries to come.

In 77 CE, the Roman scholar Pliny the Elder (23–79 CE) expanded on Theophrastus’s work in his 37-volume Naturalis Historiae (Natural History). Nearly half of the volumes describe the many uses of plants, from producing olive oil to spinning flax; several explain in detail herbal drugs and treatments for diseases. Pliny was the first to categorize herbal drugs according to the type of plant from which they derived. For example, one volume covered drugs derived from garden plants such as garlic and cabbage, one covered those from wild plants such as aconite and wormwood, and another covered drugs from forest trees such as cork and juniper.

The Great Meteoron monastery in Thessaly, Greece

The Great Meteoron monastery in Thessaly, Greece, was founded around 1340 by the scholar monk of Mount Athos, Saint Athanasios Meteorites.

During the first century, Greek physician, pharmacologist, and botanist Pedanius Dioscorides (ca. 40–90 CE) traveled extensively around the Mediterranean with the Roman legions. Between battles, he studied local herbs and their uses. The result of his research was the first true herbal, De Materia Medica, which describes nearly 600 medicinal plants and close to 5,000 cures, including the use of parsley as a diuretic, fennel to promote the flow of mother’s milk, and white horehound with honey as an expectorant. The De Materia Medica became the chief reference of herbalists from Italy to Scandinavia, and from Britain to Russia. Its influence lasted for more than 1,500 years.

Less than a century after the publication of Dioscorides’s pathbreaking work, the great Greek physician Aelius Galenus (130–200 CE)—known as Galen—promoted the idea of a system of four humors—blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile—similar to the Ayurvedic system in India. A higher or lower level of any one of these humors not only affected a person’s health, but his personality and mood, as well. Galen wrote more than 500 treatises on medicine, only one of which has survived to this day—a recipe book of 130 herbal antidotes and medicines, each designed to bring one or more of the humors back into balance. Like the writings of Dioscorides, Galen’s theories of humors and herbal healing were followed by practitioners throughout Europe for 1,600 years.