Silphium, a now-extinct plant once used by the ancient Greeks and Romans for perfume, seasoning, medicine, and even contraception, was one of the most sought-after goods in the ancient world.
The plant was so useful that Julius Caesar himself was said to have a large stash of silphium on hand at all times.
Silphium only grew in a narrow strip of land near the North African city of Cyrene in modern-day Libya and was essential to the city’s economy. The cultivation and trade of the plant transformed Cyrene into the richest region of Africa at the time.
Its widespread use in the ancient world allowed Cyrene’s economy to flourish, which in turn transformed the city into a center of art, culture, and medicine in the ancient Greek world.
In fact, it was home to a famous medical school and even a philosophical movement based around happiness whose members were called the Cyrenaics. Eratosthenes, the famous Greek mathematician, was a native of the city.
Although now extinct, researchers have determined, through studying ancient drawings and descriptions of the plant’s taste and appearance, that silphium likely belonged to the genus Ferula, which includes existing plants like giant fennel and asafoetida.
This theory is bolstered by the fact that asafoetida, which is still widely used today in Indian and central Asian cooking, was used as a cheaper substitute for silphium in antiquity, meaning that it was either related to the plant or had a very similar flavor.
Extinct plant silphium had many uses for ancient Greeks
Plants of the genus tend to resemble ancient depictions of the plant, which was widely found on coins from Cyrene due to its economic importance to the city.
It seems to have been a tall, flowering plant with a heart-shaped seedpod on the top. In fact, some theories about the origins of the modern symbol for love point to the shape of silphium’s seedpod, as the plant was widely used as an aphrodisiac.
Silphium was long used throughout the ancient Mediterranean. Both the Minoans and ancient Egyptians had specific glyphs to represent the plant, and it was widely lauded in songs and poems across ancient cultures.
According to myth, silphium came from the god Apollo himself. It had a wide variety of medicinal properties and was used to treat cough, pain, warts, fever, and indigestion. Although considered an aphrodisiac, it was also used as a contraception and even as an abortifacient.
The father of medicine Hippocrates himself even prescribed the plant for a protruding gut.
Silphium was likewise found in Greek and Roman cuisine and featured prominently in recipes by Apicius, who compiled one of the most well-preserved collections of ancient recipes in existence today.
Its earthy scent and medicinal properties also made it an important ingredient in perfume, as well as in ancient lotions and creams.
Why did silphium go extinct?
Due to its varied uses, silphium was in very high demand. Yet, by the time of the Roman emperor Nero, who lived from 37 to 68 AD, the plant was virtually extinct. According to Pliny, when the last remaining silphium plant was found, it was given to Nero.
Scholars theorize the plant was over-harvested and over-farmed due to its popularity, causing the soil in the limited area where the plant grew to become devoid of nutrients.
Additionally, shepherds used to feed silphium to their flocks, as the plant would transform the meat, making it tender and delicious. Scholars theorize that overgrazing of the plant likely contributed to its demise.
Others claim that regional climatic changes, which caused once green fields to turn into an arid desert, resulted in the plant’s extinction.
Ancient writers, such as Theophrastus, noted that silphium was very sensitive to changes in soil and therefore could not be cultivated in large numbers nor in areas outside of Cyrene.