Thursday, 29 October 2020

Cannabis use in ancient Greece and Rome

On Friday we should know the result of a referendum held in New Zealand to decide whether cannabis should be legalised. The referendum was held in conjunction with the 2020 general election. Around 82.5% of eligible voters participated, but we’re still waiting on the counting of special votes -- nearly 17% of all votes cast.

It’s always been daft to restrict such a useful plant, especially when its demonised recreational use is much more harmless than either tobacco or alcohol. (It was only ever banned in the first place for racist motives.) In spite of that, polling suggests the referendum is unlikely to pass. In the meantime, let’s have a look at its use in the ancient Greco-Roman world.

Hemp seeds and leaves: in Greco-Roman antiquity, it was mainly just the seeds that were consumed. Cannabis wasn’t smoked until the modern era. (Source: PNG all, CC 4.0 BY-NC)

If you bring up the subject of cannabis in antiquity, be prepared to have Herodotus quoted at you every single time, usually inaccurately. Here’s Wikipedia on the subject:

The oldest written record of cannabis usage is the Greek historian Herodotus’s reference to the central Eurasian Scythians taking cannabis steam baths. His (c. 440 BCE) Histories records, ‘The Scythians, as I said, take some of this hemp-seed [presumably, flowers], and, creeping under the felt coverings, throw it upon the red-hot stones; immediately it smokes, and gives out such a vapour as no Greek vapour-bath can exceed; the Scyths, delighted, shout for joy.’ Classical Greeks and Romans also used cannabis.
‘Cannabis’, Wikipedia, Oct. 2020

OK, here’s what has gone right in this report:

  • Herodotus does indeed report on Scythians burning hemp seeds (not flowers) while under a cloth and getting high off the fumes.

... and that’s it for the positives. Everything else here is terrible.

  • Herodotus isn’t talking about ‘central Eurasia’: that would imply Kazakhstan or thereabouts. He’s talking about the region inland from Greek colonies on the Black Sea, that is, Ukraine.
  • ‘Steam baths’ is a bit misleading. He does refer to the hemp seeds on hot stones giving off an ἀτμίς ‘vapour’, but this is in the context of talking about the Scythians’ purification rituals. It’s about religious cleanliness, not physical cleanliness.
  • The Histories date to the 420s BCE, not 440. A minor point, but still.
  • The article cites its source as ... the entirety of the Histories. That’s about 260,000 words to search through, or 500–600 pages. Good luck finding the passage! (It’s 4.73–75, by the way.)
  • ‘Presumably flowers’: no, that’s pure imagination. Herodotus very explicitly refers to seeds. Nearly all human consumption in antiquity was of the seeds.
  • ‘Scyths’? You’d never guess that 21st century translations exist, would you.
  • ‘Shout for joy’ is a mistranslation: ὠρύονται means ‘howl’ (like dogs).
  • The last sentence, ‘Classical Greeks and Romans also used cannabis’ (as a mind-altering drug), is given without citing any evidence. There’s a good reason for that. It’s because there is no evidence.

Yes, that’s right: there’s no evidence of anyone using cannabis to get high in the ancient Greco-Roman world. I’m afraid an awful lot of the argumentation you find from people like Carl Ruck and D. C. A. Hillman is wishful thinking, with little interest in petty concerns like evidence. (They usually focus on harder or more dangerous drugs anyway — opium, ethylene, ergot.)

For the Greeks and Romans, there’s no evidence for the deliberate use of cannabis as a mind-altering substance. The main reason is because (a) they were mainly interested in the seeds, and (b) the idea of smoking the buds wasn’t invented until the modern era. There’s one ancient report that eating too many seeds can affect the mind — but only as a side-effect of a common food item. There’s no suggestion of deliberate use as a psychoactive agent.

Chlöe Swarbrick, a New Zealand politician who has been a vocal supporter of the 2020 cannabis referendum. Up until the October 2020 election Swarbrick held the Drug Law Reform portfolio for the Green Party; at the time of writing she is (provisionally) the MP designate for the electorate of Auckland Central. (Source: New Zealand Herald)

Let’s refine how we frame this. The Wikipedia claim, ‘Greeks and Romans used cannabis’, has a very different meaning depending on whether we’re talking about smoking joints, or weaving cloth out of hemp. We can distinguish four basic categories of how people use psychoactive plants:

  • uses not relating to psychoactive effects (like food, or industrial goods);
  • medicinal use;
  • recreational use;
  • religious use.

Take alcohol, for example. The ancient Greco-Roman world gives us copious evidence of alcohol use in all four of these categories. For opium, we find ancient sources talking about medical uses frequently (and hardly ever about any other use). What’s the situation with cannabis?

Well, we have good evidence of cannabis use in the first category. People ate hemp seeds, either by themselves (shelled, of course), or as an ingredient in other dishes. There were heaps of industrial uses, including rope-making, textiles, hunting nets, and shipbuilding (for details see Brunner 1973: 348–349, 351–354). Hemp is an incredibly useful plant, and it’s insane that its use has become so restricted in the modern era.

The seeds are mentioned as an ingredient in sweet dishes in particular. A fragment of the comic playwright Ephippus mentions them in a rambling list of delicacies (fr. 13 Kock).

and after dinner ...
mnous [meaning unknown], wheat-cakes, fruit, nuts,
milk, hemp seeds, cockles, juice,
and Zeus’ brain.

(No, we don’t take this as evidence that people ‘ate Zeus’ brain’ symbolically or anything like that. It’s a comedy.)

Pliny the Elder, writing in the 1st century CE, does mention that the stalk and branches, too, could be used as a vegetable (olera; NH 19.175). But not an appealing one. An epigram in the Greek anthology, by the 1st century BCE poet Automedon, compares them to old cabbage (11.325):

Yesterday I dined on a goat’s foot, and a ten-day-old
     quince-coloured cabbage stalk, like cannabis.
I won’t mention the person who invited me. He’s sharp-tempered,
     and I’m scared he might invite me back again.

For the second category, medicinal use, we have a variety of evidence: for full details see Butrica (2008). The Byzantine Geoponica describes the use of cannabis as an insect repellent, and a preparation of cannabis ash and honey as a remedy for ulcers (Geoponica 13.11.4, 16.15.2). The 1st century CE medical writer Dioscorides, after mentioning its industrial use and its unpleasant smell, states (On medical material 3.148)

It has ... a round-shaped seed which is edible, and when eaten in excess diminishes sexual potency. The juice of a fresh seed is suited to treating earaches, administered by eardrops.

Notice that he’s talking only about the seeds. We see the same tendency in other medical sources. No one tried burning or smoking cannabis buds, which grow on seedless plants.

In November 2018 Helen Clark, Prime Minister of New Zealand from 1999 to 2008, spoke out in favour of the 2020 cannabis referendum, and campaigned actively in 2020. Since 2009, Clark has been on the United Nations Global Commission on Drug Policy, among several other United Nations roles. In August 2020 she was appointed Chair of the Commision. (Source: YouTube)

The most suggestive snippet comes to us from Galen, the greatest medical writer of antiquity. He repeats Dioscorides’ claim that excessive consumption reduces sexual potency, and that the juice of the fresh seed can be used to treat earache (On the combination and effect of single medicaments §5, xii p. 8 Kühn). Elsewhere he states that the seeds cause stomach aches and head aches. But straight after that he adds something about their intoxicating effect — the only ancient source other than Herodotus to do so (On the effects of foods 1.34, vi p. 550 Kühn):

Even so, some people eat (the seed), toasting it with other sweets. By ‘sweets’ I refer to things eaten after dinner to induce enjoyment of drinking. The seed has a moderate warming effect, and so, when a large amount is taken in a short space, it overcomes the head, filling it with a warm and drug-like vapour.

Galen didn’t know THC by name, of course. And note that he’s still only talking about using the seeds, not buds or other parts of the plant.

Some possible hints appear in Oreibasius’ Synopsis for Eunapius, written in the 4th century CE. He says cannabis prevents flatulence (4.21), but he also includes it in a list of things that ‘harm the head’ (4.20). Elsewhere Oreibasius says cannabis has a warming effect, as does Galen ... but bear in mind that ‘warmth’ isn’t a metaphor, but a technical term in ancient Greek medicine. This list isn’t made with any psychoactive effects in mind (4.31):

Things that have a warming effect: boiled wheat and bread made from it; marsh water; oats; fenugreek; juniper berries; sweet dates; sweet apples; sesame; hedge mustard (which also has a drying effect); cannabis seed; sweet grapes ...

We haven’t addressed the fourth category: the religious angle. There’s no evidence for religious use in the Greco-Roman world. But there is plenty of archaeological evidence to confirm Herodotus’ report of Scythian ritual burning of cannabis seeds. There have been finds of cultivated cannabis seeds in Ukraine at Kaminske (Pashkevich 1999: 600) and Nemirov, and in the Kuban between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea (Corcella 2007: 635).

Archaeological finds matching the physical details of Herodotus’ description of Scythian religious practice, from Pazyryk, mound 2 (5th–3rd century BCE). Bottom right, a pot containing hemp seeds; top right, a censer with stones for heating the seeds; left, the frame to hold up the 45 cm tent over the censer. (Source: Artamonov 1965: 108)

Pride of place, though, goes to a find at Pazyryk, in Siberia, close to the Mongolian border. There in 1947 Soviet archaeologists found, in a burial mound probably dating to the 5th–3rd centuries BCE, cannabis seeds along with equipment suited to exactly the ritual that Herodotus describes. This is a long, long way from any place that Herodotus visited — 4000 km from Ukraine — but Scythian culture was so widespread that it is generally accepted as reasonable to infer a comparable ritual among Siberian Scythians.

Cannabis took a long time to take off. People didn’t smoke it until the modern era. Prior to that, the psychoactive nature of the plant wasn’t universally used: it wasn’t even universally known. Like all crops, cannabis had to spread.

Even in Herodotus, the phrasing of his report is sometimes taken to imply that cannabis wasn’t all that familiar to his readers: it may have been a newcomer. One archaeologist puts the arrival of cannabis in the Greek world in the Hellenistic period, that is, more than a century after Herodotus (Kroll 2000: 67). I’d say its presence in Ephippus’ list of after-dinner treats puts it a bit earlier than that. But it took a long time for cannabis to be understood. For that reason alone it’s no surprise that recreational and religious use are rare, or even non-existent, in the evidence we have from ancient cultures.


  • Artamonov, M. I. 1965. ‘Frozen tombs of the Scythians.’ Scientific American 212.5: 100–109.
  • Brunner, T. F. 1973. ‘Marijuana in ancient Greece and Rome? The literary evidence.’ Bulletin of the history of medicine 47.4: 344–355.
  • Butrica, J. L. 2008. ‘The medical use of cannabis among the Greeks and Romans.’ Journal of cannabis therapeutics 2.2: 51–70.
  • Corcella, A. 2007. ‘Book IV.’ In: Asheri, D.; Lloyd, A.; Corcella, A. A commentary on Herodotus books I–IV. Oxford UP. 543–721.
  • Kroll, H. 2000. ‘Agriculture and arboriculture in mainland Greece at the beginning of the first millennium B.C.’ Pallas 52: 61–68.
  • Merlin, M. D. 2003. ‘Archaeological evidence for the tradition of psychoactive plant use in the Old World.’ Economic botany 57.3: 295–323.
  • Pashkevich, G. 1999. ‘New evidence for plant exploitation by the Scythian tribes during the Early Iron Age in the Ukraine.’ Acta palaeobotanica Suppl. 2: 597–601.
  • Zohary, D.; Hopf, M.; Weiss, E. 2012. Domestication of plants in the Old World, 4th edition. Oxford UP.