The Drugs Used by the Ancient Greeks and Romans

Many of us who live in parts of the world where marijuana has recently been legal might consider us to be engaging in a very modern pleasure. And given the ever-increasing sophistication of the growing and processing technologies that underlie what has become a formidable cannabis industry, perhaps, on some level, we are. But as intellectually ardent enthusiasts of psychotropic substances will not hesitate to tell you, their use extends well beyond history itself. He writes: “For as long as there has been civilization, there have been mind-altering drugs.” ScienceAndrew Lawler. But was anyone using it in the ancestors of Western civilization as we know it today?

For a time, scholars thought that unlike, say, Central America or North Africa, “the ancient Near East seemed curiously drug-free.” But now, new techniques for analyzing detritus in excavated jars and identifying trace amounts of plant material indicate that the ancient Near Eastern people indulged in a range of psychotropic substances.

The most recent evidence indicates that, three thousand years ago, “drugs such as cannabis arrived in Mesopotamia, while people from Turkey to Egypt experimented with local substances such as blue water lily.” These customs seem to have persisted in ancient Greece and Rome and are suggested by the archaeological evidence that is summarized in the video above.

In 2019, archaeologists unearthed some valuable artifacts from a 4th-century Scythian burial mound near Stavropol in Russia. Narrator Garrett Ryan, Ph.D. in Greek and Roman History from the University of Michigan, says there are “golden insignia, golden cups, a heavy gold ring, and the greatest treasure of all, two amazing gold ships.” The interior of the latter was “covered with a sticky black residue”, confirmed in the laboratory to be opium with traces of marijuana. “In other words, the Scythians arose” — as did their “Greek and Roman neighbours.” Ryan, author of the book Nude Statues, Fat Gladiators, and War Elephants: Frequently Asked Questions About the Ancient Greeks and Romans, continues to make interesting connections between scattered but related pieces of archaeological and textual evidence. We know that some of our civilized ancestors were named. How many questions to ask in a future study survey and how high they should be.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts about cities and culture. His projects include books The Stateless City: A Walk Through the Twenty-First Century in Los Angeles and video series The city in the cinema. Follow him on Twitter at Tweet embed or on Facebook.

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