food, teaching

Roman Medicine: Those Cabbages…


I’m a great fan of the British TV comedy series, Plebs, which follows the adventures of two young Roman men and their slave in the big city. In one episode, one of the many interesting remedies of ancient medicine was featured, although not in a standard role!

The series is built on finding entertaining parallels between its version of ancient Rome, and modern city life. So, one of characters works in an office, where he is the copier, while another is the shredder. No office would be complete without one of each! In one episode, for example, one young man started driving lessons – in order to drive a chariot. Three-point turns posed a particular problem.

In the episode “The Baby”, the slave is trying to make sense of the new rules on recycling rubbish.

“The bin in the middle, that’s your everyday household products.
That’s your pottery shards, your sackcloth, papyrus and whatnot.
Household products, yeah.”

To his surprise he finds an abandoned baby in the rubbish and the rest of the episode is built around his attempts to care for her. One problem of course is diapers; and his solution is to use cabbage leaves.

“Are you sure a cabbage is gonna work?
Course. It’s nature’s nappy.”

This made me laugh even more than the rest of the episode. It brought back to me memories of teaching Roman medicine to Classics students, when I encouraged them to do a presentation to the rest of the class that went beyond the usual “reading out some notes and showing a PowerPoint” (yawn) method. One particularly innovative group acted out a “consulting the physician scene”, with various “patients” going to different Roman physicians whose theories we know, and getting suggestions for treatment. One thing all the students remembered was that traditional Roman medicine seems to have been big on cabbage. So, at the end of every imaginary consultation, the student playing the physician added “oh, and have some of this, it’s brilliant” while throwing a cabbage towards the patient.

So, why cabbage? It is an interesting remedy not because of the inevitable websites claiming that “modern nutritional research completely validates” ancient beliefs, but rather because it brings out our difficulties in knowing about the medicine of the past.

On the one hand, the Roman statesman Cato tells us that this is a sure-fire cure for many things. It is great for the digestion or for colic, and an excellent laxative. Different varieties have different levels of power, and the wild is best of all. Cabbage is good crushed and used as a poultice; it cures sores, boils and even dislocations. It cures headaches and pain in the eyes. Most effective of all is the warmed-up urine of someone who regularly eats cabbage. It’s an excellent fluid for bathing babies (funnily enough, this particular recommendation does not feature in modern internet eulogies of the plant!), and women can also use it as a personal hygiene product. It can be rolled up into a pellet and placed to heal an anal fistula (ouch), while dried cabbage can be snorted like snuff to cure a nasal polyp.

This interest in a common vegetable fits well with other Roman remedies: wool, milk, the simple products of the farm which every Roman – including those, like Cato, from the elite – saw as part of their birthright and their identity as true Romans. Nothing could be further from the fancy and expensive remedies they associated with those wordy, dangerous ancient Greek physicians!

But is it so simple? Should we resist classifying this list of medicinal uses of cabbage as characteristic of traditional Roman medicine? Because, on the other hand, we know from the later Roman writer Pliny the Elder that a Greek writer, Chrysippus, wrote a whole book on cabbage. Cato is not a neutral source (who is?). He was rabidly anti-Greek. In the biography of him written by Plutarch it is said that he only learned the language late in his life. But Plutarch also observes that Cato’s works include ‘Greek sentiments and stories, and many literal translations from the Greek have found a place among his maxims and proverbs’. This suggests that, while Cato’s public pronouncements were very anti-Greek, in fact he knew Greek literature pretty well. So perhaps Cato’s normal distaste for Greek writers is misleading, and the praise of cabbage came not from traditional Roman household remedies, but rather from a book; and a Greek one at that.

2 thoughts on “Roman Medicine: Those Cabbages…”

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