maritime trade in "spices" accelerated during the height of the Roman Empire
due to the ever-increasing demands of the wealthy classes for exotic luxury
goods. Ask students to brainstorm a list of what "luxury goods" might mean
to someone in ancient Rome, Egypt or China. (Examples should include jewelry
and gemstones, textiles, art objects, exotic animals, foods and spices.)
Draw parallels to their own lives to consider why goods have value and
are costly. (Use economic terms: market, supply, scarcity, demand, need).
Point out that today, rare or exotic goods can be quite costly and yet
In classical times the term "spices" meant
much more than flavorings for foods. Religious rituals required the burning
of resins and incense to invoke the gods, to expel evil spirits, and to
pay tribute to the emperors. Spices came in the form of ointments, powders,
wood, bark, roots, resins, and herbs and were used in countless ways:
in powders (aromata)
Hatshepsut of Egypt used cinnamon as an aromatic as early as 1,500
BC; the henna-flower perfume of the Romans had cardamom added; rose
perfume included ginger-grass. Both spices were first soaked in wine.
for religious ceremonies (thumiata)
temples burned a rich compound of spices known as kuphi. Julius Caesar's
triumphal entrance into Rome was preceded by attendants carrying jars of
burning spices as if he was a god; Romans threw 210 loads
of spices onto the funeral pyre of Scylla.
to purify the air
the Ganges Valley, burning aloe-wood was used both as as a perfume and
as a fumigant for use after surgery; the Romans used cinnamon to protect
clothing from moths.
in healing ointments and medicinal drugs
the Greek physician, prescribed pepper as a cure for disease. Dioscordes,
an army physician, wrote Materia Medica on the function of spices
and for their prescriptive uses for healing. His text lists twenty two
pure, aromatic oils prescribed for specific ailments, such as safflower,
sweet bay, myrrh, and myrtle, as well as twenty four compound ointments
(made from herbs, resins, fragrant roots and woods) to be used for healing).
earliest times, the Egyptians used rich mixtures of spices, including cloves
as part of the mummification process. Upon the death of Nero's wife, Poppaea,
a year's imports of perfumes, including cinnamon, were sprinkled on her
body for embalming.
against poisons (theriaca)
a famous physician, mentions a concoction using 36 ingredients; these
include cumin, cardamom, anise, cassia, ginger, Indian nard, and myrrh.
Mixed with honey and wine, it was said that one could withstand the
philtres and magical charms
anesthesia in surgery
Greek writings mention the use of cloves and other spices for use
flavoring food and wine
to preserve foods as well as to flavor since earliest times. The first
cookbook in the modern sense was written by the Roman Apicius. The
478 recipes, primarily for the rich man's table, were of wide variety
and included exotic ingredients and use of imported
spices such as pepper, ginger, oil of cinnamon and turmeric.
a valuable medium of exchange
of Gothe demanded 3,000 pounds of pepper from Rome in exchange for
not sacking the city in 408 AD.
The sea trade was risky and often dangerous.
It was also time-consuming and could take one or two years to complete
the voyage. Myths and legends surrounded the origins of spices. Often traders
were ignorant of the true origin of exotic goods they carried. It was also
advantageous to conceal the source, because the strangeness and rarity
of these spices meant that profits could be from forty to one hundred
times the investment.
- Refer students to the class lists of tasty
foods, grooming products, cosmetics, and medicines. Can they imagine
the demand in ancient times for similar goods?