Wednesday, July 18, 2012

How A Health Crisis Spurred Roman Expansion

"Radishes are flatulent," declared Pliny the Elder in Vol. 4 of his Natural History, "hence it is that they are looked upon as an ailment only fit for low-bred people."
Pliny's descriptions of the gardens and plants of ancient Rome and Greece offer some of the richest, and funniest, information concerning the medicinal uses of everyday plants in antiquity. They also provided researcher Alain Touwaide with a critical clue in his effort to explain Roman expansion as a quest for greater biodiversity.

"He complained that Romans were bringing nature into cities," says Touwaide, a research associate in the Natural History Museum's botany department. While Pliny admired Greece's elaborate pleasure gardens, he lamented Rome's urban ones, calling them "poor man's fields."
Touwaide's library is scattered around the Department of Botany and includes 15,000 texts. Photo by Leah Binkovitz

But, as Touwaide points out, these invasive gardens served a purpose, "They are smart, the Romans."

Roman urbanization reached proportions unparalleled in the ancient world. As with all periods of rapidly growing populations, a health crisis emerged with the equally rapid transmission of illnesses. Touwaide and his fellow researcher and wife, Emanuela Appetiti, have been putting together data suggesting Roman expansion into the Mediterranean was actually driven by a need for more medicinal plants in response to this crisis.

A series of recent triumphs has helped cement their case. New technology allowed the team to investigate a Roman shipwreck discovered in the 1980s but dating back to 140-210 BC. On board were more than a hundred sealed vials as well as surgical tools. After analysis, Touwaide concluded most of the medicines were used to treat intestinal problems. "I saw that the extension of the Romans into the Mediterranean overlaps every single time with the acquisition of new medicines," explains Touwaide.