Saturday, July 21, 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."