Drug Use in Ancient Greece and Rome: a lively video on the use of narcotics and hallucinogens in classical society

Garrett Ryan, “Drug Use in Ancient Greece and Rome” (Told in Stone, 17 September 2021)

An intriguing little video, this episode in Garrett Ryan’s ongoing Told in Stone series that centres on classical civilisation explores what is known – and what is guessed at – about the use of narcotics, hallucinogens and other drugs by the Ancient Greeks and Romans. The video starts with an investigation of a kurgan (burial mound) by archaeologists in Stavropol in southern Russia: among the treasures found were two golden vessels whose insides were coated with the remains of a sticky black residue. Analysis of the residue by a lab revealed the residue to be a mix of opium and marijuana. The kurgan had been built by Ancient Scythians, a nomadic horse-riding people well known to the Ancient Greeks: the golden vessels may have been made by the Greeks themselves and the Greeks may have even supplied the opium-marijuana mix since they knew the Scythians’ predilection for mind-altering substances.

This little story leads the way into a survey of the Greeks and Romans’ use of opium and hemp, and how much these substances were incorporated into their cultures. Not surprisingly, the ancients used opium as a medicine, primarily as a pain-killer, a relaxant and a soporific; mixed with honey, opium could be used to treat a range of health problems from skin infections to coughs. They appear not to have appreciated the addictive properties of opium but did know that overdoses of opium could be fatal. As with opium, cannabis had many medicinal uses though doctors tended to use the hemp seed and cannabis resin as medicines. Some evidence found in the grave of a Roman woman who died in childbirth suggests that the more potent leaves and buds were used to relieve labour pains.

The second half of the video investigates the use of opium and hallucinogenic drugs in Greek and Roman religious ritual. One might assume that opium, marijuana and hallucinogens were used in the Eleusinian mysteries and by the maenad followers of the Greek god Dionysios but no firm evidence that these cults included drug use has been found. Likewise, evidence for the use of opium, marijuana and others as recreational drugs by the Greeks and Romans is scanty. Indeed the use of substances for purely recreational mind-altering purposes seems to have been quite limited in Greek and Roman cultures.

The video limits itself to exploring how the Greeks and Romans used a small range of substances known to be addictive in modern Western societies on the basis of material evidence found so far. It does not say very much about what historians, playwrights and other commentators among the Greeks and Romans thought and wrote about these drugs, and how much. That the Greeks and Romans seem to have used opium and marijuana mainly as medicines and food items may indicate that these peoples put far less emphasis on individual hedonistic or escapist pleasures than modern Western societies do. The Greeks and Romans may have experienced fewer stresses in their lives and had more outlets for the release of individual and communal tensions, through religious festivals and mystery cults, than are allowed in contemporary societies.

Perhaps the fact that not much appears to be known about how the Greeks and Romans used drugs in ways that would be familiar to us says much more about how we Westerners view drugs like opium and marijuana and their use, than about what the Greeks and Romans thought about these substances and how they used them. If we could go back in time and ask these societies what plants, fungi or other foodstuffs they had that they might have used in ways we would recognise recreational drugs to be used, the Greeks and Romans would probably point us to herbs, seeds and other items we might not realise have psychoactive properties.

Illustrated with photographs and stills of Greek and Roman art, this video is lively and straightforward in its presentation.