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  Silphium (also known as silphion or laser) was a plant of the genus Ferula.[1] Generally considered to be an extinct "giant fennel" (although some claim that the plant is really Ferula tingitana[2], it once formed the crux of trade from the ancient city of Cyrene for its use as a rich seasoning and as a medicine.[1] It was so critical to the Cyrenian economy that most of their coins bore a picture of the plant (illustration, right).

The valuable product was the resin (laser, laserpicium, or lasarpicium) of the plant. It was harvested in a manner similar to asafoetida, a plant with similar enough qualities to silphium that Romans, including the geographer Strabo, used the same word to describe both.[3]

Aside from its uses in Greco-Roman cooking (as in recipes by Apicius), many medical uses were ascribed to the plant. It was said that it could be used to treat cough, sore throat, fever, indigestion, aches and pains, warts, and all kinds of maladies. Chief among its medical uses, according to Pliny the Elder, was its role as a herbal contraceptive.[4] Given that many species in the parsley family have estrogenic properties, and some (such as Wild carrot) have been found to work as an abortifacient, it is quite possible that the plant was pharmacologically active in the prevention or termination of pregnancy. Legend said that it was a gift from the god Apollo. It was used widely by most ancient Mediterranean cultures; the Romans considered it "worth its weight in denarii."



The reason for silphium's supposed extinction is not entirely known. The plant grew along a narrow coastal area, about 125 by 35 miles, in Cyrenaica (in present-day Libya). Much of the speculation about the cause of its extinction rests on a sudden demand for animals that grazed on the plant, for some supposed effect on the quality of the meat. Overgrazing combined with overharvesting may have led to its extinction.[5] The climate of the maghreb has been drying over the millennia, and desertification may also have been a factor. Another theory is that when Roman provincial governors took over power from Greek colonists, they over-farmed silphium and rendered the soil unable to yield the type that was said to be of such medicinal value. Theophrastus reports that the type of ferula specifically referred to as "silphium" was odd in that it only grew in the wild, but could not be successfully grown as a crop in tilled soil. The validity of this report is questionable, however, as Theophrastus was merely passing on a report from another source. Pliny reported that the last known stalk of silphium was given to the Emperor Nero "as a curiosity".[5]

Connection with the heart symbol

  There has been some speculation about the connection between silphium and the traditional heart shape (). The symbol is remarkably similar to the Egyptian "heart soul" (ab). The sexual nature of that concept, combined with the widespread use of silphium in ancient Egypt for birth control, and the fact that the seeds of silphium are shaped like a heart as shown in the left illustration, leads to speculation that the character for ab may have been derived from the shape of the silphium seed.

Contemporaneous writings help tie silphium to sexuality and love, as laserpicium makes an appearance in a poem (Catullus 7) of Catullus to his lover Lesbia. As well as in Pausanias', Description of Greece in which he says

"For it so happened that his maiden daughter was living in it. By the next day this maiden and all her girlish apparel had disappeared, and in the room were found images of the Dioscuri, a table, and silphium upon it."[6]


  In the Italian military heraldry Il silfio d’oro reciso di Cirenaica (silphium couped or of Cyrenaica) was the symbol granted to the units that fought in the campaigns in North Africa during World War II.[citation needed]


  • Dalby, Andrew (2002). Dangerous Tastes: The Story of Spices. University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-23674-2. 
  • Herodotus. The Histories. II:161, 181, III:131, IV:150-165, 200-205.
  • Pausanias. Description of Greece 3.16.1-3
  • Pliny the Elder. Natural History. XIX:15 and XXII:100-106.
  • Tatman, John. Silphium: Ancient wonder drug?. Jencek's Ancient Coins & Antiquities. Retrieved on 2007-02-05.
  • Theophrastus. Enquiry into Plants and Minor Works on Odors and Weather Signs. II:13- 21. (translation by Hort A. Cambridge, 1949.)


  1. ^ a b Tatman (See references list).
  2. ^ Straight Dope, [1]
  3. ^ Dalby p. 18.
  4. ^ Pliny, XXII, Ch. 49
  5. ^ a b Pliny, XIX, Ch.15
  6. ^ Pausanias 3.16.3

Further reading

  • Buttrey, T. V. (1997). "Part I: The Coins from the Sanctuary of Demeter and Persephone". In in D. White (ed.): Extramural Sanctuary of Demeter and Persephone at Cyrene Libya, Final Reports: Vol. VI. Philadelphia, 1-66. 
  • Favorito, E. N.; and K. Baty (February 1995). "The Silphium Connection". Celator 9 (2): 6-8.
  • Fisher, Nick (1996). "Laser-Quests: unnoticed allusions to contraception in a poet and a princeps?". Classics Ireland 3: 73-97. Retrieved on 2006-12-14.
  • Gemmill, Chalmers L. (July-August 1966). "Silphium". Bulletin of the History of Medicine 40 (4): 295-313.
  • Koerper, Henry; and A. L. Kolls (April-June 1999). "The Silphium Motif Adorning Ancient Libyan Coinage: Marketing a Medicinal Plant". Economic Botany 53 (2): 133-143.
  • Riddle, John M. (1997). Eve's Herbs: A History of Contraception and Abortion in the West. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 44-46. ISBN 0-674-27024-X. 
  • Riddle, John M.; J. Worth Estes, and Josiah C. Russell (March-April 1994). "Birth Control in the Ancient World". Archaeology 47 (2): 29-35.
  • Tameanko, M. (April 1992). "The Silphium Plant: Wonder Drug of the Ancient World Depicted on Coins". Celator 6 (4): 26-28.
  • Tatman, J. L. (October 2000). "Silphium, Silver and Strife: A History of Kyrenaika and Its Coinage". Celator 14 (10): 6-24.
  • Wright, W. S. (February 2001). "Silphium Rediscovered". Celator 15 (2): 23-24.
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Silphium". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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