How the Romans’ Favorite Food Went Extinct

As a species, humans are alarmingly adroit at wiping out floras and faunas who sit lower on the food chain. This is not a new phenomenon. We famously ate all the wooly mammoths, giant sloths, and giant flightless birds wherever we found them. More recently, our diets and the invasive species we brought with us killed off dodos, aurochs, and passenger pigeons to name just a few. Earlier this year, the Chinese Paddlefish was officially declared extinct, and many other species are teetering on the edge of oblivion thanks to our collective actions.

We’ve also got a bad track record when it comes to plants. Microcultures of various vegetables have been decimated over the last century or so, but our sad history of annihilating the foods we love most stretches back millennia. Take, for instance, the Greek and Roman delicacy Silphium.

Silphium

According to ancient accounts, silphium was some kind of giant fennel plant, which grew only in a narrow band of the Libyan coast—called Cyrene at the time. According to Herodotus, Cyrene was settled by Greeks from the over-populated island of Thera who took a hint from the Delphic Oracle and started a colony on African shores. Their new settlement was verdant, and they prospered agriculturally. The native Libyans showed them a strange plant called Silphion, which soon became their main export.

Based on images appearing on coins from Cyrene, as well as descriptions from Herodutus, Pliny, and others, historians think that Silphium was related to fennel and was part of the Ferulafamily.

Why was it so popular? Because, according to who you believe, it tasted great and cured just about everything under the sun. According to Lenore Newman, silphium tasted slightly of leeks, and was used as a seasoning in many Roman dishes. The one surviving Roman cookbook, written by Marcus Gavius Apicius (who literally ate himself to bankruptcy and suicide) prominently features silphium, and even offers a cheap substitute—asafoetida, which is still extant today, and apparently smells awful.

There is another reason that silphium eventually became worth its weight in gold, hoarded by Julius Caesar, and became extinct. For one, the Romans thought it was a contraceptive. This was huge, because the Romans liked to get into it. According to Pliny the Elder, silphium was good for sore throats, snake bites, hemorrhoids, gout, mange, epilepsy and literally making snakes explode. Pretty useful stuff!

The ravenous appetites of the Ancient Mediterraneans likely spelled the doom of the plant they loved so much. Silphium only grew in a specific part of the North African coast, and attempts to cultivate it were unsuccessful. As human encroachment spread around Cyrene, arable wild land for the plant diminished. While there were strict quotas for harvesting wild silphium, they were often ignored by poachers. Pliny cites sheep grazing as one of the primary causes of its extinction, but a change in climate may also have been to blame. Because we don’t even know exactly what it was or looked like, it’s very hard for modern historians to come with an accurate reason for extinction, or even if it actually went extinct.

We do know, however, that by the time Caesar was hoarding it, wild plants had been missing for decades. When Pliny the Elder was writing, only one wild stock was to be found; and then was promptly plucked and presented to the (famously bad) Roman Emperor Nero as a novelty.

Whatever the reason for extinction, we can be certain that our Latin forbearers had a hand in it. As Lenore Newman says in our interview with her, “We just really struggle with big, large-scale, long-term management efforts to ensure our foods survive.” Turns out we’ve struggled with them for a long, long time.

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