The modern world is unusual by comparison with almost all other societies in its approach to drug use, intoxication, and altered states. Other than those that pharmaceutical companies utilize, most narcotics today are illegal in nearly all jurisdictions.
Alcohol Use in Ancient Greece and Rome
Alcohol, one of the most dangerous narcotics known to humanity, is the only narcotic generally freely available in most countries outside of the Islamic world. By way of comparison, there were no such prohibitions on narcotics in ancient times, and drug use was socially regulated.
Curiously in this more permissive atmosphere, we do not find writings by, for instance, Roman writers bemoaning mass addiction problems such as exist in modern states where most drugs are prohibited.
So, how extensive was drug use in ancient Greece and Rome, and what kinds of drugs were consumed.
Let’s start with the basics. Alcohol was everywhere. For the vast majority of human history, human societies consumed alcohol. For some of them, beer and wine were used as a substitute for lack of clean drinking water.
The Greeks and Romans were no different and viewed wine in particular as a mainstay of everyday life.
It was central to trade, religion, and culture. The famed symposium was a gathering time after banquets in which ancient Greeks drank, danced, listened to music, and socialized.
However, ancient Greeks weren’t inebriated all the time. They preferred drinking heavily watered-down wine, so the wine which they consumed might have been reduced to a strength of as low as 3% or 4% ABV.
Other Drugs Used by the Greeks and Romans
Other modern drugs known to us were used widely by the ancient Greeks and Romans. Opium was first cultivated over 5,000 years ago and used as a painkiller, sedative, and sleep aid. It was central to religious life too.
Thus we find several Greek deities, Hypnos, Nyx, and Thanatos, respectively the gods of sleep, night, and death, often depicted wearing wreaths of poppies or holding them in their hands.
Similarly, poppies also frequently adorn statues of some of the Olympians and other senior gods such as Apollo, Pluto, and Aphrodite, usually symbolizing a form of nocturnal bliss.
In the first century AD, the Roman author Pliny the Elder wrote in his Natural History about using opium for various purposes, and Cretic Wine was a form of opiated tea used for both recreational and medicinal purposes.
This could, of course, turn into an addiction, the most famous case of which was the second century AD emperor, Marcus Aurelius, whose fame as a Stoic philosopher might at least partially rely on his heavy opium consumption.
Marijuana was used by the ancient Greeks and Romans, though not to the same extent as it is in the modern world. For instance, Herodotus wrote about the Scythians, a foreign people who lived north-east of Greece towards the Black Sea, throwing hemp on fires in smoke tents to create an atmosphere where they became high.
He did this in such a way as to suggest that the use of the drug for recreational purposes or any other type of use was not every day in the fifth century BC Greece.
However, over time this changed, and as the Romans developed extensive trade connections with Central Asia and India during the imperial period, marijuana use became more common, if still not widespread.
Many other drugs which are largely unfamiliar to modern societies were also widely used. For instance, frankincense, a substance that most people have heard of only through the Christian nativity scene, was used as a drug in ancient times as it has some ability to reduce anxiety and depressive symptoms. Wormwood, a plant still used today in Absinthe, was consumed for its hallucinogenic effects, obtained from the chemical thujone in it.
The tale of Emperor Claudius dying from eating a mushroom may be a myth, but the story nonetheless points toward the Romans’ consumption of psilocybin-containing mushrooms for their hallucinogenic effects.
Drugs and Medicine
Yet perhaps the foremost use of drugs was for medicinal uses. The earliest surviving herbal guide to have survived from ancient times was written by the Greek physician Theophrastus of Eresus, who flourished in the second half of the fourth century BC. Book 9 of his Historia Plantarum sets out how hundreds of different plants were used for various medicinal purposes, many of them obtained from the gums and resins of plants.
For instance, myrrh, balsam, and cinnamon were traded from Arabia. He relates how strychnine could induce madness but that oleander could make people more cheerful and gentle if added to the wine.
Birthwort was described as being used to treat bruises and snakebites. These herbals and medicinal textbooks were expanded on greatly over time by Roman physicians such as Galen.
Drugs were clearly used in a wide range of social and ceremonial settings in both ancient Greece and Rome, though unfortunately, we lack a full understanding of how this occurred.
For instance, it has been speculated for many years that the Eleusinian Mysteries, initiations which were held annually for the cults of Persephone and Demeter at Eleusis outside Athens, involved psychedelic drug use of some kind, but the Mysteries were by their very nature a secretive process which was not described in detail by ancient writers. Similarly, many religious cults used a wide range of drugs to induce feelings of ecstasy in worshippers.
One probably did not have to go too far at the average banquet or large social gathering in imperial Rome without witnessing drug use of some kind. Thus, much like the modern world, drug use was everywhere. It was just regulated more by social convention rather than through prohibition.
Fiona Hobden, The Symposion in Ancient Greek Society and Thought (Cambridge, 2013);
Brunco Tracas, Nuno Borja Santos and Luis D’Patricio, ‘The Use of Opium in Roman Society and the Dependence of Princeps Marcus Aurerlius’, in Acta Medica Port., Vol. 21 (2008), pp. 581–590.
Theodore F. Brunner, ‘Marijuana in Ancient Greece and Rome?’, in Bulletin of the History of Medicine, Vol. 47 (1973), pp. 344–355.
John Scarborough, ‘Adaptation of Folk Medicines in the Formal Materia Medica of Classical Antiquity’, in Pharmacy in History, Vol. 55, No. 2/3 (2013), pp. 55–63.
John Scarborough, ‘Drugs and Medicines in the Roman World’, in Expedition, Vol. 38, No. 2 (1996).
Hugh Bowden, Mystery Cults of the Ancient World: A Study of the Mysteries of Eleusis and Other Cults of Ancient Greece and Rome (Princeton, 2010).