Featured The Silphium Plant

Discussion in 'Ancient Coins' started by Jochen1, Apr 28, 2020.

  1. Jochen1

    Jochen1 Well-Known Member

    Dear Friends of ancient mythology!

    I was interested in the history of the Silphium Plant since I began collecting ancient coins. In particular because it is the proof that the extinction of species is not the privileg of modern mankind.

    The Coin:
    Cyrenaica, Kyrene, c. 250 BC
    AE 21, 7.56g
    Obv.: Head of Zeus-Ammon, wearing taenia, r.
    Rev.: Silphium Plant
    in l. and r. field KOI - NON
    Ref.: SNG Copenhagen 1276-84
    Rare, VF, dark green patina with earthen deposits
    Many of the botanical details of the plant can be seen sharp and clear.
    Some notes on the Cyrenaica:
    In 247 BC Ptolemy III (Euergetes) succeeded to the throne of Egypt, and by his marriage with Berenice, daughter of Magas, who was queen in her own right of Cyrenaica, united the diadems of Egypt and that country. The evidence of the coins goes to prove that throughout the reign of Euergetes, whether owning to a successful revolt or not, the Cyrenaeans enjoyed an interval of autonomy, which did not cease until after his death. It was during this period that they sent to Megalopolis in Arcadia to obtain the aid of the philosophers Demophanes and Ekdemos, who had assisted Aratos in the liberation of Sikyon from her tyrants. These statesmen were entrusted with the government of the Cyrenaica, which they appear to have reconstituted on the lines of the Achaean League. So much, at least, we may infer from Polybius (x. 25) and Plutarch Philop, ii. 1), and from the Federal coins in silver and bronze, bearing the legend ΚΟΙΝΟΝ, which are probably to be attributed to this time, as the bronze pieces are often restruck on regal bronze of Ptolemy II (HN).

    Silphium, Greek Silphion, is the name of a plant growing in the Cyrenaika. The name itself is non-Greek and originates of an indigenous Semitic(?) language silphi, sirphi, Lat. sirpe; to this Lat. laserpicium, from lac sirpicium. There are passed down several Greek names especially of parts of the plant.

    The first reference of Silphion we owe to Herodotos who on his voyages came through the Cyrenaica too. According to the tradition it is said that Silphion was introduced by Aristaios, a grandson of the king of the Lapiths and scholar of the wise centaur Cheiron. So we have a religious connection to the cult of Aristaios (cf. Schol. in Aristoph. Eq. 894). Silphion together with gold and silver was hoarded in treasuries a we can see on the lower depiction of the Arkesilas cup (look at the attachment).

    The rev. of the coin shows a complete Silphion Plant. Typical the high, thick, sculptured stam with the crossed position of the leafs which are enwrapping the stam at the origin, the blossoms which came out of the leaf axils and the big round composite head. Even though we have accurate descriptions by Theophrastos and others (especially Plin. nat. 19, 38-46), the depictions on coins of Cyrenaica and several efforts of historians and botanists, the certain botanical attribution of Silphion was not successful. Roughly speaking we have two groups of scientists: the first one prefers a celery species, the other a fennel species. Because after the extinction of Silphion it has been replaced by Asia foetida, it seems to be a plant related to Scorodosma foetida which provided Asia foetida. Silphion should have had an intensive but pleasant smell.
    Pic of Scorodosma foetidum, which could be related to Silphion

    Stalks and leaves were eaten as vegetables. By carving stems and roots a resinlike chyle was gained. This drug was used as spice. Besides its usage in the Greek-Roman kitchen (look at the recipes of Apicius) several medical effects were ascribed to Silphion so that it was hold for a magical medicine. It was said to cure couphing and sore throat, lowering fever, remediating maldigestion (especially important for the ancient Romans because of their heavy eating), relieving heavy pain, eliminating warts and all kinds of suffering. A main role Silphion (according to Plinius) played as Contraceptivum. Because we know today that many species of celery own estrogenic properties, and some - like the Wild Carrot - have abortive effects too, it is well possible that Silphion was used to prevent gravidities or to end them. Silphion was connected to sexuality and love by contemporaneous writers too. In a poem of Catullus to his beloved Livia (Catull 7) occurs the Lat. laserpicium. Pausanias as well describes the usage of Silphion by young maids. It was used by nearly all cultures around the Mediterranean. The Romans considered it as 'worth its weight in deanarii'. From the 6th century BC on it was a highly estimated drug and as export article it was the base of the wealthness of the Cyrenaica. It was profitably traded in Hellenistic times too (Plaut. Rud. 630), but in the beginning of Imperial times the true Silphion has disappeared from the market (extincted in the Cyrenaica?) and was replaced by the inferior Silphion from the East.

    The disappearing of Silphion:
    Silphion never could be cultivated. It was only harvested as a wild form. It is said that the inhabitants of the Cyrenaica have driven goats on the Silphion fields to increase the price. So the plant was decimated and then extirpated. Plinius mentions that already in his time only one Silphion stem has been found which as last example of this famous plant as gift has been given to Nero, who has eaten it with pleasure.The true reasons why Silphion finely became extincted is not clear at all. Probably we have several different reasons:

    (1) Despite many attempts the ancients never succeeded in cultivating Silphion. So they depend on its naturally wild growing.

    (2) Although there were rigorous harvesting orders and strict export regulations - controlled by the king and his officials - especially under Roman rule began an over harvesting which led to decrease of Silphion.

    (3) The wars and civil wars at the time of the Romans led to confusion and disorder so that the order collapsed which was essential for the Silphion harvest.

    (4) As a result the Silphion farmers pauperized and changed to sheep farming. The sheep were eating the delicious plant and a shortage occured. There is the thesis too that it was done to raise the Silphion price.

    (5) A last reason - up to date in our time - was a climatic change in the Maghreb. The temperatures were raising and the spreading deserts destroyed valuable farmland.

    (6) But we should see that Silphion was threatened from the start on a because its habitat was only a 55km broad and 200km long stripe along the coast of the Cyrenaica.

    I have added a pic of the Arkesilas cup. This cup was found in Volci and is now in the Bibliotheque National Francaise in Paris. King Arkesilaos is sitting under a tarpaulin wearing an African hut. Because of this and another cup of the Arkesilas painter (named after this cup), showing the Nymph Kyrene wrestling against a lion, the Arkesilas painter at first was located to Africa. Later findings have located him to Laconia. Arkesilaos is watching seven workers which are packing wares, weighing, stacking and shipping it. The functions of the workers and the name of the king are marked by inscriptions. Unclear is what wares are shipped. Several scientists vote for Silphion because Arkesialos has had the trade monopoly. Several African animals are illustrating the African location of the depicted scene. Historically seen this pic is the evidence for the strong connection between Sparta and North-Africa.

    Silphium rediscovered?

    Surprisingly in AD 2001 an article "Silphium Rediscovered" appears in ''Celator 15 (2): 23-24" by W.S. Wright. He referred to an article of the Italian A. Manunta from AD 1996 who has visited Libya in AD 1990 and 1991. He has shown ancient coins with the Silphion plant to native Bedouins which then have pointed him to a plant which he has recognized as the extinct ancient Silphion. This plant he identified as Cachrys ferulacea. Its location on the Cyrenaica was new. But this plant is known from Sicily, Southern Italy and the Southern Balkans.

    This conception contradicts Monika Kiehn who convincingly can show that Cachrys ferulacea was known already in ancient times and was clearly distinguished from Silphion. She as botanist holds Silphion for an Umbellifera and thinks that it was related to Ferula communis, Giant Fennel. She contradicts too the thesis that Silphion was used as contraceptivum or abortivum. She supposed too that the Arkesilas cup doesn't show the shipping of Silphion. because on the cup it was packed in sacks whereas Theophrastos and Plinus write that is was shipped in amphoras.
    Big Fennel (Ferula communis)


    (1) Der Kleine Pauly
    (2) Hellmut Baumann, Pflanzenbilder auf griechischen Münzen
    (3) Wikipedia
    (4) http://www.ancient-coins.com/resourcedetail.asp?rsc=8
    (5) http://pagesperso-orange.fr/dalby/texts/SilphiumTexts.html
    (6) http://www.uni-graz.at/~katzer/engl/Silphion.html
    (7) http://www.islamonline.net/English/Science/2003/08/article02.shtml (abortivum, contraceptivum)

    The literature about Silphium is unmanageable. For a deeper overview I recommend the following site (in German):

    Best regards
    Last edited: Apr 28, 2020
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  3. Alegandron

    Alegandron "ΤΩΙ ΚΡΑΤΙΣΤΩΙ..." ΜΕΓΑΣ ΑΛΕΞΑΝΔΡΟΣ, June 323 BCE

    Super write up, @Jochen1 , on this incredible ancient plant! Great coin example!

    I only have the one pic...

    KYRENAICA Kyrene Æ25 9.6g 250 BCE Diademed Zeus-Ammon r - K-O-I-N-O-N; Silphium plant; monogram SNG Cop 1278 BMC 16-19
  4. dougsmit

    dougsmit Member

    another similar

    Less often seen and less popular due to size/detail reduction and scarcity is this AE16 of Kyrene (before 308 BC) showing three silphium plants joined at the base with K-Y-P between the stalks. I suspect this was a denomination '3' of some sort but I can prove nothing. The more common gold version is termed a triobol or quarter stater so I suspect this is similar to the Roman twelve uncia makes a whole. The obverse is said to be Karneios, an ancient shepherd god.

    These don't turn up all that often so I am happy to have this one. Compared to others I have seen it is not bad. I tend to buy coins in lower condition with the hope that someday I will upgrade. In this case, I am still waiting for the better one.
    ex. Art Noot, 1995
  5. Macromius

    Macromius Well-Known Member

    Excellent post Jochen! Useful information. Great as always...
  6. Pishpash

    Pishpash Well-Known Member

    I have SO wanted one of these. :(
    Alegandron and ominus1 like this.
  7. ominus1

    ominus1 Supporter! Supporter

    ..kool post & coins...i've read about this plant and its demise..
  8. eparch

    eparch Well-Known Member

    Interesting write up as always Jochen. I have always been fascinated
    by this story. In addition to the medical uses you mention, Pliny
    also recommended using it if you had been bitten by a feral or rabid
    dog - just rub in to the affected area.

    My coin :


    Kyrenaika, Kyrene AR Didrachm. Koinon issue, circa 250 BC. Diademed head of Zeus Ammon right / Silphium plant with four leaves; ibex horn in upper left field, KOI-NON across fields. BMC 1; SNG Copenhagen 1275.sear 6332 7.81g, 21mm, 12h.
  9. Pishpash

    Pishpash Well-Known Member

  10. Alegandron

    Alegandron "ΤΩΙ ΚΡΑΤΙΣΤΩΙ..." ΜΕΓΑΣ ΑΛΕΞΑΝΔΡΟΣ, June 323 BCE

    Wonderful example. Congrats capturing it!
  11. Bing

    Bing Illegitimi non carborundum Supporter

    Best example I've seen.
  12. Jochen1

    Jochen1 Well-Known Member


  13. Sulla80

    Sulla80 Well-Known Member

    This coin provides an excuse to revisit this excellent thread from @Jochen1.
    Cyrene in north Africa, modern Libya:

    CYRENAICA Cyrene Silphium 3.jpg
    Kyrenaica, Koinon, circa 250-246 BC, Æ (22mm, 15.1g, 12h)
    Obv: Head of Zeus-Ammon right, wearing tainia
    Rev: Silphium plant [K-O], I-N, O-N
    Ref: Asolati 61Aa; SNG Copenhagen 1276–7; BMC 15

    The letters on this coin not easy to see in the photo:

    "laserpitium claims our notice, a very remarkable plant, known to the Greeks by the name of "silphion" and originally a native of the province of Cyrenaica. The juice of this plant is called "laser," and it is greatly in vogue for medicinal as well as other purposes, being sold at the same rate as silver. For these many years past, however, it has not been found in Cyrenaica, as the farmers of the revenue who hold the lands there on lease, have a notion that it is more profitable to depasture flocks of sheep upon them. Within the memory of the present generation, a single stalk is all that has ever been found there, and that was sent as a curiosity to the Emperor Nero"
    -Pliny, The Natural History 19.15

    I can understand how one could become a @Silphium Addict.


    Last edited: May 9, 2021
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