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J Cannabis Ther 2002(2):51-70


The Medical Use of Cannabis Among the Greeks and Romans

J.L. Butrica

This article, which contains a complete survey of the surviving references to medical cannabis in Greek and Latin literature, updates the last serious treatment of the subject (Brunner 1973).

Though it eventually became commonplace, cannabis seems to have been largely unknown to the Greeks in the fifth century BCE, when Herodotus wrote his description of the hemp vapor-baths used by the ancient Scythians, which constitutes the earliest reference in Greek literature. While its use in medicine is not attested until the first century CE, it was evidently well established by then. The Roman writer Pliny the Elder records several medical uses, but comparison with Greek writers suggests that he is sometimes mistaken, and there is no secure evidence for the medical use of cannabis by the Romans. Greek writers, on the other hand, report the use of cannabis in treating horses-especially for dressing sores and wounds-and in treating humans. Here we find the dried leaves used against nosebleed and the seeds used against tapeworms, but the most frequently mentioned treatment involves steeping the green seeds in a liquid such as water or a variety of wine, then pressing out the liquid, which when warmed was instilled into the ear as a remedy for pains and inflammations associated with blockages. Many sources also observe that the seeds, when eaten in quantity, dry up the semen; a passage in Aëtius shows that they could be prescribed as part of the treatment for teenaged boys (and girls) afflicted by nocturnal emissions. A recreational consumption of cannabis seeds is attested first in the comic poet Ephippus in the 4th century BCE and again in Galen in the second century CE.

Ancient medical writers classified cannabis among foods with a warming effect, foods with a drying effect, foods that harm the head, foods that thin the humors, and foods that prevent flatulence. It was acknowledged to have an intoxicating effect not characteristic of the seed of the agnus-castus, which was sometimes prescribed in its place. Perhaps that intoxicating effect, and the prescribing of cannabis seed to teenaged boys, lies behind the controversy over the "proper" medical use of cannabis at which Galen hints when he says that its only proper use is to thin the humors through the urine.

Cannabis, medicine, Greece and Rome

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