Pliny the Elder: Historical pioneer of medical marijuana

It’s rare for new cannabis discoveries to involve someone who died nearly 2,000 years ago, but that’s exactly what happened when a scientific team in Italy reported results from their study which found that the skull in a museum in Rome was really that of the des immortal naturalist Pliny the Elder is the ancient Roman world.

As the New York Times reported, the skull sat for decades in the Museo Storico Nazionale Dell’Arte Sanitaria or in the National Historical Museum of Medical Arts, which is known as the “treasury of medical curiosities”. It was discovered during an excavation in 1900 on the shores of the Bay of Naples near the ruins of Pompeii, along with jewelry and vestments from Roman times. When Pliny was killed in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79, which destroyed Pompeii, and is said to have died on this fabled coast, there was inevitable speculation.

The landowner who discovered the skull appears to have used it for his personal fame as the man who found the remains of Pliny. After changing hands a few times, it ended up in the museum about 70 years ago. It was pocketed first as “the skull of Pliny the Elder”, then less ambitiously as “ascribed to skulls from the excavations of Pompeii and Pliny”.

The forensic study, which began in 2017, used DNA sequencing and skull shape analysis to determine if the skull matched what we know from history about Pliny’s general profile. Andrea Cionci, who led the study, known as Project Pliny, told the Times, “It is very likely that the skull is Pliny, but we cannot be 100% certain. We have many coincidences for it and no data to the contrary. ”

The identity of the skull remains controversial. The Times ironically quoted a line from Pliny himself: “In these matters the only certainty is that nothing is certain.”

However, there is a greater degree of certainty about Pliny’s role as one of the first scholars in history to document the medicinal properties of the cannabis plant.

Admiral, adventurer, naturalist

Gaius Plinius Secundus, born around 23 AD, led campaigns for imperial Rome in Germany before serving as naval admiral in the Bay of Naples to fight piracy. In between such adventures he wrote his classic work “Naturalis Historia” or “Natural History” (sometimes reproduced in the plural as “Naturae Historiae”).

“Natural history” was, in the words of one historian, a “compendium of ancient knowledge and misinformation”. In the midst of a 37-volume review of flora and fauna from all over Rome, the known worlds are such imaginative creations as griffins and cyclops. But it was the first such compendium of its kind in the western world and became the standard reference work throughout the Middle Ages.

And his intellectual curiosity seems to have played a role in his death. This episode was recorded in letters from his nephew and adopted son, who witnessed and survived it. This was the then 17-year-old Pliny the Younger, who later became a statesman and acted as governor of Bithynia in Asia Minor (now Turkey).

From his command post in the Bay of Naples, he saw a huge cloud rising from Vesuvius.

“After Pliny the Elder saw the cloud, he decided to get closer to it to do some research,” Daisy Dunn, author of Pliny biography “The Shadow of Vesuvius,” told the New York Times. “He was, after all, the author of a 37-volume book on natural history.”

But as his ship crossed the bay towards Pompeii, it became clear that many were trapped on the shore as lava descended from the volcano on the city and ash rained down from the sky. After another work on Pliny – “Indagine sulla Scomparsa di un Ammiraglio” or “Inquiry into the Death of an Admiral” by the military historian Flavio Russo – what began as a personal investigation of a natural phenomenon became “the oldest natural disaster relief operation.”

Unfortunately it was in vain. When his vehicle reached the affected bank, Pliny the Elder had suffocated from the toxic fumes.

The pharmacopoeia of cannabis

Despite the dubious or fantastic elements of his work, Pliny made a huge impact. As the Daily Beast notes, some have speculated that he even inspired Charles Darwin, a member of the Plinian Society, to come up with Darwin’s theory of inheritable traits.

Pliney’s influence on the cannabis pharmacopoeia was recognized only recently and can also be substantial.

In “Natural History” there are numerous references to what English translators have called “hemp”. Pliny takes clear note of its industrial applications and calls it “a plant that is remarkably useful for making ropes”.

The footnotes for the hemp references in the authoritative translation by the British scholar John Bostock, published in 1856, read: “The Cannabis Sativa of Linnæus”. This is a reference to Carl Linnaeus, the 18th century Swedish botanist known as the father of modern taxonomy and who invented the system of plant classification that is still used today.

Given that the Latin word for hemp is cannabis, there is little controversy here.

The likely references to the use of the plant through medication and ecstasy (“leisure” in today’s parlance) are somewhat more ambiguous.

In his book “Cannabis and the Soma Solution”, the Canadian chronicler of ancient cannabis use, Chris Bennett, states that Pliny himself was the central one in an earlier work by the Greek philosopher Democritus (approx. 460 – approx. 370 BC) Figure in is, references cited development of the atomic theory of the universe (confirmed dramatically by science in the 20th century).

In the lost earlier work of Democritus, an herb called Theangelis was mentioned which grows “on the Lebanus in Syria” (present-day Lebanon) and “in Babylon and Susa in Persia”. Democritus wrote in a passage quoted by Pliny: “An infusion of it gives magicians divination powers.” The kings were of course the wise men and priests of the ancient Persian religion, Zoroastrianism.

Pliny also noted Democritus reference to Geolotophyllis, “a plant found in Bactriana (present-day Afghanistan) and” on the banks of Borysthenes “(the Dnieper in present-day Russia and Ukraine). “Taken internally with myrrh and wine, all sorts of visionary forms are presented that excite the most immoderate laughter.”

As Bennett notes, Bostock’s footnotes for these two esoteric terms identified them as “Indian hemp, cannabis sativa”.

Christian Rätsch lists in his “Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants” Theangelis and Geolotophyllis in his section “Psychoactive Plants that have not yet been identified”. However, Pliny’s geographical references are consistent with what we know about the origin of the cannabis plant in Central Asia (the Tibetan Plateau, according to the latest research) and its distribution from there across the steppes to Europe and the Middle East.

This makes Pliny one of the earliest authors to mention cannabis use. The earlier ones include the Greek historian Herodotus, who established its use by the Scythians, as well as the herbal compendia in the Indian Athrava Veda and in the Pen Ts’ao of the legendary Chinese emperor Shen Nung (approx. 2800 BC).

At a less esoteric point, Pliny also noted that an infusion of cannabis root boiled in water “relieves cramped joints, including gout and similar severe pain.” He also recommended hemp seed oil for treating ear infections (“worms”). This was mentioned in the December 2017 issue of the peer-reviewed quarterly journal Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research in an article titled “Cannabis Roots: A Traditional Therapy With Future Potential for Treating Inflammation and Pain”. The article, written by a team led by Vancouver doctor and cannabis therapist Natasha R. Ryz, states: “In the first century, Pliny the Elder described in Natural Histories that the root was boiled in water Could be used to relieve stiffness in the joints, gout and related conditions. By the 17th century, various herbalists recommended cannabis root for treating inflammation, joint pain, gout, and other ailments. “Although the root of the plant contains few cannabinoids, this suggests a connection between Pliny and the later medicinal use of cannabis tinctures, as in the 19th and early 20th centuries. This tradition came to an abrupt halt in the United States with the federal ban in 1937 and has only been rediscovered since the emergence of the medical marijuana movement just over a generation ago.

The works of Pliny the Elder undoubtedly show that cannabis use is not a new innovation, but deeply rooted in human culture.

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