The First Recorded Opium Addict? The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius

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Trivial Diversions

The First Recorded Opium Addict? The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius

The First Recorded Opium Addict?  The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius

The opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) has been used as in religious rituals, as a narcotic and medicine since the Sumerians named it Hul Gil (joy plant.) The Ancient  Greek Gods Hypnos (Sleep), Nyx (Night), and Thanatos (Death) were shown with poppies.

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#1 By Roman times, Opium (from the Greek word for juice) could be easily bought on the drug and spice markets of Rome. It was known as a powerful pain reliever.

#2 Dioscorides was a physician with the Roman Army. He described using poppy leaves of juice in capsules as a sleep aid, in throat lozenges as a pain-killer and as suppositories for bowel disorders.

#3 Opium was used as an aphrodisiac but too much could send you into a sleep that ended in death. It was sometimes taken as a method of suicide when confronted with an incurable illness. But it’s life ending properties also meant that it could be used as a tool for murder. The Emperor Nero allegedly only came to power after his mother dosed his stepbrother with a lethal dose of opium.

#4 Under Nero’s reign, the physician Galen wrote: “Opium is the strongest of the drugs which numb the senses and induce a deadening sleep, its effects are produced when it is soaked in boiling water, taken up on a flock of wool and used as a suppository.

#5 He prescribed the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius a daily dose of opium. He mixed it with many other ingredients into a medicine he called ‘Theriac.’ Marcus took it pretty liberally:

During the day he took nothing but Theriac, not because he was afraid of poison, but to ease his stomach and chest”. [Dio Cassius]

#6 Gale cut the dose according to the demands of the day, sometimes creating withdrawal symptoms for Marcus.

When he found himself getting drowsy at his duties, he had the poppy juice removed, but then he was unable to sleep at night, so he was obliged again to have recourse to the compound which contained poppy-juice, since this was now habitual for him.” [Galen XIV 4].

Despite his reliance on opium Marcus still attended to his duties and even found time to write one of the world’s most influential books on philosophy, the Meditations which are still revered today.

Related topics Heroin, Marcus Aurelius
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