I have a new textual crush. I have become totally enamoured with the Geoponika (literally, Agricultural Stuff), a Byzantine tenth-century compilation of agronomical advice. It is full of fun recipes and precepts. While other ancient agronomical authors might edit out what they consider superstitious or magical – or worse start a tedious rant on the evils of superstition (yes, I mean you Galen and Pliny) – the compiler of the Geoponika writes that he would not want to omit anything mentioned in the ancient sources, even when he disagrees with them (1.14). While I might get rather annoyed with this attitude in a student’s essay, I applaud it here. Watch this space for a discussion of the use of naked virgins in pest control. For today, I will concentrate on the Geoponika’s advice to cure a hangover, which the compiler has extracted from the writings of Berytius, that is, Vindanius Anatolius of Beirut, a fourth-century Greek author whose works are lost:
To sober up drunkards. From the writings of Berytius. A good drink of vinegar makes drunkards sober; or eating cabbage, honey sweet pastries and flat cakes; also inquiries and discussions of ancient history (or ancient stories), and wreaths of diverse flowers worn on the head. [Geoponika 7.33]
Apart from the vinegar bit, this does not sound too painful – in fact it sounds quite nice: some cabbage (preferably not over-boiled), cakes and other sweet stuff, lovely flowers and a good chat about ancient history. I’d rather take that than a greasy kebab, thank you very much. Wreaths appear to have been regularly recommended in the cure of hangovers in antiquity. We have fragments of works entitled On Perfumes and Wreaths by a certain Philonides (first century BCE) and a certain Apollodorus (dates uncertain) that deal with the treatment of headaches caused by wine consumption (these fragments are to be found in the writings of Athenaeus, second century CE). The sweet smell of flowers may have somewhat alleviated throbbing headaches. The cakes would have settled an upset stomach – or else cause a purge, always a good outcome in ancient medicine. The use of cabbage as a remedy against drunkenness needs more explanation.
Ancient authors believed there was a deep antipathy between the cabbage and the vine. This belief is to be found first in the botanical writings of Theophrastus (end of the fourth century BCE):
Some plants do not destroy [other plants] but rather overpower them by the properties of their saps and smells: for instance the cabbage and the laurel with the vine. For, they say, the vine can perceive smells and draw them up. This is why, when a vine shoot finds itself near these plants, it turns away and looks away, as if their smell was abhorrent. And Androcydes used this as a proof that a remedy made from cabbage against wine would get rid of drunkenness. For, he argued, the vine, being alive, flees its smell. [Theophrastus, Research into Plants, 4.16.6]
You will notice that Theophrastus, a student of Aristotle, distances himself from this story by the use of ‘they say’. Other authors such as Pliny the Elder were less cautious (Natural History 17.239), and the compiler of the Geoponika, whose philosophy is centred on the principles of antipathy and sympathy in nature, shows no hint of a doubt: cabbage cures drunkenness. Elsewhere the Geoponika recommend the cabbage be taken raw before drinking wine (5.11).
The Androcydes mentioned by Theophrastus may – or may not – be the man who allegedly wrote to Alexander the Great to advise him on his heavy drinking. The story is told by Pliny the Elder (first century CE):
Androcydes, a man famous for his wisdom, wrote to Alexander the Great enjoining him to check his immoderate use of wine: ‘When you are about to drink wine, King, remember that you are about to drink the blood of the earth: hemlock is a poison to man; wine is a poison to hemlock.’ [Natural History 14.58]
Pliny adds that Alexander was in the habit of attacking his friends when drunk. Perhaps it is cautionary tales like those of Alexander’s drunken outbursts that were meant to have a sobering effect on drunkards. However, it is more fun to read the Geoponika‘s recommendation to discuss ancient stories as an allusion to proper philosophical debates, with highly intellectual arguments. If the complexity of these arguments did not have a sobering effect, then at least they might have had a soporific one… Falling asleep while trying to concentrate is not a new phenomenon. Indeed, one of the ‘problems’ attributed to Aristotle begins with the following question:
Why do some people, when they start to read, feel sleepy against their will; while those who want to go to sleep when they reach for a book are kept awake? [Pseudo-Aristotle, Problems 18.1]
I would let you know the answer to this thorny issue if I did not feel so sleepy myself…