Saturday, 2 February 2013

Laser, Ancient Rome Style

Everybody loves lasers, right? You can point them at the moon, use them to annoy cats, or blind people. I probably wouldn't advocate that last one though.

"Fire the laser!"

Even the ancient Greeks and Romans loved lasers, or as they called it, just laser.

What was it?

As I'm sure you clever people twigged, "laser" to the ancients did not mean a highly focused beam of light. Laser was some kind of plant based seasoning for food. That's about as much as we can say, since we don't actually know what it was.

It was clearly an important, expensive commodity: the Egyptians had a specific glyph for it, and the Romans described it as "worth it's weight in denarii [silver coins]". On the other hand, a plant doesn't weigh that much... Here's a picture of it on a coin:

These coins are from Cyrene, where the export of laser was an important part of their economy.

We now think that laser might be an extinct form of fennel, but since we can't even say for certain what it was, we can't really say if it's really extinct.  

Uses in Food

Laser was most commonly used as a cooking additive. Apicius (the Roman Gourmet. A kind of cross between Heston Blumethal and Constance Spry, if you can imagine such a thing) offers lots of recipes involving laser. How about a spice mix of:  "moderately acid broth; or pepper, parsley, dry mint, laser root, honey, vinegar and broth... ground, compounded and dissolved together"? Or "pepper, caraway, anise, parsley, dry mint, the leaves of silphium [laser], malobathrum, Indian spikenard, a little costmary, honey, vinegar and broth."?

It seems to have been used to flavour both sweet and savoury dishes.

Uses in Medicine

Laser was also, apparently, a medical herb. Pliny the Elder (a credulous man who complied a huge encyclopedia of natural phenomena) claimed laser could be used to treat coughs, sore throats, indigestion, fever, aches and pains and even warts. If it could do all that, it would be a godsend to modern Britons, since we're perennially suffering from colds.

Uses in Birth Control

It is possible that laser was used to induce miscarriage or prevent conception. You know what that means? It means the Romans had laser based birth control. Imagine, for a second, the awesome power of that image.

What happened to it?

There are a few theories about what happened to laser. It only grew in an isolated region of modern Libya, so it has been suggested that over-harvesting or over-grazing may have been the cause. There was apparently a craze for the meat of animals grazed on laser. Apparently it altered the taste.

The last known stalk of laser was given to Emperor Nero.

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