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AGRUMED: Archaeology and history of citrus fruit in the Mediterranean

 | 
Véronique Zech-Matterne
, 
Girolamo Fiorentino

Citrium: A miraculous fruit. Investigating the uses of citrus fruit in the Western Mediterranean according to ancient Greek and Latin texts

Clémence Pagnoux

Texte intégral

1Greek and Latin writers describe a fruit named citrium in Latin and kitrion in Greek, whose features appear to be those of a citrus fruit. However, whereas several writers mention the tree, its fruit and their characteristics, the identification of one or several species remains uncertain. Ancient texts provide scant information about how or when citrus fruit reached Greece and Italy, but they do give an insight into its perception by ancient writers.

2Several treatises on medicine mention citrus fruits and their numerous medicinal properties. They describe a miraculous fruit, whose properties are mentioned as inseparable characteristics, with each writer appearing to amplify its attributes from one text to the next. Moreover, according to these ancient writers, various extravagant properties and legends are linked to citrus fruit. This paper aims to re-examine Greek and Latin texts, in order to fully list these features and to provide a possible interpretation on these miraculous plants.

  • 1 Pagnoux, this volume.

3Several treatises on medicine mention citrus fruit, the characteristics of the trees plus descriptions of the fruit and its properties, all of which are clues to identifying the genus Citrus.1 Its medicinal properties appear in many works, such as the use of the fruit or the juice as an antidote against poison:

  • 2 Theophrastus, Enquiry into Plants IV, 4, 2.

It is also useful when one has drunk deadly poison; for being given in wine it upsets the stomach and brings up the poison.2

  • 3 Pliny, Natural History XII, 15.

The citron or Assyrian apple, called by others the Median apple, is an antidote against poison (venenis medetur).3

  • 4 Plin., Nat. Hist. XXIII,105.

Citrea, either the fruit or the pips, are taken in wine to counteract poison (contra venenum in vino).4

  • 5 Vergil, Georgics II, 130.

[The health-living tree] comes as help most potent, and from the limbs drives the deadly venom (membris agit atra venena).5

  • 6 Athenaeus, Deipnosophists III, 84d.

If a kitrion is eaten before any other dry or liquid food, it serves as antidote against all dangerous substances (ἀντι φάρμακόν ἐστι παντὸς δηλητηρίου / anti phármakon esti pantòs deleteríou).6

  • 7 Galen, On the properties of Food II, 37; Gargilius Martialis, Medicinae ex holeribus et pomis 45.
  • 8 Plin., Nat. Hist. XXIII, 105; Garg. Mart., Med. 45; Diosc., Mat. Med. I, 115, 5.

4Theophrastus, Pliny and Dioscorides also advised mixing citrus fruit with wine in order to make it an anti-poisonous potion, though not all texts mention this. Theophrastus and Dioscorides link its power with purgative properties, while according to Athenaeus, the fruit is only efficient if taken before eating. Some sources also claim that citrus fruit eased digestion7 and relieved the symptoms of pregnant women.8

  • 9 Verg., Georgics II, 135; Garg. Mart., Med. 45.
  • 10 Garg. Mart., Med. 45.
  • 11 Scribonius Largus, Compositiones 158.

5However, some pharmaceutical uses were mentioned less frequently: only Virgil and Gargilius Martialis note that citrium cures a cough.9 Gargilius Martialis also writes that it is efficient in cases of spleen and liver infections.10 Scribonius Largus mentions citrium among the ingredients needed to treat gout.11

6Other attributes of citrus fruit are mentioned in Greek and Latin texts, generally related to health and hygiene. According to Theophrastus and Dioscorides, the fruit can be used to protect clothes from moths:

  • 12 Th., Enq. Plant. IV, 4, 2.

If an ‘apple’ is placed among clothes, it keeps them from being moth-eaten.12

  • 13 Diosc., Mat. Med. I, 115, 5.

It preserves clothes put in coffers from being eaten by insects.13

7Pliny’s text is less clear:

  • 14 Plin., Nat. Hist. XII, 15.

The fruit is never eaten, it is remarkable for its smell and the smell of the leaves; and the odour is so strong that it will penetrate the clothes and preserve them from noxious insects.14

8Unfortunately the text does not specify whether the powerful odour is that of the fruit or the leaves.

9This last sentence from Pliny may indicate that he took Theophrastus as a direct source, and never actually saw or experienced the fruit he was describing. Other extracts from Pliny’s book may confirm this. In the chapter dealing with the malus Assyria, he writes that the seeds of the Assyrium malum sweeten the breath and that the Parthians used to eat them for this purpose:

  • 15 Plin., Nat. Hist. XII, 16.

It is this fruit the pips of which […] the Parthians grandees have cooked with their viands for the sake of sweetening their breath.15

  • 16 Plin., Nat. Hist. XI, 278.

10He also has cited the Parthians as people whose ‘mouth smell from too much wine’, ‘but their upper class use as a remedy the seed of the Assyrian apple-tree’.16

11He also noted that among the apple’s medicinal properties, that the juice of the citrium has the same property as the seeds:

  • 17 Plin., Nat. Hist. XXIII, 105.

They make the breath pleasant if the mouth is washed with a decoction of them, or with the juice extracted from them.17

12The following information probably also came from Theophrastus:

  • 18 Th., Hist. Plant. IV, 4, 2.

Also for producing sweetness of breath: if one boils the inner part of the ‘apple’ in a sauce, or squeezes it into the mouth in some other medium, and then inhales it, it makes the breath sweet.18

13Dioscorides also mentions this:

  • 19 Diosc., Mat. Med. I, 115, 5.

The decoction or the juice of the fruits is a lotion to wash the mouth and gives a sweet breath.19

  • 20 Verg., Georgics II, 134-135.

14Virgil wrote that the Medians used citrus fruits to make their breath sweeter, without detailing which part of the citron was used.20 Whether it actually had any real medicinal properties, or if it was just some imaginary custom attributed to the people from the Near East, is difficult to determine.

15Another characteristic of the citrium, according to several writers who all use similar words to express this phenomenon, was that the tree bore fruit throughout the year:

  • 21 Th., Enq. Plant. IV, 4, 2.

It bears fruit at all seasons, πάσαν ὥραν / pasan oran21

  • 22 Diosc., Mat. Med.I, 115, 5.

The plant bears fruit the whole year, διὅλου τοῦ ἔτους / di’ olou tou etous22

  • 23 Plin., Nat. Hist. XII, 15.

The tree bears fruit at all seasons, omnibus horis23

  • 24 Servius, Commentary on Virgil Georgics  II, 121.

Almost always full of fruit, omne paene tempore24

  • 25 Macrobius, Saturnalia III, 19, 14.

In Persia, fruit are born at all seasons”, omni tempore.25

  • 26 Palladius, On agriculture IV, 10, 18.

16Due to this similarity, this characteristic seems to be part of a cluster of conjoined properties. Palladius wrote: “the fruit can keep on the tree the whole year”,26 which may be another interpretation of its virtues.

  • 27 Verg., Georgics II, 127.
  • 28 Plin., Nat. Hist. XII, 14.
  • 29 Plin., Nat. Hist. XIII, 103.
  • 30 Ath., Deipn. III, 84a.

17The texts indicate that the plant was probably considered as a miraculous plant, although some authors appear to have merely reinterpreted their predecessors’ works rather than actually experimenting with the qualities of the citrium itself. The plant’s properties may also have been amplified from one text to the next. Virgil names the fruit malum felix, the ‘salutary apple’;27 indeed, the properties which ancient writers attributed to the plant may explain this name. Pliny writes that malus Assyria is ‘the most salutary tree’.28 However, he also states that it is both hated, because of its odour, and sought after, as an ornamental tree.29 Athenaeus wrote that the kitrion was so precious that it was kept in clothes chests,30 although he probably confuses the habit of putting a kitrion with the clothes in order to preserve them from insects, and the exotic origin of the fruit, which made it valuable.

  • 31 Fiorentino, Marinò 2008.
  • 32 Tetraclinis articulata: Plin., Nat. Hist. XIII, 100; Amigues 2002: 269.
  • 33 Th., Enq. Plant. V, 3, 7.

18Citrus remains have also been found in ritual contexts (Temple of Venus, Pompeii31). Although there is no literary evidence of a religious use, the Latin term citrus was used to cover a wide variety of citrus and a Cypress species.32 This particular Cypress was named thuia or thua (singular: thuon) by Theophrastus33 – which means scented wood (singular thuon) or offerings (plural thua) – so this word did have a religious connotation. The term citrus may have been given due to ritual use and/or because of its odour, which may also indicate that they were regarded as sacred and valuable plants.

19The similarities between the Greek and Latin texts lead us to interpret the citrium as one single species. Its properties are repeated from one text to the next using similar words and expressions to describe them. This may be due to the uncited references of previous writers, but it could also indicate that not every writer knew the fruit from first-hand experience, some may have only learned about citrus fruits through their predecessors’ writings.

20Although the benefits of the citrium are amplified from one text to the next, some characteristics are actually reinterpreted. Several authors enumerate many properties, while other use superlative expressions to write about the citrium: both are evidence of the fascination of Greek and Latin writers for exotic and fabulous trees. Furthermore, the reference to the Parthian custom of eating citrus seeds to make the breath sweeter (Pliny mentions it three times) may just be a myth relating to people from the Near East.

21One particular species may have been introduced to the western Mediterranean because of its properties, although several species may have been introduced as well. However, our texts seem to refer purely to an official species, citrium, which was famous for its benefits, while all other species grew domestically in gardens.

Bibliographie

Literary sources

Athenaeus, Deipnosophists: Athaeneus « Deipnosophists », vol. 1, translated by C.B. Gulick, London-Cambridge, 1961.

Dioscorides, De Materia Medica: Pedanii Dioscuridis Anazarbei De material medica, edited by M. Wellmann, 2 vols., Berlin, 1958.

Galen, On the properties of foodstuffs: On the Properties of foodstuffs, introduced, translated and commented by O. Powell, Cambridge, 2003.

Gargilius Martilis, Medicinae ex holeribus et pomis: Plini secundi quae fertur una cum Gargilii Martialis medicina, edited by V. Rose, Leipzig, 1875.

Macrobius, Saturnalia: Ambrosii Theodosii Macrobii Saturnalia, edited by I. Willis, Leipzig, 1963.

Palladius, On agriculture: Opus agricultura, de veterinaria medicina, de insitione, edited by R.H. Rodgers, Leipzig, 1975.

Pliny, Natural History: Pliny the Elder, Natural History, vols. 4-6, edited and translated by H. Rackham, London, 1968-1971.

Scribonius Largus, Compositiones: Scribonii Largi Compositiones, edited by S. Sconocchia, Leipzig, 1983.

Servius, Commentary on Vergil Georgics: Servii Grammatici in Vergilii carmina commentarii, vol. 3 (1), edited by G. Thilo, Hildesheim, 1961.

Theophrastus, Enquiry into Plants: Theophrastus, Enquiry into Plants, vol. 1, edited and translated by Sir Artur Hort, London, 1916.

Vergil, Georgics: Vergil’s Georgics, edited by K. Volk, New York, 2008.

References

Amigues 2002: S. Amigues, Études de botanique antique, Paris.

Andrews 1961: A.C. Andrews, Acclimatization of Citrus Fruits in the Mediterranean Region, Agricultural History, 35, 1, p. 35-46.

Fiorentino, Marinò 2008: G. Fiorentino, G. Marinò, Analisi archeobotaniche preliminari al Tempio di Venere di Pompei, in P.G. Guzzo, M.P. Guidobaldi (eds.), Nuove ricerche archeologiche nell’area vesuviana (scavi 2003-2006). Atti del Convegno Internazionale, Roma, 1-3 febbraio 2007, Rome, p. 527-528.

Loret 1891: V. Loret, Le cédratier dans l’Antiquité, Annales de la Société de botanique de Lyon, 17, p. 225-271.

Notes

1 Pagnoux, this volume.

2 Theophrastus, Enquiry into Plants IV, 4, 2.

3 Pliny, Natural History XII, 15.

4 Plin., Nat. Hist. XXIII,105.

5 Vergil, Georgics II, 130.

6 Athenaeus, Deipnosophists III, 84d.

7 Galen, On the properties of Food II, 37; Gargilius Martialis, Medicinae ex holeribus et pomis 45.

8 Plin., Nat. Hist. XXIII, 105; Garg. Mart., Med. 45; Diosc., Mat. Med. I, 115, 5.

9 Verg., Georgics II, 135; Garg. Mart., Med. 45.

10 Garg. Mart., Med. 45.

11 Scribonius Largus, Compositiones 158.

12 Th., Enq. Plant. IV, 4, 2.

13 Diosc., Mat. Med. I, 115, 5.

14 Plin., Nat. Hist. XII, 15.

15 Plin., Nat. Hist. XII, 16.

16 Plin., Nat. Hist. XI, 278.

17 Plin., Nat. Hist. XXIII, 105.

18 Th., Hist. Plant. IV, 4, 2.

19 Diosc., Mat. Med. I, 115, 5.

20 Verg., Georgics II, 134-135.

21 Th., Enq. Plant. IV, 4, 2.

22 Diosc., Mat. Med.I, 115, 5.

23 Plin., Nat. Hist. XII, 15.

24 Servius, Commentary on Virgil Georgics  II, 121.

25 Macrobius, Saturnalia III, 19, 14.

26 Palladius, On agriculture IV, 10, 18.

27 Verg., Georgics II, 127.

28 Plin., Nat. Hist. XII, 14.

29 Plin., Nat. Hist. XIII, 103.

30 Ath., Deipn. III, 84a.

31 Fiorentino, Marinò 2008.

32 Tetraclinis articulata: Plin., Nat. Hist. XIII, 100; Amigues 2002: 269.

33 Th., Enq. Plant. V, 3, 7.

Auteur

Université Aix-Marseille, LAMPEA, Aix-en-Provence France; université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, ArScAn, équipe Archéologies environnementales, Nanterre, France; clemence.pagnoux@orange.fr

© Publications du Centre Jean Bérard, 2017

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