First, a story (from this Times piece by Ben Macintyre, which I found at Barista):

But there is one Roman delicacy even Jamie Oliver, our own Apicius, could not bring back to life. Laserpithium was a North African herb of indescribable deliciousness, akin to garlic, but far more tasty. The root, and its juice, was much favoured by Roman chefs; so much so that by around AD50, according to Patrick Faas, the culinary historian, it had been eaten to extinction and was thought to have disappeared altogether.

Then, in the time of Nero, a single plant was found deep in the Cyrenaic desert. If this lone seedling had been cultivated, then today we might still be enjoying Laserpithium with everything. Nero had other plans. The last surviving plant was dug up, shipped to Rome, and eaten by the emperor.

I don’t know (though I’m sure one of my readers will) how much truth there is in the story, but I zeroed in on the word “Laserpithium,” an ungainly word (made more ungainly by being pointlessly capitalized) that I had to investigate.

I pulled out my trusty Oxford Latin Dictionary and found this entry (omitting the citations):

lāserpīcium ~i(ī), n. lāserpītium. [app. from lac sirpicium, see LASER]
  1 Asafoetida.
  2 The plant which produces this, silphium.

Aha, good old silphium! Silphium, as the OED says, was

A plant of the Mediterranean region, yielding a gum-resin or juice much valued by the ancients as a condiment or medicine; the juice obtained from this plant, also called LASER1.

The plant has been variously identified as Thapsia garganica or silphion, and Narthex silphium. It was largely cultivated for export at Cyrene on the north coast of Africa.

Now my attention turned to this mysterious “laser,” which both the OLD and the OED wanted me to see. The OED calls it “A gum-resin mentioned by Roman writers; obtained from an umbelliferous plant called lāserpīcium or silphium“; the OLD entry is (again omitting citations):

lāser ~eris, n. lāsar. [app. altered and abbreviated from lac sirpicium (see LAC and SIRPE) owing to wrong analysis (piceus) and influenced by piper, siser, etc.]
  1 A strong-smelling resinous gum produced by the silphium plant, asafoetida.
  2 The plant which produces this, silphium.

So that clears everything up (and provides us with a bit of Latin folk etymology—piceus means ‘pitchy, resinous’), except for the asafetida business. Is lāser/silphium simply asafetida? If so, 1) why is it said to have disappeared? and 2) why is it said to be “of indescribable deliciousness, akin to garlic, but far more tasty”? Have you ever been around asafetida? Believe me, the “fetid” isn’t there by accident.


  1. To your 2):
    it doesn’t surprise you garlic is posed as model of deliciousness, is it? in good measure, he said.
    There is a beatiful Polish expression, my favorite, that translates roughly “what’s too much isn’t healthy” (I’m ashamed of my Polish spelling and won’t attempt it) – where is Michael Farris when you need him?

  2. J.Cassian says:

    It’s mentioned in this wonderful poem by Catullus (which I don’t have time to translate; I swiped the text from the Latin Library)
    QVAERIS, quot mihi basiationes
    tuae, Lesbia, sint satis superque.
    quam magnus numerus Libyssae harenae
    lasarpiciferis iacet Cyrenis
    oraclum Iouis inter aestuosi
    et Batti ueteris sacrum sepulcrum;
    aut quam sidera multa, cum tacet nox,
    furtiuos hominum uident amores:
    tam te basia multa basiare
    uesano satis et super Catullo est,
    quae nec pernumerare curiosi
    possint nec mala fascinare lingua.
    Kenneth Quinn’s note in my edition reads: “lasarpiciferis: …’rich in silphium’; if the plant , the main export of Cyrene was asafoetida (the attribution is doubtful) then perhaps C. devised his learned polysyllable as an ironic corrective to the literary associations of the name Cyrene. Silphium was employed in medicine, apparently for a variety of purposes…There is a magnificent 6th century Laconian cup thought to show King Arkesilas of Cyrene supervising the weighing of silphium…”

  3. two quick comments.
    first, asafoetida is alive and well and available at my local Fiesta supermarket. I tried to get some in Australia when I was in charge of the Classical Society’s yearly Roman feast, but it was highly seasonal there and we were having the feast at the wrong time of year.
    It could be a different species from the one the Romans had. They had different lettuce, for example (with soporific qualities, hence Ovid’s warning in the Ars Amatoria not to have lettuce soup on your date). There are others too, I looked into this as part of that Roman feast thing (got to read Apicius and all sorts of good stuff).
    re 2, the Romans had all sorts of weird things, like garum (fish sauce) in peach flans.

  4. As far as the Romans were concerned, asafoetida was a variety of silfium/laserpicium, albeit an inferior Persian variety. Modern scholars usually distinguish the two.
    The etymology of asa foetida is unclear. It’s bleedin’ obvious what foetida means, but asa is obscure. One theory is that it’s a corruption of laser. Another theory is that it comes from a neo-Persian word for resin, which momentarily escapes me.

  5. Apropos of nothing, I suppose more people have heard of Bishkek/Pishpek now.

  6. Michael Farris says:

    “where is Michael Farris when you need him?”
    uhh being useless as usual? The phrase sort of rang a bell, but I couldn’t remember exactly and the couple of people I remembered to ask today were no help either. But …. Google never lets me down (I want to get drunk and throw my arm around google and shout “here’s to the best damned search engine in the worrrlll!”)
    Without too much trouble I found ….
    “Co za dużo to nie zdrowo”

  7. Almost. *Za nadto instead of *Za duzo, or that’s how I remember.
    Thank you very, very much.
    Now if only my boss understood Polish..

  8. Michael Farris says:

    “It could be a different species from the one the Romans had.”
    That’s my assumption, it was a related but different species and probably had a different taste, just as Italian basil tastes very different from Thai basil.

  9. Lars Mathiesen says:

    LG düwelsdreck > Da dyvelsdræk = resin of F. assa-foetida. Does not have a place in the kitchen here, but formerly as a remedy against biting your nails (externally applied).

  10. It is used in Turkmen cuisine:

    Наряду с обязательным луком и красным перцем, широко используются мята, дикая петрушка, ажгон, бужгук (голлы фисташкового дерева), шафран, асафетиду или ее заменитель – чеснок.

    Ввиду специфического запаха асафетиду используют в минимальных дозах: в блюда ее не кладут, а прочерчивают ею по дну котла одну две черты.
    (Because of its strong smell, as little assa foetida is used as possible—it’s not put in, but rather, a streak or two are drawn across the bottom of the pot.)

    Этого достаточно, чтобы блюдо приобрело чесночно луковый аромат.
    (That’s quite enough to impart a garlicky aroma.)

    Turkmen cuisine

  11. David Marjanović says:

    “what’s too much isn’t healthy”

    German: zuviel des Guten ist ungesund.

  12. John Cowan says:

    “Take it for nothing, Governor; I’m damned if I’m going to spell asafoedita and Hickenlooper for a lousy dime.”

  13. David Marjanović says:

    Oh, is this real? There’s an old joke about cops who can’t spell Gymnasium and drag the corpse (a human this time) to the post office.

  14. No, also a joke. But a good one!

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