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The Bacchanal by Peter Paul Rubens. (PAINTING: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

Is Widespread Drug Use to Thank for the Inventions of the Classical World?

• July 29, 2013 • 2:00 PM

The Bacchanal by Peter Paul Rubens. (PAINTING: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

At least one scholar’s research indicates drug use was fairly common in ancient Greece and Rome.

The United States has worried seriously about citizen drug use for more than 40 years. Here’s President Richard Nixon back in 1971: “America’s public enemy number one in the United States is drug abuse. In order to fight and defeat this enemy, it is necessary to wage a new, all-out offensive.” Concern grew in the 1980s with the escalation in the use of crack cocaine, inspiring President Ronald Reagan to create the Office of National Drug Control Policy to coordinate drug-related legislation and research.

It also led his wife, First Lady Nancy Reagan, to start her “Just Say No” campaign, designed to keep children away from drugs (or drugs away from children). This resulted in a number of stilted television appearances and PR opportunities. Around this same time, we saw the emergence of the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program (D.A.R.E.), an anti-drug collaboration between local police departments and public schools.

All of these efforts had a pretty limited effect, but they did make arguments about the evils of marijuana and other recreational drugs familiar to every American, so much so that Ronald Reagan could say with a straight face, during a 1986 address to the nation on the campaign against drug abuse: “Let us not forget who we are. Drug abuse is a repudiation of everything America is.” And six years later, when he appeared on Larry King Live as part of his presidential campaign, Bill Clinton described his experience with pot like this: “I experimented with marijuana a time or two, and didn’t like it. I didn’t inhale and I didn’t try it again.”

Such an anxiousness with regard to drugs made it seem as if this were a country overrun with them, with junkies in every alley and pushers on every corner. As James Swartz writes in Substance Abuse in America: “[I]t was the changing profile of those using illegal drugs, as much as the increase in the number of illegal drug users that was causing consternation among the public and politicians. In the 1960s, the use of illegal drugs, particularly marijuana, went mainstream. The American middle class, particularly college students, was using drugs in unprecedented numbers.”

But all of this makes it sound as if we had never seen drug use like this before. In fact, research indicates that drug use has been common throughout much of history.

In particular, they probably used a lot of drugs in the ancient world. This information comes to us courtesy of David Hillman, a writer and former Ph.D. student at the University of Wisconsin.

[The West’s] … founding fathers were drug users, plain and simple; they grew the stuff, they sold the stuff, and, most important, they used the stuff. The modern antidrug campaign is not a democratic movement at all; the ancient world didn’t have a Nancy Reagan, it didn’t wage a billion-dollar drug war, it didn’t imprison people who used drugs, and it didn’t embrace sobriety as a virtue. It indulged … and from this world in which drugs were a universally accepted part of life sprang art, literature, science, and philosophy.

For his dissertation, about “pharmacy in Roman literature,” Hillman looked into historic writing and learned that the classical world was full of drug users. Everyone, from farmers and merchants to senators and emperors, seemed to use illicit substances in one form or another. The Emperor Marcus Aurelius, for example, was thought to be addicted to opium—he was at least a regular user of the drug—and he died more than 1,800 years prior to Reagan’s address.

Why don’t more of us know about this version of history? Why are dense textbooks otherwise full of references to misbehavior in the ancient world (think: sodomy and, well, killing the head of the Roman Republic for the greater good of the state) lacking in their coverage of drugs and drug use?

Look a little closer and many of the people of ancient Greece and Rome sound like alcoholics. Athenian statesman and orator Alcibiades famously bursts into Plato’s Symposium drunk and supported by a flute-girl and other partiers. He joins the discussion despite his inebriation. But what if he weren’t just drunk? People of the classical world didn’t just drink a lot. They used drugs a lot, too.

The reason this isn’t common knowledge, especially among the high school and college students who aren’t so far removed from the history books as to have forgotten most everything in them, appears to have a lot to do with editing.

Classical literature is full of sorcerers, magicians, and witches. But these people weren’t mythical wizards; they were real people, with real expertise. Hillman argues that our misunderstanding of the ancient world stems from the fact that translators don’t typically explain that these people were powerful, “magical” largely because they knew how to use drugs. As he writes: “The Greeks and Romans used opium, anticholinergics, and numerous botanical toxins to induce states of mental euphoria, create hallucinations, and alter their own consciousness; this is an indisputable fact.”

He discovered this though careful translation of the original texts. Hillman, for example, was reading an ancient document by Thucydides that references slaves taking wounded Spartan soldiers “poppy mixed with honey and pounded linseed.” The word is mekon, which in English versions is usually translated as “poppy seed.” But slaves aren’t taking soldiers the ingredients for lemon poppy seed muffins. “You don’t send poppy seeds to wounded soldiers,” Hillman points out. “You send them opium.” Wounded soldiers don’t need poppy seeds.

Traditional scholars, either by natural inclination or academic training, are a conservative lot, and whenever they encounter drug references in ancient texts they seem to default to simply removing them. Hillman argues. In his book, The Chemical Muse: Drug Use and the Roots of Western Civilization, which grew out of his dissertation, he writes that: “The moral bent that so characterizes contemporary Classicists forces them to write histories that best promote the cultural agendas of our times, rather than the actual facts of the past…. Blacklisting is not a cruelty of the distant, uninformed past; it’s a very real phenomenon that flourishes within academic circles today, whether in the humanities or the sciences.”

But Hillman’s research hasn’t exactly been warmly received or gained widespread acceptance among classical scholars. His doctoral thesis review committee at Wisconsin objected to the drug references. According to Hillman, the committee said he should take the drugs out or he wouldn’t get the degree. And he complied.

And it’s important to remember that this is also just one scholar. Hillman’s book was published by a commercial publisher, and not subject to peer review, and his evidence is based on literature, not scientific data or contemporary primary sources. More research may reveal additional information.

Interestingly enough, while Hillman could find evidence of widespread drug use in his research, he didn’t find much about societal efforts to curtail that practice. (Emperor Augustus’ wife, Livia, while otherwise involved in all sorts of public morality efforts, had no apparent Dicite iusto nulla project.)

Today’s drug problems aren’t, of course, exclusive to the United States. The widespread use of opium in early modern China may well have undermined the government and even Chinese society itself, but somehow no one seemed much to mind in the ancient world. Opium was just, like garum and wine, something people regularly consumed. As Hillman put it in a 2008 interview: “The people of Athens didn’t care if you got high. They focused on keeping aristocrats from hijacking the democracy they invented. The prohibitionists lived in Sparta, where tyranny was the rule.” No big deal.

But what does all of this mean, if anything? The basic history and ideas based on texts from the ancient world are the same, whether we agree that drug use was widespread at the time or not. But, Hillman argues, drugs may have had something to do with the incredible creativity we associate with the classical world:

The early Greek philosophers who inspired the mental revolution that influenced the birth of democracy were the biggest drug-using lunatics of them all. Seriously, they were much more like medicine men than philosophers. So not only did democracy spring up in a drug-using culture, but its roots lie in a drug-using, shamanistic, intellectual movement. I think it’s perfectly safe to say: “No drugs, no democracy.”

Sometimes the classical world seems overwhelming. The realization that they developed representative democracy and geometry and Christianity and cement and flush toilets thousands of years ago is astounding. How did they do it? Well, we don’t really know, but a lot of them were probably high.

Daniel Luzer

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