Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


bacchanalia

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

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 30 • 4:00 AM

Grad School’s Mental Health Problem

Navigating the emotional stress of doctoral programs in a down market.


September 29 • 1:21 PM

Conference Call: Free Will Conference


September 29 • 12:00 PM

How Copyright Law Protects Art From Criticism

A case for allowing the copyright on Gone With the Wind to expire.


September 29 • 10:00 AM

Should We Be Told Who Funds Political Attack Ads?

On the value of campaign finance disclosure.


September 29 • 8:00 AM

Searching for a Man Named Penis

A quest to track down a real Penis proves difficult.


September 29 • 6:00 AM

Why Do So Many People Watch HGTV?

The same reason so many people watch NCIS or Law and Order: It’s all a procedural.


September 29 • 4:00 AM

The Link Between Depression and Terrorism

A new study from the United Kingdom finds a connection between depression and radicalization.


September 26 • 4:00 PM

Fast Track to a Spill?

Oil pipeline projects across America are speeding forward without environmental review.


September 26 • 2:00 PM

Why Liberals Love the Disease Theory of Addiction, by a Liberal Who Hates It

The disease model is convenient to liberals because it spares them having to say negative things about poor communities. But this conception of addiction harms the very people we wish to help.


September 26 • 1:21 PM

Race, Trust, and Split-Second Judgments


September 26 • 9:47 AM

Dopamine Might Be Behind Impulsive Behavior

A monkey study suggests the brain chemical makes what’s new and different more attractive.


September 26 • 8:00 AM

A Letter Becomes a Book Becomes a Play

Sarah Ruhl’s Dear Elizabeth: A Play in Letters From Elizabeth Bishop to Robert Lowell and Back Again takes 900 pages of correspondence between the two poets and turns them into an on-stage performance.


September 26 • 7:00 AM

Sonic Hedgehog, DICER, and the Problem With Naming Genes

Wait, why is there a Pokemon gene?


September 26 • 6:00 AM

Sounds Like the Blues

At a music-licensing firm, any situation can become nostalgic, romantic, or adventurous, given the right background sounds.


September 26 • 5:00 AM

The Dark Side of Empathy

New research finds the much-lauded feeling of identification with another person’s emotions can lead to unwarranted aggressive behavior.



September 25 • 4:00 PM

Forging a New Path: Working to Build the Perfect Wildlife Corridor

When it comes to designing wildlife corridors, our most brilliant analytical minds are still no match for Mother Nature. But we’re getting there.


September 25 • 2:00 PM

Fashion as a Inescapable Institution

Like it or not, fashion is an institution because we can no longer feasibly make our own clothes.


September 25 • 12:00 PM

The Fake Birth Mothers Who Bilk Couples Out of Their Cash by Promising Future Babies

Another group that’s especially vulnerable to scams and fraud is that made up of those who are desperate to adopt a child.


September 25 • 10:03 AM

The Way We QuickType


September 25 • 10:00 AM

There’s a Name for Why You Feel Obligated to Upgrade All of Your Furniture to Match

And it’s called the Diderot effect.


September 25 • 9:19 AM

School Counselors Do More Than You’d Think

Adding just one counselor to a school has an enormous impact on discipline and test scores, according to a new study.


September 25 • 9:05 AM

Sponsors: Coming to a Sports Jersey Near You

And really, it’s not that big of a deal.


September 25 • 8:00 AM

The Most Pointless Ferry in Maryland

Most of the some 200 ferries that operate in the United States serve a specific, essential purpose—but not the one that runs across the Tred Avon River.


September 25 • 7:00 AM

Hating Happiness

People all over the world are afraid of happiness, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s yet another challenge to the notion that positive thinking can heal all wounds.


Follow us


Dopamine Might Be Behind Impulsive Behavior

A monkey study suggests the brain chemical makes what's new and different more attractive.

School Counselors Do More Than You’d Think

Adding just one counselor to a school has an enormous impact on discipline and test scores, according to a new study.

How a Second Language Trains Your Brain for Math

Second languages strengthen the brain's executive control circuits, with benefits beyond words.

Would You Rather Go Blind or Lose Your Mind?

Americans consistently fear blindness, but how they compare it to other ailments varies across racial lines.

On the Hunt for Fake Facebook Likes

A new study finds ways to uncover Facebook Like farms.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.