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We've eaten all the silphium

One of the most fun things about Ancient History is that it's never as dead as you think it is. I'm in the middle of writing the second book in the Valerius mysteries now, and the timing couldn't be better because the discovery of the Theatre of Nero was only announced in July 2023. Juvenalia, the second book in the series, was always going to have Nero's private theatre in it, but the fact it's on maps now and I don't just have to make it up? I'm not going to lie, this makes it look as if I've really done my research and I am totally up to date on all the hottest archaeological news out of Rome, but it's actually just good luck.

But while I'm personally stoked that Nero's theatre has been found, the really exciting news, in my opinion, is all about silphium - and there's a Nero connection here as well!

For those who don't know, silphium was a miracle plant of the ancient world. It was used as everything including a seasoning, a medicine, a perfume, an aphrodisiac, and a contraceptive. It was so important to the economy of Cyrene that it was depicted on their currency.

And then, during the reign of Nero, it was harvested to extinction. Nero himself is said to have received the last stalk of the stuff. And, in the almost two thousand years after that, there was no sign of silphium anywhere.

Until very recently.

In 2022, news broke that Mahmut Miski, a professor from the University of Istanbul, had discovered a new species of plant, Ferula drudeana, back in 1983, and twenty years after that, had begun to investigate the possibility that the Ferula drudeana was in fact silphium. And it all seems to fit. The Ferula drudeana is as notoriously difficult to transplant as ancient silphium was said to be. It has the same heart-shaped seeds. It makes nibbling goats drowsy. It even passed the taste test! And, possibly most importantly, the areas in Turkey it was discovered in were settled by Greeks with a connection to Cyrene.

Of course, unless an ancient silphium plant is discovered, maybe preserved in a buried jar or a shipwreck, there's no real way to prove that Ferula drudeana is silphium. It may just be a close relative. But it's an intriguing thought, isn't it, that something we were once so sure was lost for good might still be here two thousand years later? That maybe there's at least one thing we humans didn't screw up by being too greedy?

The history of silphium is the first story of an extinction recorded in real time. It's nice to think we might get a second chance at some things.

If you want to know more about the potential rediscovery of silphium, this National Geographic article is fantastic.

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