The Fanciful Notions Ancient Greeks And Romans Held About Spices
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If you thought 18% GST was too steep, wait till you hear about the ancient Romans. A Roman record from the 5th century AD, known as the Alexandria Tariff, includes a list of fifty-four commodities under the title species pertinentesadvectigal, which translates to "goods subject to duty". This list contains expensive goods such as cinnamon, cassia, ginger, white pepper, long pepper, cardamom, aloewood, and myrrh, all of which were subject to 25% customs duty when they were brought in to the Egyptian port of Alexandria. You see, the term "spice" in the English language has its origins in the Latin word "species," which is related to a lot of other words, including "special" and "especially." In its literal sense, species means "sort" or "category" and is still used in this context in the field of biology. It gradually started to refer to items of value as it was used to specify the items on which taxes were to be paid. So, a number of exotic items, including lions, leopards, panthers, silk, ivory, tortoiseshell, and Indian eunuchs, were technically "spices." These spices then passed through the Mediterranean and on to customers in Europe.

The people of ancient Greece and Rome were obviously huge fans of these "spices," but their origins were mysterious to them. Take Herodotus, "the father of history," for example, talking about how a Greek favorite, cinnamon, was collected. He wrote, "In what country it grows is quite unknown." The Arabians say that the dry sticks, which we call kinamomon, are brought to Arabia by large birds, which carry them to their nests, made of mud, on mountain precipices that no man can climb. People cut up the bodies of dead oxen into very large joints and leave them on the ground near the nests. They then scatter, and the birds fly down and carry off the meat to their nests, which are too weak to bear the weight and fall to the ground. The men come and pick up the cinnamon. Acquired this way, it is exported to other countries." Theophrastus, another Greek dude from the 4th century BCE, thought cinnamon grew in deep glens and was guarded by deadly snakes. like some nagamanisin Bollywood films.

Pliny the Elder, though, was having none of it. He rolled his eyes and thought these were tall tales invented by the Arabs to make what they were selling seem more exotic. Which, well, is just solid business sense. Clients of the Arab merchants around the Mediterranean were willing to pay large amounts for spices specifically because of their special allure and secret origins.

Showing off spice was a way of establishing yourself in the top echelons of society. "The conspicuous consumption of spices was a way to demonstrate one’s wealth, power, and generosity. Spices were presented as gifts, bequeathed in wills along with other valuable items, and even used as currency in some cases," writes Tom Standage in his "An Edible History of Humanity."

Spices were seen as a way to combat the ordinariness of life on earth in a more spiritual way. Ancient scholars believed that ginger and cinnamon were "splinters of paradise" that had come to the pedestrian, boring Earth. They stated that the spices had been fished from the Nile River, having been carried downstream from a place of bliss, or the Garden of Eden, as described by subsequent Christian writers. These authors believed that the Garden of Eden was abundant with many different types of plants, chiefly, of course, the mysterious and aromatic spices. They believed these spices were literally otherworldly, hence their offerings of spices to gods and dead relatives. The burning of incense was one way of recreating the essence of the heavenly realm. One Roman writer believed the mythical phoenix made her nest even with spices!  

While these notions seem fanciful and laughable to us now in the modern world, we cannot underestimate the importance of these notions. It was the combination of the mystery about spices’ origins, the resulting high prices and value as status symbols, and the mystical and spiritual meaning they held that literally launched thousands of ships. It motivated European explorers to cut out the middleman and go seek these treasures themselves. It launched a race among European nations to find the direct path to the Indies, and along the way, it changed the course of human history.