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Health and wellbeing in the ancient world
Health and wellbeing in the ancient world

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2.2 Citrus fruits at Pompeii

Carbonised and mineralised citrus seeds are among those discovered at Pompeii. They date to the third and second century BCE – that is, well before the destruction of the town by the explosion of Vesuvius. Citrus fruit is also represented on a fresco of the House of the Fruit Orchard (I.9.5–7). The citrus fruits consumed at Pompeii were the citron (Citrus medica), a fragrant citrus fruit with a thick rind frequently used in Bangladeshi cuisine, and the lemon (Citrus limon).

When Vesuvius erupted in 79 CE, citrus trees were fairly common in Italy, but that had not always been the case. Archaeologists believe that these trees were introduced to southern Italy and Greece at the beginning of the first millennium BCE, and traders from the East played an important role in importing these plants from Persia. The Persian origin of the citron is reflected in its first Greek and Latin name, meaning ‘the apple from Media’ (modern Iran). Naming fruits after their place of origin (or alleged place of origin) was a common practice among the Greeks and Romans: they called the peach the ‘Persian apple’, and the apricot the ‘Armenian apple’. These names signalled the exotic status of the trees and their fruits.

The citron, however, was eventually given a simpler name: citrus in Latin and kitron in Greek. In the first century CE Virgil described ‘the health-giving citrus tree’ (Georgics, 2.126–130) and said it could counteract poison, something the encyclopaedist Pliny the Elder (Natural History, 12.7.15) agreed with. You will return to the topic of antidotes against poison in the section Ancient tonics: antidotes. By the end of the second century CE, Galen said that only pedants called the citron the ‘apple from Media’.

The Greeks and Romans grew the lemon and the citron trees for their decorative quality and to consume their fruits as medicine, rather than as food. According to Galen the citron is not easy to digest as a food, but is useful as a drug:

The citron has three parts, the acid part in the middle, the flesh, so to speak, that surrounds this, and the third part, the external covering lying around it. This fruit is fragrant and aromatic, not only to smell, but also to taste. As might be expected, it is difficult to digest since it is hard and knobbly. But if one uses it as a medicament it helps concoction, as do many other things with a bitter quality. For the same reason it also strengthens the oesophagus when a small quantity is taken.

(Galen, Properties of Foodstuffs, 2.37)

So, taken in small amounts, as a medicine, the citron could ‘help concoction’, but when consumed in large amounts, as a food, it had the opposite effect. Citron was also used in gynaecological treatments: Pliny the Elder (first century CE) writes that pregnant women ate citron pips to avoid nausea in pregnancy (Natural History, 23.105) and the physician Soranus (from a similar date) explains that smelling citrons can help women in labour when they are very weak (Gynecology, 2.2). However, Plutarch warned that ‘many older people still cannot eat ripe cucumber, citron, or pepper’ and suggested that they produced some sort of residue in the body.

Plutarch is also one of the many writers who writes about the order of courses in ancient meals. He suggests that:

It is also probable that the order and rearrangement of foods makes a considerable difference; for the ‘cold course,’ as it used to be called, with oysters, sea-urchins, and raw vegetables, has like a body of light-armed troops been shifted from the rear to the front, and holds first place instead of last. The serving of the so-called aperitifs is a great change too. The ancients did not even drink water before the dessert course, but nowadays people get themselves intoxicated before eating a thing, and take food after their bodies are soaked and feverish with wine, serving hors-d’oeuvre of light and sharp-flavoured and sour foods as a stimulant to the appetite and then, in this condition, eating heartily of the rest of the meal.

(Plutarch,Moralia, 733f-734a)

However, the context of this literary source means that you should treat it with care. Plutarch is explaining why new diseases emerge and argues that a change in diet is a dangerous thing.