Treating Roman Indigestion: Salts for Many Ills (Sales conditos ad multa)

Roman Diner

In a culture as devoted to extravagant dining as the Romans were, it’s not surprising that treatments to overcome the effects of overindulgence would abound.

Apicius recommended the following to conquer the indigestion that plagued the Mediterranean world’s greatest conquerors. The following spiced salt could also be used to move the bowls, against pestilence as well as to prevent colds, and as a broad-spectrum treatment against “all illness.”

He claimed the mixture is “very gentle indeed and more healthful than you would expect.” That wouldn’t be hard, since one of the ingredients (bryony) is from a family of poisonous plants. That certainly lowers my expectation that it would be healthful.

The physician, Marcellus, who practiced during Nero’s reign, recommended a similar concoction.

Salts for Many Ills (Sales conditos ad multa)

1 lb (454 g) pulverized (crushed) common salt (NaCl)
2 lb (908 g) ammoniac salt (ammonium chloride (NH4Cl)
3 oz (85.2 g) white pepper
2 oz (56.8 g) ginger
1 oz (28.4 g) Aminean bryony (a vine of the gourd family, some species of which are highly toxic. They contain glycosides that make them bitter and emetic (cause vomiting). I would not add this myself since I don’t know which kinds are highly poisonous, and I would never suggest anyone else risk using this ingredient, either.)
1.5 oz (42.6 g) thyme
1.5 oz (42.6 g) celery seed (can substitute 3 oz (85.2 g) of parsley seed)
3 oz (81.2 g) wild marjoram or origanum (an aromatic mint)
1.5 oz (42.6 g) rocket seed (now more commonly called arugula) or 1 oz (28.4 g) saffron
3 oz (85.2 g) black pepper
1.5 oz (42.6 g) holy thistle (also called blessed thistle or St. Benedict’s thistle)
2 oz (56.8 g) hyssop (an herb still used for digestive and intestinal problems including colic, gas, intestinal pain, loss of appetite, and some liver and gallbladder conditions)
2 oz (56.8 g) nard leaves (the plant of the valerian family used to make the expensive perfumed ointment, spikenard)
2 oz (56.8 g) parsley seed
2 oz (56.8 g) anise seed

A variation in Alexis Soyer’s book omits the ammoniac salt and replaces the crushed common salt with a pound of salt that was torrified and pulverized. Torrefaction is a “low-temperature” process for burning something (a low-temp pyrolysis) between 200 and 320 C (392 and 608 °F). Normally, the process is used to convert biomass into a charcoal-like material for later burning. Why salt (NaCl) would need torrefaction is not clear to me, unless the salt the Romans had was contaminated by enough plant and animal residues to make converting them to charcoal important for this use.

A small quantity of this mixture was taken after overeating, and the stomach should have been “immediately” free of indigestion.

A large quantity of the mixture was made at one time with either recipe: 4.7 lbs. (2.1 kg) with the Apician recipe and 2.7 lbs. (1.2 kg) with Soyer’s recipe. Perhaps indigestion was a very common problem after upper-class dining.

Apicius. Cookery and Dining in Imperial Rome. Edited and translated by Joseph Dommers Vehling. New York: Dover Publications, Inc. 1977.

Soyer, Alexis. Food, Cookery, and Dining in Ancient Times: Alexis Soyer’s Pantropheon. Mineola NY: Dover Publications, Inc., 2004.

Fact and Fiction by Carol Ashby