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Next to these, laserpitium1 claims our notice, a very re- markable plant, known to the Greeks by the name of "silphion," and originally a native of the province of Cyrenaica. The juice of this plant is called "laser," and it is greatly in vogue for medicinal as well as other purposes, being sold at the same rate as silver. For these many years past, however, it has not been found in Cyrenaica,2 as the farmers of the revenue who hold the lands there on lease, have a notion that it is more profitable to depasture flocks of sheep upon them. Within the memory of the present generation, a single stalk3 is all that has ever been found there, and that was sent as a curiosity to the Emperor Nero. If it so happen that one of the flock, while grazing, meets with a growing shoot4 of it, the fact is easily ascertained by the following signs; the sheep, after eating of it, immediately falls asleep, while the goat is seized with a fit of sneezing.5 For this long time past, there has been no other laser imported into this country, but that produced in either Persis, Media, or Armenia, where it grows in considerable abundance, though much inferior6 to that of Cyrenaica; and even then it is extensively adulterated with gum, sacopenium,7 or pounded beans. I ought the less then to omit the facts, that in the consulship8 of C. Valerius and M. Herennius, there was brought to Rome, from Cyrenæ, for the public service, thirty pounds' weight of laserpitium, and that the Dictator Cæsar, at the beginning of the Civil War, took from out of the public treasury, besides gold and silver, no less than fifteen hundred pounds of laserpitium.

We find it stated by the most trustworthy among the Greek writers,9 that this plant first made its appearance in the vicinity of the gardens of the Hesperides and the Greater Syrtis, immediately after the earth had been soaked on a sudden by a shower as black as pitch. This took place seven years before the foundation of the city of Cyrenæ, and in the year of Rome 143. The virtues of this remarkable fall of rain extended, it is said, over no less than four thousand stadia of the African territory; and upon this soil laserpitium began universally to grow, a plant that is in general wild and stubborn, and which, it attempted to be cultivated, will leave the spot where it has been sown quite desolate and barren. The roots of it are numerous and thick, the stalk being like that of fennel-giant, and of similar thickness. The leaves of this plant were known as "maspetum," and bore a considerable resemblance to parsley; the seeds of it were foliaceous, and the plant shed its leaves every year. They used to feed the cattle there upon it; at first it purged them, but afterwards they would grow fat, the flesh being improved in flavour in a most surprising degree. After the fall of the leaf, the people themselves were in the habit of eating10 the stalk, either roasted or boiled: from the drastic effects of this diet the body was purged for the first forty days, all vicious humours being effectually removed.11

The juices of this plant were collected two different ways, either from the root or from the stalk; in consequence of which these two varieties of the juice were known by the distinguish- ing names of "rhizias" and "caulias,"12 the last being of inferior quality to the other, and very apt to turn putrid. Upon the root there was a black bark, which was extensively employed for the purposes of adulteration. The juice of the plant was received in vessels, and mixed there with a layer of bran; after which, from time to time it was shaken, till it had reached a proper state of maturity; indeed, if this precaution was neglected, it was apt to turn putrid. The signs that it had come to maturity were its colour, its dryness, and the absorption of all humidity.

There are some authors, however, who state that the root of laserpitium was more than a cubit in length, and that it presented a tuberosity above the surface of the earth. An incision, they say, was made in this tuberosity, from which a juice would flow, like milk in appearance; above the tuberosity grew a stalk, to which they give the name of "magydaris;"13 the leaves that grew upon this stalk were of the colour of gold, and, falling at the rising of the Dog-star, when the south winds begin to prevail, they acted as seed for the purposes of reproduction. It was from these leaves, too, they say, that laserpitium14 was produced, the root and the stalk attaining their full growth in the space of one year. The same writers also state, that it was the practice to turn up the ground about the plant, and that it had no such effect as purging the cattle that were fed upon it; though one result of using it as food was, that such cattle as were ailing were either cured of their distempers, or else died immediately upon eating of it, a thing, however, that but rarely happened. The first description, however, is found to agree more nearly with the silphium that comes from Persis.

1 Possibly the Ferula asafœtida of Linnæus; or, according to some, the Thapsia silphium of Viviani, Flor. Lib. It was a plant common, accord- ing to ancient writers, to Syria, Armenia, Media, and Liba; but it was the produce of this last country, probably, that afforded the juice or gum resin here mentioned as "laser," and so highly esteemed by the ancients, as forming a component part of their perfumes. Fée is inclined to think that the Laserpitium here spoken of was the Thapsia silphium, and to reject the more general opinion that it is identical with the Ferula asafœtida. Pliny has probably caused some confusion by blending the description of other writers with that given by Theophrastus, each having in view a different plant. Indeed, whatever the Laserpitium or Silphium of other countries may have been, it is not improbable that the odoriferous plant of Cyrenaica was not identical with the Ferula asafœtida of Linnæus. The foliage of the Thapsia silphium is exactly similar to that of the Laserpitium as depicted on medals of Cyrenaica, still extant. We learn from Littré, that Dr. Guyon showed, in 1842, to the Académie des Sciences, a plant which the Arabs of Algeria employ as a purgative, and which they call bonnefa. It is the Thapsia Garganica of Desfontaines, and is considered by Guyon to be identical with the Silphium of the ancients.

2 See B. xxii. c. 48. In the "Rudens" of Plautus, the scene of which is near Cyrene, frequent allusion is made to the growth of laserpitium there, and the preparation and export of the resin, as forming the staple article of commerce.

3 Scribonius Largus, who lived in the time of Tiberius, speaks of using in a prescription laser of Cyrenaica, "if it can be met with;" "si poterit inveniri."

4 "In spem nascentis."

5 Fée remarks that Pliny has not found this absurd story in any of the works from which he has compiled his account, but that it is entirely his own.

6 This was probably the Ferula asafœtida of Linnæus.

7 See B. xx. c. 75.

8 A.U.C. 661.

9 Fée remarks, that if Pliny here alludes to Theophrastus, Hist. Plant. B vi. c. 3, he has mistaken his meaning.

10 This, as Fée says, could hardly apply to the Ferula asafœtida of Linnæus, the stalk of it being extremely acrid, and the juice fetid in the highest degree.

11 "Vitia his omnibus." The reading here is probably corrupt.

12 "Root-juice," and "stalk-juice."

13 Poinsinet fancies that this name means "staff of the Magi."

14 Or "laser," these names being indifferently applied to the gum-resin.

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