Tuesday, June 14, 2016


Giuseppe Squillace, Le lacrime di Mirra: miti e luoghi dei profumi nel mondo antico. Saggi, 822. Bologna: Società editrice il Mulino, 2015. Pp. 297. ISBN 9788815254412. €22.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Matteo Fulvio Olivieri (matteofulvio.olivieri@gmail.com)

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

The purpose of this book is to provide a picture of the role of perfumes in ancient Greek and Roman daily life; it does so by analyzing literary and epigraphic evidence (p. 16). The discussion is laid out not according to chronology, but rather presented in four thematic macro-sections, each with distinct topical chapters.

Part 1 "Myth" illustrates the role of perfumes, odorous plants, and spices in the myths, legends, or aitiai concerning gods, heroes, animals, peoples, and places. Aphrodite is consistently connoted by perfumes and odorous plants, in association with the powers of seduction. A major discussion concerns metamorphosis myths: narratives of youths, love, suffering, and premature death, in which the outcome is transformation into odorous substances or plants (Myrrh, Adonis, Attis, etc); this mythic model is explained as a compensatory eternalization reflecting the mnemonic power of scent. The distant regions—mostly Arabia and the Orient—where the raw materials of aromata ("odorous substances") came from were rich in legends (the phoenix, the panther's smell, etc.).

Part 2 "Between History and Anecdote" provides chapters on the cultural history of perfumes. A central argument of the book is that perfumes and spices had a place among the commodities and practices related to luxury, refined lifestyle, wealth and ostentation, the exotic, excessive and bizarre: in fact they are often mentioned together with jewelry, rich clothing, exquisite foods and wines. Such excesses and superfluous commodities were considered harbingers of the decadence of traditional virtues and of the spread of moral corruption. The Orient and the barbarian cultures were the source of the raw aromata as much as of the luxurious and soft lifestyle that accompanied perfumes. Distinctive occasions of ostentation and luxury were the lavish symposia of the élite: perfumes, spices and flowers were poured or tossed onto the guests; given as gifts, they marked the scent of wreaths, couches, halls, as well as of foods and wines. In the hands of Hellenistic kings, Roman emperors, and even wealthy parvenus, perfumes and odorous fumes were a symbol of power in their courtly and public exaggerated and eccentric displays. Philosophers condemned the use of perfumes, ointments, and makeup as superfluous and morally degenerate. Scientific, botanical, and medical authors—from the Presocratics to Theophrastus and Galen—looked into the classification of smells and flavors and the mechanisms of their diffusion and sensory perception.

The chapters in Part 3 "The Techniques" illustrate technical aspects of the trade. Perfumery had an extensive specific vocabulary that the author quotes with precision. As with all workers in manual arts, the perfume maker was looked down upon, yet the author assembles a brief but complete prosopography of Greek and Roman perfume makers. Perfume shops were located in a special area of the Athenian agora; from these professionals—the author argues—Theophrastus gathered the high-quality first-hand information made available in his works. Chapters are dedicated to the ingredients and recipes of perfumes, with detailed information for over a dozen attested ingredients (plants, flowers, or spices), their associated liquid or oily bases, their origin, olfactory characteristics, their use in perfumes, and medical applications.

In Part 4 "Geography of Perfume" one chapter explains in detail the areas and cities where aromatic plants, flowers, and spices grew, were harvested, traded, shipped, and where perfumes were manufactured.

The book features extensive appendices (68 pages). The 31 page "Documents" appendix is paramount, containing 34 excerpts from the major texts discussed throughout the book in Italian translation; among these are 30 recipes for perfumes and ointments from Dioscorides' Materia Medica. The appendices also include a table of units of measure, 7 maps, a 25 page bibliography, and a short index of names.

In essence, the book's argument is that ancient written sources allow us to identify specific circumstances and cultural contexts with which perfumes and aromatic substances had a unique association, or in which they were of special relevance: the mythical and exotic; royalty and the élite, in association to luxury, excess, and moral condemnation; botanical and geographical research; medicinal applications.

The book's innovative and most valuable feature is its masterful and—to my knowledge—comprehensive selection of Greek and Latin written records for perfumes and aromata, in which the categorization and discussion is grounded. The author's methodology is systematic in discussing, throughout the chapters, full lists and collections of names, places, personages, events, and products, to the point of sounding dry and anecdotal. The reader is provided with a complete overview of the classical tradition, major authors and works about—or even partly relevant to—perfumes; students are repeatedly made aware of the main works and the fragments. All of the vocabulary is provided in transliteration and translation (perfumes, spices, ointments, pottery, plants), making the volume a reference dictionary on the subject. The volume serves as a handbook for perfume recipes, their diverse applications, the raw materials, the plants, and the regions of production. The documentary appendix serves as an anthology of sources for students and researchers approaching the subject.

I think one methodological premise prevents this volume from being a more definitive and reliable handbook on its subject: archaeological evidence is not taken into consideration at all. The author acknowledges that "a growing number of publications on perfume are based on archaeological data", but remarks that this book's starting point was the documentary appendix in his Italian translation of Theophrastus De Odoribus (p. 16)1, to which he has added an even broader selection of texts. But ignoring wholesale the material record and the scholarship relating to it I fear leads to overemphasizing certain of the book's arguments and conversely silencing others which were just as important to ancient everyday life. A single paragraph and sparse references are dedicated to perfumes, odorous offerings, and flowers in ritual, cult, and religion. The use and incidence of aromata in "wedding, funerary rite, sport" do not get more than the space of one page. Means and vectors of Mediterranean trade in perfumes, spices, and oils, receive scant treatment. The picture presented ends up insisting too heavily—in my opinion—on the associations of perfumes with the élite, luxury, and extravagance, and with the courts and missions of Hellenistic and Roman rulers. There is abundant data to be gathered from the material record: typological and statistical analysis of perfume-specific pottery; chemical identification of components in residual contents; architectural remains of gardens, workshops, and warehouses; iconography from pottery, statuary, and coin types, to name but a few. Even without accepting the responsibility of systematization, these materials—and related scholarship—deserve at least superficial consideration. I think they suggest a reconstruction of perfumes in the daily life of ancient Greece and Rome different than the one this book focuses on: a broader diffusion among more ordinary social strata, in more moderate quantities, and across a complex and diversified Mediterranean trade market.

These criticisms by no means detract from the book's valuable role in scholarship. The book is addressed to students in ancient history and classics, but caters also to the general public and non-specialists in ancient history (p. 16). This is not G. Squillace's first book on ancient perfumery: indeed many of the arguments and source materials proposed here have already been published in his previous works; in this respect this book comes close to a re-writing of his 2014 monograph published by Carocci.2 Some of his conclusions, naturally, are shared with previous scholarship. Notably, M. Detienne had first developed a conceptual map of perfumes in the sphere of seduction, the divine, and metamorphosis myths.3 Some of the more recent publications have the advantage of being large collective endeavors and can hence authoritatively treat a wider category of issues using a multidisciplinary methodology, thus avoiding what I feel are the shortcomings of this book; yet they in turn suffer from spreading out their cultural and chronological scope.4

This book, and a glance at the available scholarship, demonstrate that discussing perfumes in the Greco-Roman world means having to deal with an especially broad range of material: odorous liquids, but also oils, powders, rocks, vapors; circulation and trade of flowers, plants, roots, spices, fruits; products as diverse as foodstuff, ointments, maquillage, decorative plants, plasters, drugs and medicines; the history of the sciences of botany, chemistry, animal and human biology; literary traditions in myth, geography, and ethnology. The scholarship displays a confusingly diverse disciplinary and methodological range: sensory approaches to smell, social semantics of perfumes, diachronic reconstructions of odorous products, and technical details of products and production, while some studies focus on one product or one location.5

In this panorama, this book is a useful and basic contribution: it is a compact monograph; it consistently employs a sound analytical approach grounded in sources, albeit only literary ones; it maps out many of the key issues and major historical contexts for perfumes (myths, social environments, technical aspects), it provides the student with the indispensable bibliography of relevant literary sources as well as a handy compendium of basic primary sources.

Monographs specifically covering perfumes and aromata in Greek and Roman history are by no means abundant; moreover they are not easily accessible—at least from my personal experience in the public and private university libraries in Milan. G. Squillace's previous 2014 monograph and this volume are very welcome in themselves and also because they ensure widespread availability of authoritative and affordable treatments of the subject.


1.   Squillace, G., Il profumo nel mondo antico: con la prima traduzione italiana del «Sugli odori» di Teofrasto, Firenze 2010.
2.   Squillace, G., Il profumo nel mondo antico; con la prima traduzione italiana del "Sugli odori" di Teofrasto, Firenze 2010; Id., "I profumi nel « De odoribus » di Teofrasto", in Carannante, A. and M. D'Acunto. (ed.), I profumi nelle società antiche: produzione, commercio, usi, valori simbolici, Capaccio Paestum 2012, pp. 246-263; Id., I giardini di Saffo. Profumi e aromi nella Grecia antica, Roma 2014.
3.   Detienne, M., Les Jardins d'Adonis. La mythologie des aromates en Grèce, Paris 1972.
4.   Bodiou, L., D. Frère, and V. Mehl (ed.), Parfums et odeurs dans l'Antiquité, Rennes 2008; Carannante A. and M. D'Acunto (eds.), n. 2, above.
5.   As examples see: Verbanck Piérard, A., N. Masser, and D. Frère (eds.), Parfums de l'antiquité. La rose et l'encens en Méditerranée. Catalogue del l'exposition, Mariemont 2008; Bradley, M. (ed.), Smell and the Ancient Senses. The senses in antiquity, London—New York 2015.

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