Basil was a staple herb in the kitchen gardens of ancient Greece and Rome.[1] Referred to often as ocimum in ancient texts, its properties seems to have been debated. Pliny reports that previous ancient Greek authors had many misconceptions about basil’s supposed negative effects, but states that “Succeeding ages… have warmly defended this plant.”[2] He himself lists at least thirty-two beneficial medicinal recipes, the cures for ailments ranging from headaches and jaundice to scorpion stings.[3]

Pliny says a great deal on the cultivation of basil. He writes that there was only one kind of basil known in the ancient Mediterranean world[4] and that the plant can have either white, yellow, or purple flowers.[5] He also noted that basil produces more seeds which are extremely viable, so much so that it was recommended to utter curses while sowing,[6] water the seeds with boiling water,[7] and pray that they never sprout.[8] Once sprouted, he suggests watering at midday.[9] Some Romans seemed to have planted basil in April to coincide with the festival of Parilia, others in Autumn.[10]

Apicius uses basil in several of his recipes, including one for pea soup,[11] and Columella writes that it was a favorite seasoning of his for olives.[12] 

[1] 1. Jeanne D'Andréa, Ancient Herbs in the John Paul Getty Museum Gardens, illus. Martha Breen Bredemeyer (Malibu, CA: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 1989), 32.

[2] Pliny the Elder, The Natural History, trans. John Bostock (London: Taylor and Francis, 1855), 20.48.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid, 19.37.

[5] Ibid, 19.31.

[6] Ibid, 19.36.

[7] Ibid, 19.60

[8] Ibid, 19.36.

[9] Ibid, 19.60.

[10] Ibid, 19.44.

[11] qdt. in D'Andréa, Ancient Herbs in the John, 34.

[12] qdt. in  Marina Heilmeyer, Ancient Herbs (n.p.: The Getty Trust, 2007), 24.