Ancient Perfumery and Theofrastus: an interview to Giuseppe Squillace

It happened like this. My passion for ancient cultures met some studies, and after reading this papers, I managed to meet the person who wrote them and to interview him…

His name is Giuseppe Squillace and he actually teaches Greek History at the History Department of the Calabria University.

Elena: I have always had a passion for ancient times (it began studying philosophy at University) and when I read your books, one of my question was “How did you begin to study this subject?”

Giuseppe: often it happens like this, just by chance. I have always had an interest in olfactive perception. Passing from contemporary to ancient times happened by chance: I was studying ancient healers, and I found a new paper. I was reading the “De natura” written by Theofrastus and in the english volume after the text I found some additional papers, and one of them was “De odoribus”, the text about perfumes.

I had already read some articles about it but we did not have an italian translation; I thought to translate it and to try to publish it. It did not happen immediately, and so I added some new parts, and than I found a publisher.

In the parts that I added, surely the most important are by Ateneo and Plinius.

E: your studies now are published in three books about perfume.

G: yes, I first published the translation of the “De odoribus” by Theofrastus, and than two books, “Saffo’s Garden” and “Tears of Myrrh” (not yet translated in english). In this last book I put something new, a geography of perfumes. “Geography of perfumes” means a map of places where perfumes and raw materials were produced.

Historically we can see that the most important perfume centres changed accordingly to political events and moments, and in time there is a “geography” of perfumers and materials that show us this.

Ancient Perfumery and Spices

E: and about geography, they had some behaviours that we can recognize today too…like choosing high quality raw materials in some specific places.

G: yes sure! They chose materials selecting places of origin; for example Iris from Illiria, and not from Macedonia because it was considered of less value. Also the Rose from Cirene was famous and very valued, and other roses were not so appreciated.

Theofrastus says this very clearly: plant power depend on places where they grow, quality of the soil, exposition to sunlight etc.

E: and at that time there was in indissoluble connection between healing uses and perfumery uses…

G: yes…for example Rose oil was intended for many uses; perfumes and spices were used by Hyppocrates, Galen, etc. Aromatic materials were used widely for healing purposes. They used cardamom, cinnamon, cassia, rose, myrrh, incense, saffron, etc. They were expensive ingredients, available only to people who can afford them.

They took care of the ingredients, their differencies, their duration: Galen for example tell us about fresh cinnamon, how it can give very different effects from an old one (he found a very old cinnamon among other items in the emperor’s storehouse, while he was preparing an antidote).

And also about “cinnamomum”, where are not sure that it was really what we intend nowadays for “cinnamon”.

E: I have the feeling that in ancient cultures we can find a huge amount of knowledge…and this bounty is not easily accessible. I am trying to put people in touch with these worlds, we have still to learn a lot from them. Thank you for your work!

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And so our interview ended; Giuseppe Squillace is now presenting his last book, “Le lacrime di Mirra”, and his work as historian continues – we will invite him in Rome, at our Perfumed Literary Cafè – we will give notice as soon as we set the date.

You can find an english translation of the “De odoribus” of Theofrastus here.