Ancient Romans used hallucinogenic drugs, new study shows

Ancient Romans used the poisonous nightshade Black henbane as a hallucinogenic drug, a new study entitled “Evidence of the intentional use of black henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) in the Roman Netherlands,” conducted in the ancient Roman ruins of Houten-Castellum in the Netherlands, claims.

The seeds of the plant in question, Black henbane, were found in a hollowed sheep or goat bone and are ubiquitous in archeological sites throughout the Netherlands, according to the researchers.

Houten-Castellum was a Roman settlement in the Early Roman period until the 2nd Century CE. 

While the researchers found Black henbane seeds in a pot and a pit dating to the Roman era, these did not necessarily point to intentional use. 

A gladiator in armor (credit: WALLPAPER FLARE)

Rather, in a basket with four cooking pots, the researchers found the complete flower head of the Black henbane, which they said was an “abandonment offering.”

An additional artifact that suggests such a use is the hollowed sheep or goat bone. Found in a pit dated between 70-100 CE, the bone had been crafted, and the end of the femur was sealed with black material, which indicates the bone was intentionally used as an object. 

The bone had been deposited at the top of the pit with additional skeletons, which the researchers interpreted as an “abandonment offering.” In the frame of this ritual, the farmhouse is destroyed, and its contents are interred, “Hyperallergic” explained. 

Such a use, in addition to the seeds being found in a container, suggests medicinal or hallucinogenic uses, the researchers said. 

Black henbane in the Classics

The Black henbane was widely known in ancient times. Writers such as Dioscorides and Pliny the Elder mention the plant in their writing. The latter distinguished between the plant and the black seeds, which could cause insanity, while the white one was used for medicinal purposes.  Plutarch referred to it as a poisonous plant.  

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