Makri, Dimitra

University of Ioannina

Research Title: The Culture of Myrrh and Perfumes in Asia Minor during the Graeco-Roman and Byzantine Periods

Dr. Makri holds an MA (2013) and a PhD (2019) in Classical Philology and Papyrology from the Univesity of Ioannina (Doctoral thesisWine, Beerand other Beverages in Egypt in the Light of Greek Papyri). She was a recipient of the Ernst-Mach Stipendium from the University of Vienna ithe academic year 20172018. In 2019she was awarded a scholarship for academic excellence by the University of Ioannina. She was employed as a Post-Doctoral researcher within the framework of the project “Λύχνος καιόμενος: The Oil-Lamp in Egypt under the Light of Greek Papyri” funded by grants of the European Union (Partnership Agreement for the Development Framework 20142020). Her project at ANAMED focuses on aspects such as the technology behind the production of myrrh and perfumes of Asia Minor, as well as their significance in medicine and cosmetology during the Graeco-Roman and Byzantine periods. Another part of the project is dedicated to their economic dimensions and the social status of their producers/sellers, while the topic of weights and measures of the perfumes will also be examined. 

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Fellow’s End of the Academic Year Research Report:

The Culture of Myrrh and Perfumes in Asia Minor during the Graeco-Roman and Byzantine Periods

The world of fragrances that captivate people with their appealing and discreet scents, or sometimes repel them with their strong smells, has constituted a source of inspiration for artists and authors over the centuries. Perfumes, which stimulate the senses and awaken memories, were closely associated with different aspects of life in antiquity. They were used in happy or lamentable events, such as weddings and funerals, in ritualistic and religious ceremonies, or offered as gifts. Written sources reveal that almost nobody could resist the allure of a good perfume. One could, in fact, mention here the futile effort of the Athenian lawmaker Solon[1] to forbid the production and distribution of perfumes in the early sixth century BCE, as well as the fruitless attempts of the censors Publius Licinius Crassus and Lucius Julius Caesar[2] some centuries later to ban the sale of unguents in Rome (“foreign essences” in the text). Α number of authors have devoted part of their work to the description of perfumes’ attributes such as origin, color, age, quality, and beneficial properties, pointing out their significance in cosmetics and cosmetology. The aim of my project, entitled “The Culture of Myrrh and Perfumes in Asia Minor during the Graeco-Roman and Byzantine Periods,” which started with the commencement of my 2021–2022 academic year fellowship at ANAMED at Koç University, is to give insight into the importance of perfumery in the daily life of the residents of Asia Minor during the Graeco-Roman and Byzantine periods. Even though several articles and monographs about perfumery in general have appeared,[3] not much attention has been paid to the production and significance of perfumes from Asia Minor. An interdisciplinary approach is implemented, since the relative dearth of information provided by the literary sources (Greek and Latin), the surviving archival material (papyri and ostraca), and inscriptions is supplemented by archaeological evidence, as well as modern studies from the fields of botany and chemistry. The broad scope of this project made my access to the specialized and rich library of the Research Center for Anatolian Civilizations and other institutions—such as the Dutch, French, and German Archaeological Institutes—necessary. The abundance of resources (monographs, journals, dictionaries, encyclopedias, etc.), which are renewed on a continuous basis and the access to a variety of electronic databases that the libraries offer certainly contributed to the successful outcome of my proposed project. At the same time, also invaluable was the interaction with the other fellows, professors at Koç University, and other experts visiting the research center, as well as the attendance of conferences or lectures that regularly took place at the most hospitable environment of the university. To the best of my knowledge, there is no complete study based on a synthetic approach that combines evidence from many different fields. Therefore, the writing of articles and the completion of an extensive monograph in the future, for which this interdisciplinary method will be implemented, aspires to fill this gap.
One part of my work is devoted to matters of terminology.[4] Medical or other treatises, papyri, and ostraca, as well as inscriptions of the Graeco-Roman and Byzantine periods, reveal that perfumes received their names mainly from the raw material they came from (e.g., perfume from iris), their inventor (e.g., Megalleion from Megallos), or the region where they were produced. Emphasis was also placed upon terms that denote i) the different kinds and varieties of perfumes depending on their attributes, such as scent (pleasant, odoriferous, discreet, and strong smelling), composition (thick, liquid, and dry perfumes), and age (new and old perfumes); ii) the art of perfumery and the equipment used for the production of perfumes, such as mortars, pestles, and presses; and iii) the professionals who were involved in this process (perfumers and sellers), as well as iv) the persons whose names derived from a perfume.
The art of perfumery
The climate of some regions of Asia Minor favored the prosperity of trees, flowers, and herbs, which offered a variety of aromatic substances fundamental to perfumery. Iris from Cilicia and Pisidia, mountain nard from Cilicia, amaracus from Cyzicus, saffron and bitter almonds from Cilicia, styrax from Pamphylia, etc. were used to produce liquid and dry perfumes, as well as various aromatic ointments.[5] The art of perfumery required the expertise and experience of perfumers, who processed the plants’ leaves, stems, roots, and resins in a different way and regulated the addition of the proper quantity of other necessary ingredients (water, oil, and spices). A preliminary investigation has shown that several different techniques had been developed for perfumery depending on the desired outcome.[6] But the know-how does not seem to have been the only criterion for a good professional, who should also have been endowed with an acute sense of olfaction and visual perception. The first would give the perfumers the possibility to discern each individual smell or smells in conjunction with others, while the second would enable them to interpret not only the attributes of a perfume, such as its texture, color, etc. but also the quality of the ingredients they employed.
Aromatic oils were stored in vessels away from the light of the sun, which could be harmful and lead to their alteration. Alabasters, cosmetic boxes, unguentaria, lydia, and other containers were used for their storage, preservation, and distribution.[7]
Uses of perfumes
  1. The connection of fragrant substances with aspects of public and private life
Another part of this work is focused on the importance of perfumes in the daily life of the residents of Asia Minor, even though many herbal plants and aromatic oils were exported to other places of the ancient world and were used for various purposes.
  1. i) The use of perfumes in gymnasia and balaneia of Asia Minor
Apart from olive oil, perfumes were widely used by those who received training in gymnasia or visited the baths.[8] Of special interest are honorary inscriptions for gymnasiarchs (from Mylasa, Priene, Stratonikeia, Phrygia, Sinope, and other places) which reveal the supply of perfumes by these gymnasiarchs and other benefactors, who claimed glory among other members of the civic elite and tried to overcome their predecessors in extravagance. In addition to this, religious festivities (e.g., Panamareia festivals) constituted an integral part of the gymnasia of Graeco-Roman Asia Minor, the responsibility for which was taken by priests who bore the title of gymnasiarch for the duration of the most important festival. They took care of the distribution of aromatic oils to other groups beyond the legal citizens, including slaves, women, and foreigners as gifts, showing their generosity.
  1. ii) The use of aromatic oils in funerals
Aromatic oils were also associated with the lamentable event of a funeral. Bottles of perfumes found in cemeteries of different places of Asia Minor, such as Saraylar, Hierapolis, Boyalik, Gordion, etc., reveal that aromatic oils had a central role in burial rites. Unguentaria were placed on the coffin or close to it, accompanying the dead to his/her last residence. Aromatic oils were also used for the washing of bones collected after some years in order to be preserved in an ossuary, a practice followed by the Jewish diaspora communities of Asia Minor.
iii) The role of aromatic oils in cosmetics
Perfumes mainly constituted part of female accessories regardless of the social strata these women belonged to. For instance, various steles kept in the archaeological museum of Istanbul depict women with their assortments of accessories, among which perfume bottles can be discerned on shelves behind them (Fig. 1). However, the high quality and prices of some perfumes would certainly be a reflection of the users’ prosperity. Wealthy or noble people had access to more exotic and expensive perfumes, which they would use on themselves or in order to perfume their clothes and also offer them as gifts to their guests.
Fig. 1. Stele of Gokousa, daughter of Euphiletos (Γόκουσα Εὐφιλήτου), second century CE, Istanbul Archaeological Museum, inv. no. 5001.
From: Nezih Fıratlı, Les stèles funéraires de Byzance gréco-romaine, avec l’édition et l’index commenté des épitaphes par Louis Robert, Bibliothèque archéologique et historique de l’Institut français d’archéologie d’Istanbul XV (Paris: A. Maisonneuve, 1964), no. 168, 106, pl. XLI.
  1. The use of aromatic oils in medicine
      Aromatic oils played an important role in various medical applications, thanks to their beneficial properties and antibacterial action, especially if they contained a specific quantity of alcohol, like wine. Liquid and dried perfumes contributed to the therapies for various illnesses or they constituted basic ingredients for plasters, ointments assisting in the relief from and treatment of diseases of the digestive system, gynecological, ophthalmological, dermatological and other conditions, and the healing of wounds.
The trade of aromatic oils of Asia Minor
      Another aim of this project is the examination of the distribution of the aromatic oils in a geographical context. Emphasis is given to the regional and interregional or international trade. From a number of papyri, for instance, we know that some varieties of liquid and dried perfumes from Asia Minor were exported to Egypt, like saffron from Cilicia.[9] In this context, in addition to various written sources, legal texts constitute important witnesses regarding perfumes’ prices. Additionally, there are important testimonies which illustrate the fact that sometimes there was also need for exotic aromatic substances to be imported to Asia Minor from other parts of the Mediterranean world.
[1] Ath., Deipn. 13. 94. 25–27; cf. Jean-Pierre Brun, “The Production of Perfumes in Antiquity: The Cases of Delos and Paestum,” American Journal of Archaeology 104, no. 2 (2000): 277–308, at 281.
[2] Plin., Nat. 13. 4. 24–25; cf. Brun, “The Production of Perfumes,” 290 and n. 62.
[3] See, e.g. Robert Otto Steuer, Myrrhe und Stakte (Vienna: Verlag der Arbeitsgemeinschaft der Ägyptologen und Afrikanisten in Wien, 1933); Paul Faure, Parfums et Aromates dans l’Antiquité (Paris: Fayard, 1987); Brun, “The Production of Perfumes,” 277–308; Gary Reger, “The Manufacture and Distribution of Perfume,” in Making, Moving and Managing the New World of Ancient Economies, 323–31 BC, eds. Zofia Halina Archibald, John Kenyon Davies, and Vincent Gabrielsen (Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2005), 253–97; Natacha Massar, Annie Verbanck-Piérard, and Dominique Frère, eds., Parfums de l’Antiquité : La Rose et l’encens en Méditerranée (Mariemont: Musée royal de Mariemont, 2008); Sheila Ann Byl, “The Essence and Use of Perfume in Ancient Egypt” (MA thesis, University of South Africa, 2012); Isabella Bonati, “Il lessico dei contenitori nei papiri greci: spezie, salse, aromi e droghe medicinali” (PhD diss., University of Parma, 2014).
[4] For matters of perfumes’ terminology, see also Annick Lallemand, “Vocabulaire des parfums,” in Parfums de l’Antiquité, eds. Natacha Massar, Annie Verbanck-Piérard and Dominique Frère (Mariemont: Musée royal de Mariemont, 2008), 45–52.
[5] Byl, “The Essence,” 78–79, 87–88 et passim. Philip Bes and Leo Vanhecke, “Turning over a New Leaf. Leaf Impressions of Styrax Officinalis L. and Vitis Vinifera L. on Late Roman Sagalassos Amphorae,” Journal on Hellenistic and Roman Material Culture 4, no. 1 (2015): 107–66.
[6] See, e.g. Robert James Forbes, Studies in Ancient Technology III (Leiden: Brill, 1955), 6–17 and 28–39; Brun, “The Production of Perfumes,” 277–308; Reger, “The Manufacture,” 253–97.
[7] See, e.g. Christopher Lightfoot, “A Group of Roman Perfume Bottles from Asia Minor,” in Erol Atalay Memorial, ed. Hasan Malay (İzmir: Ege Üniversitesi Edebiyat Fakültesi Yayınları, 1991), 107–12, pls. XXIII–XXIV; Chris Roosevelt, “Stone Alabastra in Western Anatolia,” in New Approaches to Old Stones: Recent Studies of Ground Stone Artifacts, eds. Yorke McDermott Rowan and Jennie Rebecca Ebeling (London: Equinox Publishing, 2008), 285–97; Susan Wrigley, “The Lydion. Revealing Connectivity across the Mediterranean in the Sixth Century B.C.” (PhD diss., University of Sydney, 2011); Inge Uytterhoeven, “Pleasant Both to Eye and Ear. Water and Its Multi-Sensory Effects during Guest Reception in the Roman and Late Antique Elite Houses of Asia Minor and the Broader Mediterranean,” in Proceedings of the International Frontinus Congress on the History of Water Management and Hydraulic Engineering in the Mediterranean Region Rome, November 10–18, 2018, ed. Gilbert Wiplinger (Leuven, Paris, Bristol, CT: Peeters, 2020), 301–17, esp. 303-304 and fig. 4.
[8] Zinon Papakonstantinou, Sport and Identity in Ancient Greece (London, New York: Routledge, 2019), 161–62.
[9] See, e.g. SB XIV 12175 (second century AD–?), l.4.