It is a fairly common understanding that many drugs used in modern times, whether for recreation or to treat illnesses, have their origins in the plant and animal kingdoms. The nature of a certain plant or creature, when ingested, to produce a desirous effect on the human body was often discovered long before the availability of a modern chemistry set. It should not come as a surprise, therefore, that an ancient civilization as advanced as the Roman Empire would have access to recreational drugs. Recent discoveries of “dream fish” and their connection to the ancient world remind us that ancient civilizations such as the Roman Empire were not as uncivilized as we might expect – not because they had recreational drugs, but because of their innovative use of natural resources.
The ability of Roman citizens to identify and acquire useful drugs from their environment was a natural result of a culture which survived and thrived due to a harmonious relationship with the land. All levels of Roman society depended on the land for their survival as well as their status. The wealth of upper class Roman patricians was largely measured by land ownership and its agricultural yield. Whether that yield would be sold at market to turn a profit or at home to provide sustenance, nature simultaneously provided a means for survival and a currency useful to help dictate social order.
Such was the importance of nature as a direct provider to the Romans that from a young age almost everyone was able to identify which plants and animals were useful, and they were aware of the multitude of uses many specimens could provide. A single plant or animal could be useful for food, cosmetics, and dyes for clothing and crafts, not to mention the potential medicinal properties plant and animal byproducts might possess. What is particularly interesting is one recreational drug used by the Romans which came not from a plant, but from a fish: the sarpa salpa.
The sarpa salpa is a type of sea bream widely distributed along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. Called “the fish that make dreams” in Arabic, the sarpa salpa are known to cause LSD-like hallucinations when their heads are consumed. The condition which causes these and similar hallucinogenic effects after the consumption of exotic fish is called ichthyoallyeinotoxism. This affliction is characterized as a type of food poisoning which can manifest with vivid auditory and visual hallucinations, delirium, disturbances in motor coordination, nausea, nightmares, vertigo, and other disturbances to the central nervous system. Modern cases of ichthyoallyeinotoxism have contributed to a renewed interest in these exotic fish.
Dream fish, such as the sarpa salpa, can cause LSD-like hallucinogenic effects if their heads are ingested. The ancient Romans are said to have consumed these exotic fish as a recreational drug. The extensive and innovative use of natural resources by the Romans suggests that their recreational use of the sarpa salpa, while fully plausible, is among the least of their many impressive discoveries and accomplishments.