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The Spices of Antiquity

Updated: Aug 19, 2022

Although herbs and spices go together like peas and carrots, they could not be more different from each other in terms of their place in folklore and healing.

Herbs have many a gentle, fanciful story, from encouraging and providing resting places for fairies, helping to see future husbands in dreams and ensuring a peaceful resting place in the here-after, to repelling witches and evil spirits on midsummer’s eve, when such beings abound.

Herbs are effective yet gentle healers, being used in many medicinal remedies both in ancient times, as well as today, relied upon in times of plague and sickness, and to purify and perfume rooms in homes and hospitals. They were easily obtained, being grown in many gardens and often also found in the wild.

Spices, on the other hand…

You may not give much of a thought when reaching for the unassuming (yet delicious) spices that are easy to buy, and sit quietly in our kitchen cupboards, or indeed when using the essentials oils on yourself or your clients. However, spices have a fascinating history, and, through the trade of them, literally redefined the world. They have connections to the rise and fall of empires, religious crusades, and no less than the discovery of America.

Spices have been traded since ancient times, as far back as the Neolithic period, starting with just small local exchanges, before continuing to expand and become big business, connecting, changing and influencing the world.

Since at least 1800BCE, Arabs exclusively traded spices from India and the 'spice islands' of Indonesia, bringing it by boat along the Indian subcontinent, to the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula, where it was carried by camel over the Arabian desert, to Petra, an important trading centre. From there, they then made their way throughout the Mediterranean. Petra was the capital of the Nabataean Kingdom, but was later controlled by the growing Roman empire.

As the Roman Empire expanded, they took control of Egypt after the death of Cleopatra, and made Alexandria their capital, which became a huge centre for trade and the storage of goods. Romans traded goods with Europe such as the wheat they gained from Egypt, but as the Roman Empire grew, the desire for spices boomed – and not just for flavouring food. Spices were seen as a sign of wealth and status for the wealthier of the Romans, and this status was flaunted by those that could afford it. Seizing their opportunity, the Arabs would make up stories to protect the source of the spices, and to justify charging exorbitant costs. This made the Romans want to bypass dealing with the Arabs and source the spices themselves.

They set sail up the Nile and discovered a sea route to India, far from the Arabian coastline. As well as this so-called maritime silk route, they also extended the land-based Silk Road throughout their empire.

In 330AD, Constantine 1, the first Christian emperor, moved the capital of Rome from Alexandria to the city of Byzantium (the western part of the Roman Empire). He called this capital Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul), and it became the new commercial crossroad between the east and the west. However, the Muslim world was also growing, and their conquests threatened the Byzantine empire. In 641AD, they seized Alexandria, thus cutting off the important trade road between India and Constantinople. They then positioned themselves at the centre of an immensely vast land and sea network between China, South-east Asia, India, Africa, and the Roman empire.

However, the Arabs themselves were being harried by nomadic Turkish tribes, who began to threaten their own empire. A tribe called the Seljuk Turks seized Jerusalem and persecuted any Christian worshipping there. While Jerusalem had been under Muslim rule for centuries, the growing threat of the Seljuk Turks threatened not only the local Christian people and the pilgrimages to the area, but the Byzantine Empire itself.

This could not be abided, and it triggered the first of the crusades, sent out by Pope Urban II to Jerusalem, at the request of the Byzantine Empire, to provide military support against the conflict with the Turks.

By then, some of the Italian Republics, namely Genoa, Pisa and Venice, had perfected the art of navigation, and they saw a commercial opportunity. They decided to supply the Christians on their crusade, and in the process, gained commercial privileges in each conquered city. The Venetians diverted the fourth crusade into Constantinople, however, after not receiving the promised financial and military aid from the emperor they helped impose, they took the city for themselves. They plundered its riches, which caused the city to fragment. This allowed the Byzantine empire to be dismantled and the Italian republics took control of trade between east and west.

They were to hold Constantinople for 200 years, until in 1453, the Ottoman Turks seized it from them, thus destabilising the profitable trade routes between Asia and Europe. The city took advantage of its position and levied heavy taxes and tariffs on every shipment of goods that needed to pass through. The costs were so high, yet spices so desirable, that it spurred other nations to send out expeditions in the hopes of finding new trade routes via the sea.

The fall of Constantinople was a key event in world history, and was where the search for spices and the expansion of maritime trading networks really began to change the world.

The 15th century heralded the European Age Of Discovery. Portugal sent out a new kind of ship that could withstand long ocean journeys, and explored new maritime trade routes along the African coast - but they wanted to bypass Africa to reach the Indies. The Spanish also wanted to reach the Indies, but sent out explorations to the west, with Christopher Columbus at its head, and in the process - and totally by accident - they discovered America.

Meanwhile, the Portuguese had gained control of the Indian ocean and built their empire. They took control of the extensive, well-established sea trading networks and key points that already existed in the Indian ocean, between Egypt, India, China and Malaysia - despite attempts to chase them off. Due to the Renaissance period being in full swing, the growing middle classes had a desire for spices. The fact that the Portuguese could source this directly from Asia via Africa, directly into Europe, made them very wealthy indeed. They also levied huge taxes and customs duties on any goods coming through their ports. But ALSO thanks to this, wars began to break out between vying European nations for control of this lucrative trade and the spice islands from which they came.

Meanwhile, Spain was still aiming to reach the Indies and the desirable spice islands from the west, and when they finally did, in 1522, they reached the Moluccas, where nutmeg and cloves grew. But the Portuguese were already in the area. Soon, the Dutch, the French and the English also tried to wrest control of the spice trade from the Portuguese. In 1663, the Dutch ended up victorious, after winning the Dutch-Portuguese War - which was nicknamed the Spice War. The Dutch East India company held control of this trade, and were ruthless in their quest to maintain their monopoly. They burned or destroyed competing crops and spice warehouses that weren’t their own – although in fact they did even burn their own stores on occasion, to artificially make it a scarce, even more desired commodity, and inflate the price.

They didn’t even stop at murder, slaughtering and enslaving the residents of Banda Island where nutmeg was native and exclusively grown.

This monopoly was only challenged in 1769 when the French smuggled nutmeg and clove tree seedlings to other islands and succeeded in growing them there. Other spice plantations also gradually popped up in other regions, spices became much easier to obtain, so their value started to fall. The trade routes were now wide open to all, and as such the wealthy companies could no longer claim dominance over this trade.

I find it so interesting that the hot, fiery, stimulating nature of spices - that impart courage, motivation, willpower and strength - have a correspondingly heated history. To me it is not surprising that many are in the ‘hot’ colour range of yellow, orange, red, and black. There are many very interesting stories associated with each individual spice as well - please follow my facebook page as these are featured throughout the month.

With the spice essential oils, we see over and over again the same properties, actions and influences. They are all highly invigorating, warming and stimulating. This makes them useful for cold, weak conditions such as poor digestion and circulation, and physical and mental fatigue. Their spicy, fiery energetics impart willpower, courage, confidence and motivation. They also don’t say ‘spice up your love life’ for nothing! All can be used where there is sexual disinterest or loss of libido.

As they are warm to hot oils, and highly stimulating, they should not be used in hot, dry conditions such as fever, inflammation, agitation or insomnia, and some are also strong skin irritants. As uterine stimulants, they should not be used during pregnancy, or during breastfeeding.


Battaglia, S. The Complete Guide to Aromatherapy, 3rd Ed, Vol. 1, 2018. Black Pepper Creative Pty Ltd.

Guba, R. Essential Therapeutics Professional Reference Guide. Essential Therapeutics.

Holmes, P. Aromatica, Volume 1. (2016) Singing Dragon.

Holmes, P. Aromatica, Volume 2. (2019) Singing Dragon.,and%20protect%20it%20from%20invasion.

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