Carrot History - Origins and Development

Carrots History - The Early Years

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Origins and Development - Neolithic to AD 200

Chapters in the history rooms:

 History Part 1 - A Brief Timeline


 History Part 2 - Neolithic to AD 200 - Origins and development


 History Part 3 - AD 200 to 1500 - From Medicine to Food


 History Part 4 - 1500 to 1700 - Evolution and Improvement in the Renaissance


 History Part 5 - 1700 to 1900 - Science & Enlightenment - the modern carrot evolves


 History Part 6 - 1900 to date - The Modern Carrot and Genetic Discovery


 History of Carrot Colour - The road to domestication and the origin of Orange Carrots


 History in WW2 - Takes an in depth look of the role of carrots in World War Two, reviving its popularity


 Illustrations of Carrot in Ancient Manuscripts and Early Printed Books

 "If History without Chronology is dark and confused, Chronology without History is dry and insipid." - Abiel Holmes.

The Beginnings - carrot leaves - used medicinally in ancient timesA rich association has existed between people and roots throughout the centuries and before the development of "civilized" societies. This relationship was most often one of dependence on found roots as a source of food, then medicine. Sometimes because of their appearance, colour, odour or actual (or perceived) medicinal properties roots were given a special importance by ancient peoples. In the case of carrots it was the reverse and they were initially used for the medicinal properties of their seeds.

The Wild carrots have been present and used by Europeans since prehistoric times, but the garden carrot was unknown in Europe until the later Middle Ages. The Wild Carrot is the progenitor (wild ancestor) of the domestic carrot. It is clear that the Wild Carrot and Domestic Carrot are the same species but Botanists have failed to develop an edible vegetable from the wild root and when cultivation of garden carrots lapses a few generations, it reverts to its ancestral type. In 1842 French botanist M Vilmorin submitted a paper to the Horticultural Society of London which claimed to have produced a viable, cultivated carrot from wild plants in four generations. The experiment was never repeated and it is thought that the "wild" plants used had previously been hybridised in nature with cultivated carrots. (Banga 1957) Read more here - Vilmorin paper).

To unravel the long history of the Carrot you have to go back a very long way. Fossil pollen from the Eocene period (55 to 34 million years ago) has been identified as belonging to the Apiaceae family (the carrot family).  It is considered that the carrot dates back about 5,000 years ago when the root was found to be growing in the area now known as Afghanistan. It is said that Temple drawings from Egypt in 2000 BC show a carrot shaped plant, which some Egyptologists believe could have been a purple carrot. Although Egyptian papyruses containing information about treatments with seeds from plants were found in pharaoh crypts there is no direct or documentary reference to carrot.

A domesticated carrot seed is virtually indistinguishable from a wild carrot seed and will not tell how the root was shaped or even its colour. Unfortunately, seeds are mostly what one has to work with from ancient or medieval sites.

Wild carrot is more in evidence than cultivated carrots in classical sources. They had edible leaves and thin, strong tasting white roots which were prescribed for medicinal purposes. Names include Greek keras, staphylinos agrios, daukos and Latin daucus, pastinaca rustica. According to Pliny (Roman historian) and Dioscorides (a pharmacologist in Rome) these had aphrodisiac properties. (References:Dioscorides MM 3,35;Pliny NH 19,89, also 20.30-2 citing ‘Orpheus’, also 25.110-12;Galen SF 12.129)

An early form of carrot began to be cultivated in the last few centuries BCE. It is first mentioned in the 3rd century BCE by Diphilus of Siphnos. It was claimed to be diuretic; it was also juicier and more digestible than the parsnip. This carrot was not red (or orange), it was whitish (an early variant of Wild carrot?) and understandably confused with parsnip as the same plant. The “redness” feature is thought to have emerged in varieties developed in post classical times, after hybridisation with a central Asian species in the early Middle ages. The first European author who mentions red and yellow carrots is the Byzantine dietician Simeon Seth, in the 11th century.

(Source - Food in the Ancient World from A to Z - Page 75 Andrew Dalby · 2013)

(references: Dioscorides MM 3,57, E 2.101;Galen AF 6.654, SF 11.862; Athenaeus D citing Diphilus of Siphnos (karo); Simeon Seth p35 Langkavel)

Carrots and Parsnips - Historians believe the ancient Greeks and Romans cultivated carrots, they are mentioned by Pliny the Elder and were prized by the Emperor Tiberius. However most ancient writings from Asia Minor, Greece and Rome do not mention carrots specifically, even though wild carrots have a long history of presumed medicinal use. Parsnip is often mentioned in the writings and often the words for parsnip and carrot were initially interchangeable. In classical writings both vegetables seem to have been sometimes called pastinaca yet each vegetable appears to be well under cultivation in Roman times.

Throughout the Classical Period and the Middle Ages writers constantly confused carrots and parsnips and often treated them as the same plant. This may seem odd given that the average modern carrot is about seven inches long and bright orange while a parsnip is off white/ivory, usually fatter and can grow up to 3 feet, but this distinction was much less obvious as wild carrots were also an off white colour (or purple) during these periods before early modern plant breeders got to work. It is thought that the orange carrot was not developed and stabilised until the 1500's, probably in the Low Countries. Its original colour varied between dirty white and pinkish purple. Both vegetables have also got much fatter and fleshier in recent centuries, and parsnips may have been bred to be longer as well. In other words early medieval carrots and parsnips were both thin and woody and mostly of a vaguely whitish colour. This being the case, almost everyone up to the early modern period can perhaps be forgiven for failing to distinguish between the two, however frustrating this may be for the food historian.  (The Road to Domestication and the colour orange is discussed here with some compelling images from way before 1500).

The plants were not confused on purpose, but since we have in many cases only the written word, if the Medieval writer called plants "pastinaca", without reference to colour in particular, it is impossible to know with certainty if they were carrots or parsnips.

The word "carrot" was first recorded in English around 1530 and was borrowed from Middle French carotte, itself from the Latin carōta, from Greek καρωτόν karōton. In Old English, carrots (typically white at the time) were not clearly distinguished from parsnips, the two being collectively called moru or more (from Proto-Indo-European) *mork- "edible root", German for carrot is Möhre). Various languages still use the same word for "carrot" as they do for "root"; e.g. in Dutch it is wortel.

Etymology of the name "Karota" and then "Carrot" is discussed in detail in this page.

Early beginnings - It is believed that the Carrot originated some 5000 years ago in Middle Asia around Afghanistan, and slowly spread into the Mediterranean area. The first recorded carrots (ad 900 Afghanistan) were mainly purple or yellow, with some black - not orange. The Orange colour, so familiar today, was not clearly mentioned until the 1500's although some interpretations of early manuscripts and drawings therein, leave that possibility open.

Ancient Civilisations - there has been long standing debate as to whether the ancients were aware of, or used carrots (roots, leaves, flowers or seeds)

The main pieces of written evidence I have found are documented here -

Having considered these carefully, I can only express the sentiment that although there is no absolute documentary evidence, there is a large amount of compelling information from various independent sources that the ancients used wild carrot seeds in cooking or medicine. I do believe that someone somewhere did witness a tomb painting which they considered could be a purple carrot - why would they make it up?

Although I am not convinced that Egyptians cultivated carrots to use the roots, nevertheless some wild roots are purple. The tomb painting/image often cited would not have been a regular carrot shape as we know it. On balance of probabilities I believe the ancients did use wild carrot for aromatic/cooking/medicinal purposes.

The evidence however does appear compelling, that ancient civilisations (around 125 b.c.e.) did know about wild carrots and probably used their seeds for medicinal purposes. Certainly the Greeks used them, evidenced by the "pills" found in a Greek shipwreck in 1989, analysed in 2010 -

Ancient Egypt -

There is no documentary or graphical evidence that the Ancient Egyptians had knowledge and use of carrots (either seeds, roots or leaves). Studies in the history of horticulture have not revealed any indication that, in the ancient civilizations of Asia Minor, Egypt and Greece, the carrot had any importance as a food crop.( Sources: O Banga, Origin of the European Cultivated Carrot, Institute of Horticultural Plant Breeding, Wageningen; 1956; Gibault, Georges, Histoire des legumes . Paris, Librairie Horticole, 1912; Hedrick, U. P ., Sturtevant's Notes on Edible Plants . Albany, J. B. Lyon Co., 1919; Keimer, L ., Die Gartenpflanzen im alten Agypten . Hamburg, Hoffmann and Campe, 1924)

Many history books claim that the Ancient Egyptians grew carrots. This "illustration" from the Valley of the Nobles shows, or makes a guess, as to why previous writers have made erroneous assumptions that they depict carrots. (highlighted in the centre, below the amphora)

Egytptian Temple Drawing - Valley of the Nobles

The images depict items which on first inspection appear to look like modern day carrots, There is however no documentary or other evidence that the Ancient Egyptians cultivated carrots. The swollen taproot we know today did not appear until very much later than the ancient Egyptian period. The first evidence of carrot used as a food crop is in the Iranian Plateau and the Persian Empire in the 10th century AD (Brothwell & Brothwell 1969). It is likely that the climate and environment in Egypt was suitable to grow carrots, though not ideal. However proof that carrots could grow in Egypt and its surrounding countries eg Syria and Iraq, does not mean they DID grow there.

Many history books mention "Temple drawings from Egypt in 2000 BC show what could be construed as a "carrot" shaped plant, which some Egyptologists believe could be a purple carrot. Egyptian papyruses containing information about treatments with seeds were found in pharaoh crypts". Just to repeat there is no direct reference to carrot. The Carrot Museum has visited several tomb paintings in the Valleys of Luxor (ancient Thebes) and some of the images are compelling. It is known that ancient Egyptians did use other members of the Apiaceae (carrot) family including anise, celery and coriander.  None of these plants would have been used as root crops, but were rather leaf, petiole or seed crops for medicinal purposes.

Babylonia/Mesopotamia (modern Iraq)

Babylonia was a state in ancient Mesopotamia. The city of Babylon, whose ruins are located in present-day Iraq, was founded more than 4,000 years ago as a small port town on the Euphrates River. It grew into one of the largest cities of the ancient world under the rule of Hammurabi.

Carrots are said to have been recognised as one of the plants in the garden of the Babylonian King Marduk-apla-iddina, the Biblical Merodach-Baladan ll, who reigned at Babylon in 721–710 and 703 BC. There is no documentary evidence for this carrot reference. 

The clay tablet with cuneiform inscription is located in the British Museum. 67 plants are listed and appear in two columns, subdivided into groups, perhaps to represent plant beds. Only 26 plant names have been identified with certainty including leeks, onion garlic, lettuce, radish, cucumber, gherkin, cardamom, caraway, dill, thyme, oregano, fennel, coriander, cumin and fenugreek. Many remain to be identified. Carrot is currently not amongst those identified, though some of the above identified are umbellifers. The tablet also lists utensils and personnel in the garden. If the carrot was used it would probably have been placed amongst the aromatic herbs along with fennel, suggesting that the root was discounted, using only the pleasantly scented flowers and leaves in cooking or medicine.


This tablet lists the plants in the garden of King Marduk-apla-iddina, the Biblical Merodach-Baladan, including onions, garlic, leeks, lettuce, cucumbers, and turnips, as well as mint, cress, thyme, and coriander.

The plant called "slave girl-buttock" remains unidentified. From Suthern Mesopotamia, Iraq. Reign of Marduk-apla-iddina, 721-710 BCE and 703 BCE. (The British Museum, London)

Source - Amin, Osama S. M. "List of Plants in the Garden of Marduk-apla-iddina." Ancient History Encyclopedia. Last modified April 14, 2016.

babylon tablet

(click image for larger version)

The exact lineage of carrots remains difficult to trace as it was often confused by early horticulturalists who used the name "pastinaca" for either carrot or the parsnip, its close relative.

Since most vegetables leave little archaeological trace, it is difficult to construct a complete picture of what was grown in prehistoric times. Many of those recorded in classical literature are likely to have been grown in earlier times, and green and root vegetables native to Europe were gathered long before they were brought into cultivation. Occasional discoveries of seeds show that cabbages were grown in southern England in the Bronze Age and oil-seed rape, turnips, and carrots in the Iron Age; celery, carrots, cabbages, and turnips were also among the plants used by the Neolithic and Bronze Age inhabitants of the Swiss lake villages.

Carrot seeds have been found in prehistoric Swiss lake dwellings in Ronbenhausen giving clear evidence of human consumption. There is however no evidence of cultivation at this stage, more likely they simply collected and used for medicinal purposes. Similar findings appear also in ancient Glastonbury in the UK. Neolithic people savoured the roots of the wild carrot for its sweet, succulent flavour.

5th century BCE - Rhaphanidosis is the act of inserting the root of a plant of the genus Raphanus (commonly known as a radish) into the anus. A carrot was also used when radish was not available. It is mentioned by Aristophanes as a punishment for adultery in Classical Athens in the fifth and fourth century BC. (included in a scene in the Clouds where Aristophanes refers to an adulterer being punished by the insertion of a radish into his anus). It is also allegedly a punishment for other sex-related crimes, such as promiscuity and homosexuality. Radishes were larger in those days - ouch!! Nigette Spikes states that when enforced as a capital punishment, tubers so deposited were chosen to be as rough as possible so as to cause death by internal haemorrhaging. Historians have questioned the idea that these comic forms of abuse were carried out in reality, whilst others have argued that the reason that these jokes had such longevity in comedy was precisely because they were a reflection of reality. (References - Spikes, Nigette M. (2014). Dictionary of Torture. Abbott Press. p. 98. ISBN 978-1-45821-791-2;   Cohen, David (1991). "Sexuality, Violence, and the Athenian Law of Hubris". Greece & Rome. 38 (2): 176. doi:10.1017/S001738350002355X..)

One of the first written pieces of evidence come from Theophrastus (371-287bc) - the father of botany. His two surviving botanical works, Enquiry into Plants and On the Causes of Plants, were an important influence on medieval science. Theophrastus states, in the ninth book of his History of Plants, that "carrots grow in Arcadia, but that the best are found in Sparta".  Much of the information on the Greek plants may have come from his own observations, as he is known to have travelled throughout Greece, and to have had a botanical garden of his own; but the works also profit from the reports on plants of Asia brought back from those who followed Alexander the Great:

Theophrastus, also, mentions the carrot. Phaenias, in the fifth book of his work On Plants, writes as follows: "With respect to the qualities of its seed, the so called seps and the seed of the carrot." And in the first book he says:"Umbelliferous types of seeded plants are found in anise, fennel, carrot, bur-parsley (wild cabbage?), hemlock, coriander, and squill, which some call mouse-bane." (evidently from a list of antidotes; carrot-seed is here mentioned as a cure for the bite of the seps, a kind of lizard-snake. Nic. Ther. 843, Diosc. III.54 (59).

Archaeobotanists have discovered plant DNA in Greek-made pills found in a shipwrecked merchant trading vessel dated to 130BDC. Archaeological researchers have started to analyse the drugs, in the form of clay pills, found on board. Using the GenBank genetic database as their guide, they have found that the pills appear to contain carrot, parsley, radish, alfalfa, chestnut, celery, wild onion, yarrow, oak, and cabbage.It is believed the plants were used by doctors to treat intestinal disorders among the ship's crew. Such remedies are described in ancient Greek texts, but this is the first time the medicines themselves have been discovered. Read more here.

Geneticist Robert Fleischer of the Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park says that many of the ingredients match those described in ancient texts. Yarrow was meant to slow blood coming from a wound, and carrot, as described by Pedanius Dioscorides, a pharmacologist in Rome, was thought to ward off reptiles and aid in conception. Read more here.

Early written references come from the early Romans. Mithridates VI, King of Pontius (120bc-63bc) was in constant fear of poisoning. The king is said to have taken a potion daily, to render his body safe against danger from poison, this contained the seeds of the Cretan carrot.

He concocted one of the most well-known antidotes in antiquity, called mithridatium, possibly with the help of his court physician Crateuas. Experimenting with different formulations and trying them out on condemned prisoners, he compounded various antidotes to produce a single universal one, which he hoped would protect him against any poison. A hundred years after the death of Mithridates, Celsus (see below) recorded the formulation, which comprised thirty-six ingredients, all of which are derived from plants, except for honey to mix them and castor to enhance the aroma. The concoction is estimated to have weighed approximately three pounds and to have lasted for six months, taken daily in the amount the size of an almond.  Celsus said "Against poisoning, a piece the size of an almond is given in wine. In other affections an amount corresponding in size to an Egyptian bean is sufficient. "

Krateuas (Crateuas) 120 B.C. was physician in ordinary to Mithridates VI Eupator, King of Pontus (died 63 B.C.). Krateuas described and illustrated plants. Some fragments of his writings have been recognised in the Anicia Codex of Dioscorides in the Vienna State Library to which reference has been made later in the Carrot Museum - the first Orange carrot illustration.

An examination of the pharmacology of Mithridates' original formulation shows a conscious effort to select plants thought to be useful, many of which have a strong scent and are from the family Apiaceae: Cretan carrot, assafoetida ("gum"), galbanum, sagapenum, opopanax, parsley, anise, hartwort ("saxifrage"). They have subsequently been proved to reduce inflammation.

King Mithridates is said to have taken it daily in an attempt to render his body safe against danger from poison. This worked, and when he tried to poison himself (rather than be slain by his enemies through the sword) his suicide attempt failed, as he had previously, over many years, dosed himself with his "antidote".!!

Celsus was a Roman encyclopaedist, known for his medical work, De Medicina, which is believed to be the only surviving section of a much larger encyclopaedia. The De Medicina is a primary source on diet, pharmacy, surgery and related fields, and it is one of the best sources concerning medical knowledge in the Roman world.   It is a disputed question whether the author of the work was a practising physician or not. It may be remarked in passing that in ancient times there was not such a sharp distinction between the professional and the amateur as there is today. The amount of medical knowledge was not so great as to be out of the range of an ordinary, educated man of average intelligence. On the one hand, it may be said that a work so complete and so accurate as the De Medicina must have come from the pen of a man with professional experience.  On the other hand, several reasons may be urged making the other view more probable.

The seeds of Daucus Creticus; Athaminta Gretensis, Cretan or Candy carrot is mentioned in an ingredient of an antidote,( II. 56). It also included, amongst other things,  poppy, parsley, pepper, acacia and saxifrage. The ingredients were pounded and taken up in honey.

"Against poisoning, a piece the size of an almond is given in wine. In other affections an amount corresponding in size to an Egyptian bean is sufficient."

Celsus said -

"The most famous antidote is that of Mithridates, which that king is said to have taken daily and by it to have rendered his body safe against danger from poison. It contains costmary 1.66 grams, sweet flag 20 grams, hypericum, gum, sagapenum, acacia juice, Illyrian iris, cardamon, 8 grams each, anise 12 grams, Gallic nard, gentian root and dried rose-leaves, 16 grams each, poppy-tears and parsley, 17 grams each, casia, saxifrage, darnel, long pepper, 20.66 grams each, storax 21 grams, castoreum, frankincense, hypocistis juice, myrrh and opopanax, 24 grams each, malabathrum leaves 24 grams, flower of round rush, turpentine-resin, galbanum, Cretan carrot seeds, 24.66 grams each, nard and opobalsam, 25 grams each, shepherd's purse 25 grams, rhubarb root 28 grams, saffron, ginger, cinnamon, 29 grams each. These are pounded and taken up in honey. Against poisoning, a piece the size of an almond is given in wine. In other affections an amount corresponding in size to an Egyptian bean is sufficient."

Celsus, De Medicina (V.23.3) Source -*.html

Read more about the pills containing crushed carrots, first found in 1974 in a Greek shipwreck from around 125 BC.

When King Mithridates was defeated by the Romans they acquired the recipe for Antidotum Mithridates, a universal antidote created by Mithridates himself. Emperor Nero let his physician Andromachus study the antidote. Andromachus changed a few ingredients, most importantly he added snake flesh and increased the amount of opium. The antidote got the name Theriac derived from the Greek which means 'wild or venomous animal', it is also called triacle (modern day treacle). It was originally concocted to cure snake bites, later it became an antidote for all poisons. Theriac had a very complicated formula and failure to follow the recipe with fresh and precisely measured ingredients meant that the concoction did not work.

The use of carrot seeds is recorded in the famous work "De medicina" by Aulus Cornelius Celsus written between 25bc-50ce . A carrot poultice was used at the time - see modern version here.

Carrots were well known to both the Greeks and Romans. carrots pompeii Wall painting. Pompeii, House of Giulia Felice, 79 bC

Medieval and particularly Renaissance gardening was heavily influenced by these writings of the ancient Greeks and Romans:
Columella (On Agriculture)
Varro (On Agriculture: Rerum rusticarum)
Cato (On Agriculture: De re rustica)
Palladius (On Husbandry)
Pliny the Elder
Dioscorides Pedanius, of Anazarbos.(De Materia Medica)

Image right - Roman Wall painting. Pompeii, House of Giulia Felice, 79 bC National Archaeological Museum, Naples. Depicts radish, carrots, pasnips & turnips

During the first century, the Greeks cultivated a variety of root crops that included leeks, onions, radishes, turnips, and a poorly developed variety of carrots. The unpleasant tasting carrots were rarely eaten but were applied medicinally. Though the Greeks excelled in cultivating many food plants, they never succeeded in developing theThe black carrot carrot into a flavourful vegetable. Even Galen, the 2nd century physician at the court of Marcus Aurelius, stated that the wild carrot is less fit to be eaten than the cultivated variety. They cultivated carrots in their kitchen gardens. These varieties are thought to have been 'forked' with white roots, not unlike the roots of today's wild carrot.

The Romans often ate carrots raw, dressed in oil, salt and vinegar or they cooked them with a sauce made from cumin, salt, old wine and oil. The Romans invading Britain in the second century AD brought leeks, onions, garden carrots, garlic, fennel, mint, thyme, parsley and coriander to name but a few. The Greeks called the carrot "Philtron" and used it as a love medicine to make men more ardent and women more yielding. The Carrot is mentioned by Greek and Latin writers under various names however it was not always distinguished from the Parsnip and Skirret, which are closely allied to it. The name Pastinace was used for both at the time of Pliny  the Elder and is based on the verb pastinare - to dig up.  Galen in the 2nd century attempted to distinguish the two by giving the wild carrot the name Daucus Pastinaca.

The Greeks had three words each of which could be applied to the properties of the carrot: "Sisaron", first occurring in the writings of Epicharmus, a comic poet (500 B.C.); "Staphylinos", used by Hippocrates (430 B.C.) and "Elaphoboscum", used by Dioscorides (first century AD).

Hippocrates (460-359 BC) The physician and scholar is well known and revered as the father of modern medicine and formalised many herbal cures. Less known is the stress he placed on diet in maintaining health. In medical science, people basically thought the mind and the body was an inseparable thing and the moral view of disease was that diseases were a punishment for a sin. On the other hand Hippocrates saw that diseases occur by natural causes. Having lived just shy of a century at a time when life expectancies were much less, he clearly understood the importance of a healthy diet.

The assertion of Hippocrates, a doctor from Cos Island in Greece and that of his followers remains and his complete works have commanded universal admiration for a long time as the highest scriptures in the field of medical science. Even today the sublime spirit of Hippocrates serves as pattern for others, so every person seeking for the occupation of doctor is bound to swear the Hypocratical oath at least once.

Hippocrates said "Let food be your medicine and medicine your food". In the following description of cooking methods, his primary concern is to counteract the potentially harmful effects of strongly flavoured foods with the ultimate goal of easing their digestion and passage through the body. He also reveals some of the basic preferences of ancient Greek cuisine.

He also said "The powers of foods severally ought to be diminished or increased in the following way...Take away their power from strong foods by boiling and cooling many times; remove moisture from moist things by grilling and roasting them; soak and moisten dry things, soak and boil salt things, bitter and sharp things mix with sweet, and astringent things mix with oily."  For example, foods like cabbage, carrots and turnips were boiled several times, fish or lamb would have been grilled, and an herb like sorrel would have been dressed with oil.

Socrates - In 399 B.C., Socrates was found guilty of heresy and corrupting the minds of Athenian youth. For this, he was sentenced to death by drinking poison hemlock. The alkaloids found within poison hemlock cause paralysis of several organs, including the respiratory system, usually within 2 or 3 hours. Eating only a tiny bit of the toxins found in poison hemlock can cause death.

Pedianos Dioskourides, also known as Pedanius Dioscorides was a Greek physician (c. 20-70 CE) was a Cilician Greek and catalogued over 600 medicinal plant species during his first century travels as a roman army doctor and who accurately describes the modern carrot. (Cilicia is a geo-cultural region in southern Anatolia (Turkey), extending inland from the northeastern coasts of the Mediterranean Sea.)  The Greek herbal of Pedanios Dioskurides, latinized as Pedanius Dioscorides (20–70 CE), is entitled Peri Ylis Ialikis (PYI) and latinized as De Materia Medica, On Medical Matters, was written about the year 65. It was destined to be one of the most famous books on pharmacology and medicine but is also rich in horticulture. This non-illustrated work contained descriptions of about 600 plants, 35 animal products, and 90 minerals emphasizing their medicinal uses. A separate Carrot Museum page has a lot more detail of the Greek Herbal Materia Medica associated with Dioscorides here.

The third book of Dioscorides the Greek – Roots -  sets out an account of roots, juices, herbs, and seeds — suitable both for common use and for medications. Read more on the next page including some translations of his work and illustrations of the Orange Carrot. Here  Dioscorides probably wrote his great herbal in about 64CE (according to Pritzel 77CE). These medicinal and alimentary plants number about a hundred more than all those (medicinal or not) known to the great botanist Theophrastus, and described in his fine botanical work, the Enquiry into Plants, some two centuries before.

He was from Anazarbus, a small town near Tarsus in what is now south-central Turkey. As a surgeon and physician with the Roman army of Emperor Nero, Dioscorides travelled through Italy, Gaul, Spain, and North Africa, recording the existence and medicinal value of hundreds of plants. He compiled an extensive listing of medicinal herbs and their virtues in about 70 A.D. Originally written in Greek, Dioscorides' herbal was later translated into Latin as De Materia Medica.

Dioscorides knew three kinds of  Daucus, the third of which could be probably identified with the wild carrot, having “coriander leaves, white flowers, top and seeds similar to dill and terminal umbels like parsnip.”

He recorded many plants previously unknown to Greek and Roman physicians, and made an effort to describe not only their qualities and remedial effects, but also something of their botany and living morphology including roots, foliage, and sometimes flowers. Although not as naive as many other herbal writers, he showed little scientific interest concentrating rather on the practical uses of plants and sometimes giving only brief descriptions, perhaps from other primary sources. In all he described some one thousand remedies using approximately six hundred plants and plant products.

His work remained the standard reference and authority on medicinal plants for over 1500 years.  Dioscorides said that the Greeks used carrot leaves against cancerous tumours. He may have learned his medicine by practical experience while in the legions and he most certainly relied on an earlier work by the physician Crateuas. His work describes some 600 plants and their possible medical use.  Pedanius Dioscorides described the carrot as a panacea for a number of problems. "They say that reptiles do not harm people who have taken it in advance; it also aids conception," he wrote around 60 AD.

Dioscorides wrote "Ye root ye thickness of a finger, a span long, sweet-smelling, edible being sodden [boiled]. Of this ye seed being drank...and it is good for ye [painful discharge of urine] in potions, and for ye bitings and strokes of venomous beasts; they say also, that they which take it before hand shall take no wrong of wilde beasts. It co-operates also to conception, and it also being [diuretic], both provoketh [poison], and being applied; but the leaves being beaten small with honey, and laid on, doth cleanse rapidly spreading destructive ulceration of soft tissues." He recommended the seeds of Wild Carrot for the relief of urinary retention, to stimulate menstruation and to "wake up the genital virtue."  Read more on the next page including some translations of his work and illustrations of the Orange Carrot. Here  (Mitch, 1998) Read more on the next page including some translations of his work and illustrations of the Orange Carrot. Here

Columella (1st century AD) briefly mentions the carrot. He talks of the wild field parsnip and a cultivated variety which bears the name and which the Greeks called "staphylinos". Carrot (pastinaca) a native plant improved by cultivation  - “agrestis pastinaca et eiusdem nominis edomita quam Gracci staphylinos oucant (later it was called carota and pastinaca transferred to the parsnip) Ref:Columella DA 11.3.35 - Food in the Ancient World from A to Z By Andrew Dalby)

He also mentions that the unopened flowers were collected and stored as herbs. Columella, Lucius Junius Moderatus - (b. 1st century AD, Gades, Spain) was a Roman soldier and farmer who wrote a twelve volume treatise on all aspects of Roman farming and extensively on agriculture and kindred subjects in the hope of arousing a love for farming and a simple life. He became in early life a tribune of the legion stationed in Syria, but neither an army career nor the law attracted him, and he took up farming in Italy.

Tiberius Claudius Nero (42BC-37AD), second Emperor of Rome, was, according to Pliny the Elder,  so much in love with the carrot root that he ordered it to be brought yearly from the Castle of Geluba standing on the river Rhine in Germany. Pliny the Elder called him tristissimus hominum, "the gloomiest of men".

bust of apiciusApicius (1st century) The oldest collection of recipes to survive from antiquity, De Re Coquinaria ("The Art of Cooking") is attributed to Marcus Gavius Apicius, the famed epicure who flourished during the reign of Tiberius early in the first century AD. More about Apicius here

Stories of his legendary wealth and excesses abounded and he passed in to history as  a kind of croesus of the kitchen. Apicius is primarily remembered as a deranged, sadistic and extravagant tyrant. The historian Aelius Lampridius depicts him feasting on flamingo's' brains, the heads of parrots, sow's udder and vegetables seasoned with precious jewels. #His work "De Re Coquinaria" (on cookery) is the most important cooking treatise in Latin. It is divided into 11 Chapters and reveals the evolution of taste in terms of food and lifestyle of the Roman upper class up to the Fall of the Roman Empire. This work is reputedly the oldest cookbook in the world and captures for all time the essence of what was best in the art of Roman cooking. Chapter III of Apicius' book was "The Gardener - Cepuros - Vegetables". This chapter describes meals eaten across civilised Europe during the centuries of Roman domination. They constitute the foundations of western cookery, shorn of food additives and artificial preservatives.

These 4 recipes specifically include carrots:

1. Caroetae Frictea: oenogaro inferuntur - which was fried carrots served with oenogerum.

2. Aliter Caroetas: sale, oleo puro et aceto - Another method: (cooked) with salt, pure oil and vinegar.

3. Caroetas Elixatus: concisas in cuminato oleo modico coques et inferes. - Boil the carrots and chop (slice). Stewede (cooked) in cumin sauce with a little oil and served at the same time - for those who have thecolic.

4. Carotae et Pastinacae (Carrots and Parsnips) - carrots and or parsnips fried in a white wine sauce. Presumably the vegetable(s) are fried first, and then served with the sauce. An important note here that carrots of the Roman time were NOT orange in colour. This colour wasn't developed until around the 15th-16th centuries. The correct colours for carrots in Roman times were probably purple.

Interestingly several of the other Apicius recipes are very poisonous and should not be re-created!! Find out more here.
His recipes rarely included any indication of quantities, and ingredients were often enumerated without any direction on how they should be used. This means that his books were probably only used by experienced cooks. One tip in this Book is "How to cook all vegetables the colour of emeralds is to cook them with soda".

NOTE: The name of the Roman gourmand Apicius is commonly associated with the oldest surviving cookbook, De re coquinaria (On Culinary Art), however, the recipes were not put down on paper until 200 a.d., fully three centuries after the man himself lived.

(Source - Apicius Cookery and dining in Imperial Rome, A Bibliography, Critical Review and Translation of the Ancient Book known as Apicius de re Coquinaria, now for the first time rendered into English by Joseph Dommers Vehling, With a Dictionary of Technical Terms, Many Notes, Facsimiles of Originals, and Views and Sketches of Ancient Culinary Objects Made by the Author 2009 - available in full here


Caseggiato del Termopolio, Rome, Italy - Roman tavern wall painting Detail of the painting on the east wall of room 6, Ostia Antica, Italy

Picture of Roman Wall painting from Tavern in Ostia

Left - Regio I - Insula II - Caseggiato del Termopolio (The House of the Bar). Trajanic-Hadrianic period 78-138 CE

Right - Detail of the painting on the east wall of room 6, Ostia Antica, Italy is what appears to be a carrot, accompanying olives and a little bowl of dip, from a wall painting in a Roman tavern in Ostia (Lazio, Italy) (Caseggiato del Termopolio). Compliments of Bill Thayer (Lacus Curtius) the real expert on Roman antiquities.  The so called Thermopolium, in the Caseggiato del Termopolio, in reality a tavern of the 3rd century.

This Roman Mosaic (below- right close up detail) from the City of Thysdrus, Tunisia (modern day El Djem). This Nilotic mosaic shows a naked man with two vegetables (thought to be carrots or parsnips - leaves look like parsnip!!) from Djem, Tunisia. It served as the center of olive oil production in the province of Africa proconsularis.

Roman Mosaic El Djem Carrots

Roman Mosaic El Djem Carrots - close up

In Roman times more civilized early Mediterranean communities knew about the carrot and supplies were specially imported from Germany for the table of Tiberius. The Romans often ate carrots raw, dressed in oil, salt and vinegar or they cooked them with a sauce made from cumin, salt, old wine and oil. The Romans invading Britain in the second century AD brought leeks, onions, garden carrots, garlic, fennel, mint, thyme, parsley and coriander to name but a few. Roman soups could be quite complicated affairs. Perhaps the oldest surviving soup recipe in the world appears in Apicius' fourth century cook book, based on the notes of a cook who had died three centuries earlier. The soup in question is Pultes Iulianae, or Julian Pottage, and the recipe is as follows:

First prepare a wheat gruel by boiling up some pre-soaked wheat with water and a little olive oil, and stir vigorously to thicken. Then pound up half a pound of minced meat in a mortar, with two brains, some pepper, lovage and fennel seed, and add wine and liquamen (fermented fish sauce, a little like modern South East Asian versions). Cook the mixture in a metal vessel, add some stock, and add the result to the wheat gruel.

Amphora found in SalisburyThe Romans transported and stored their liquids, including their much prized wine and oil (for cooking carrots) in vessels called amphorae. These were large, two-handled pottery jugs often in red brown sandy ware. (The word amphora is Greek for "two ears".) In Roman times the amphora was used as a unit of liquid measure containing 2 urnae, 8 congii, or 48 sextarii (the latter, equivalent to a pint). One amphora thus equalled about 6 gallons or 24 litres. The amphora was also used as a measurement of ship tonnage, equivalent to 80 Roman pounds. Literally millions of pottery amphorae were used in commerce throughout the empire. Vessels and shards of Roman amphorae, commonly found at archaeology sites, thus serve as a ready means of tracing the spread of the wine trade in and beyond the empire (for example, in Britain and Gaul prior to Caesar). Interestingly enough one amphora is called the carrot amphora because of its shape!.

The lower class Romans (plebeians) might have a dinner of porridge made of vegetables, or, when they could afford it, fish, bread, olives, and wine, and meat on occasions.

Apicius was the classical glutton, his colossal banquets eventually drove him to bankruptcy roman glutton cartoonand suicide, but he left behind a cookbook so prized that it has been preserved, in numerous editions, down to the 21st century. The Martial Epigrams quote: "After you spent 60 million sesterces on your stomach, Apicius, 10 million remained. An embarrassment you said, fit only to satisfy mere hunger and thirst. So your last and most expensive meal was poison. Apicius you never were more a glutton than at the end."

The Latin word "sphondyli" has two meanings in the work of Apicius. Sometimes it refers to carrots or artichokes and in others it refers to mussels. The ancients cultivated the species "Heracleum Sphondylium" which is the parsnip a similar plant to carrots.

Apicius wrote two cook books and a special book on sauces and his name is linked to several culinary inventions.

Emperor Caligula (A.D. 37-51) a renowned crazed megalomaniac given to capricious cruelty and harebrained schemes, including attempting to make his horse, Incitatus, a consul. He is purported to have once ordered the senate to convene and then fed the entire he assembled dignitaries a banquet only of carrot dishes, believing their aphrodisiac powers would get people in the mood and produce a delightful orgy for his viewing pleasure

The Roman emperor Caligula, believing these stories, forced the whole Roman Senate to eat carrots so he could see them "in rut like wild beasts."

Pliny the ElderPliny the Elder, (A.D. 23-79) a Roman Historian and scientist refers to a plant grown in Syria resembling a parsnip, called in Italy Gallicam and in Greece Daucon.  Pliny's rich encyclopedia "Naturalis Historia" (Natural History) deals with medicinal plants and described their therapeutic effects. Pliny's work includes a discussion of all known cultivated crops and vegetables, as well as herbs and remedies derived from them.

Pliny said: "There is one kind of wild pastinaca which grows spontaneously; by the Greeks it is known as staphylinos. Another kind is grown either from the root transplanted or else from seed, the ground being dug to a very considerable depth for the purpose. It begins to be fit for eating at the end of the year, but it is still better at the end of two; even then, however, it preserves its strong pungent flavour, which it is found impossible to get rid of."  In speaking of the medicinal virtue he adds "the cultivated form has the same as the wild kind, though the latter is more powerful, especially when grown in stony places. Pliny called its root "pasticana gallica" : "food for Gauls", but it was not eaten as a vegetable prior to the Middle Ages.

Pliny speaks of four kinds of wild carrot (Daucus), some of which “grow everywhere on earthy hills and cross-paths” having “leaves like those of coriander, a stem a cubit high and round heads”. 

In Latin, pastinaca refers to the parsnip or the carrot. Related words in that language are pastinare, 'to dig', and pastinum, a two-pronged digging fork or dibble, which probably lent its name to these vegetables because they so often formed forked roots in the ground. In archaic English pastinate, means 'land prepared for planting'. Pliny also said "It has become quite a common proverb that in wine there is truth."

Pliny died in A.D. 79 while observing the famous eruption of Mount Vesuvius. In A.D. 77 he wrote the first encyclopaedia, Historia Naturalis, in which he "set forth in detail all the contents of the entire world." . It was composed of 37 books on natural history in all its phases including meteorology, zoology, geography and botany. This work contains a large amount of information found nowhere else. Headless people were among the many marvels it reported. He reported that it involved 2000 volumes but if so, most have been lost. This work had a profound influence on biology throughout the Middle Ages and practically until the end of the 18th Century. In fact it was the basis for the encyclopaedias of Bartholomaeus Anglicus, Konrad of Megenberg and others.

The drawing of a Pompeii wall painting now destroyed (Pittore di Ercolano, vol 2, p52,pl8) depicts four bunches of vegetables. Helbig (1868, no 1669) identified a bunch of asparagus, various radishes, and two bunches of yellow Ruben (carrots).  (Source:The natural history of Pompeii -  By Wilhelmina Mary Feemster Jashemski, Frederick Gustav Meyer). The leaves of Wild Carrot, and many flowering umbels were found in the carbonised hay at Oplontis (a town close to Pompeii).

Read an extract from a translation of Pliny's Natural History here. Showing references to carrot and the remedies to bodily ailments it recommends.

Claudius Galen of Pergamum (130-200?) was the most outstanding physician  of antiquity after Hippocrates. He served at the court of Marcus Aurelius. Galen's medical writings (comprising nearly a hundred treatises) became the standard source of medical knowledge for centuries. His experimental work was pioneering: he demonstrated the function of the nervous system by cutting animals' spinal cords at different points and observing their resulting paralysis. He was the first to consider the diagnostic value of taking a subject's pulse, and was the first to identify several muscles.

He also studied the heart and urinary system, and proved that the arteries are full of blood. He believed that blood originated in the liver, and sloshed back and forth through the body, passing through the heart, where it was mixed with air, by pores in the septum. His anatomical studies on animals and observations of how the human body functions dominated medical theory and practice for 1400 years. Galen was born of Greek parents in Pergamum, Asia Minor, which was then part of the Roman Empire.

A shrine to the healing god Asclepius was located in Pergamum, and there young Galen observed how the medical techniques of the time were used to treat the ill or wounded. He received his formal medical training in nearby Smyrna and then travelled widely, gaining more medical knowledge. In about 161 he settled in Rome, where he became renowned for his skill as a physician, his animal dissections, and his public lectures.

Galen commanded "garden Carrots higher to break the wind, yet experience teacheth they breed it first, and we may thank nature for expelling it. The seeds expel wind indeed and so mend what the root marreth". The name Daucus pastinaca was given to the wild carrot by Galen in attempt to distinguish it from parsnip. Galen said that the wild carrot "is less fit to be eaten than the cultivated variety".

Extract from Galen on Food and Diet – Mark Grant  (2000) -

Carrot, wild carrot and caraway The roots of these plants are eaten, but these provide less nutrition than turnips and less in fact than the taro from Cyrene. They are clearly heating and display a certain aromatic quality. As with other roots they are difficult to digest. They are diuretic and, if used excessively, supply an average amount of bad juice. Caraway root contains better juices than the carrot. Some people call the wild carrot daucus, since it is more diuretic, of greater medicinal value and in need of lengthy cooking, if it is intended to be eaten.

The nutrition from the plants mentioned above

When forced through shortage of food, people often boil and eat pellitory, water parsnip, alexanders, fennel, wild chervil, chicory, gum succory, daucus gingidium, wild carrot, and the tender shoots of most bushes and trees; some of these are even eaten when there is no shortage of food, like the top of the date palm which is called the heart.

Galen at work in the Theatre

From the Collection Bertarelli, Milan Medicatrina, A Clinic Scene (left).

This illustration accompanying Galen’s work shows the surgical procedures described by Galen--on the head, eye, leg, mouth, bladder and genitals--still practiced in the 16th century.

The name Carota for the garden Carrot is found first in the writings of Athenaeus (A.D. 200), and in the book on cookery by Apicius. It was Galen the Greek physician  (second century A.D.) who named the wild carrot Daucus pastinaca  (adding the name Daucus) to distinguish the Carrot from the Parsnip, though confusion remained steadfast until botanist Linnaeus set the record straight in the 18th century with his system of plant classification.

The scientific name he gave the carrot is Daucus carota, the parsnip Pastinaca sativa.

Although human dissections had fallen into disrepute, he always stressed to his students the importance of practicing on humans and recommended that students practice dissection as often as possible. Galen believed everything in nature has a purpose, and that nature uses a single object for more than one purpose whenever possible. He maintained that "the best doctor is also a philosopher," and so advocated that medical students be well-versed in philosophy, logic, physics, and ethics. To learn more about Galen visit this site.

Galen also said "All that's old shall be new again." Galen was physician to the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. He remains most famous for his codification of Hippocrates's 'four humors' as personality traits (a concept later adopted by Adler in his 'Four Lifestyle Theory'). He was the first to identify the brain-mind relation, the basic working structure of the eye and ear, as well as distinguishing differences between motor and sensory nerves (i.e., so-called affective and effective impulses). Did you know Galen is credited with investigating increased physiological activity amongst lovers? The next time you are near to your lover check to see whether your pulse races and pupils dilate!

Athenaeus, of Naucratis, Egypt, the garrulous scholar from 200ad, considered the carrot and the parsnip the same vegetable or at least interchangeable. The problem of classification was finally resolved by the master classifier, Linnaeus, who put the parsnip in a genus of its own, but refused to recognise the cultivated carrot as specifically distinct from its wild cousin Queen Anne's Lace. Both are known as Daucus Carota. His anthological work, the Deipnosophistae (Banquet of the Sophists), is a collection of anecdotes, after dinner stories, memorabilia and excerpts from ancient writers whose works are otherwise lost.

Athenaeus wrote:
1. "A change of meat is often good, and those who are wearied of common food take new pleasure in a novel meal," and
2. " Every investigation which is guided by principles of Nature fixes its ultimate aim entirely on gratifying the stomach".

Extract of The Text of Athenaeus (referencing carrot)

Athenaeus, whose Deipnosophistae, or The Sophists at Dinner, is the oldest cookery book that has come down to us, was a native of Naucratis in Egypt. He lives in Rome at the end of the second and the beginning of the third century after Christ. We know nothing more of his life and activities than his own work reveals.

The Carrot.85 -

 "This is pungent," says Diphilus, "harsh, tolerably nourishing and fairly wholesome, with a tendency to loosening and windiness, moderately good for the stomach; not easy to digest, very diuretic, . It is not without some influence in prompting men to amatory feelings, calculated to rouse sexual desire; hence by some it is called 'love-philtre.'

Numenius says in The Art of Angling:

Of the herbs and plants which grow in fields unsown
Or which take root in ploughed up fields
In Winter or when flowering Spring arrives
Such as the artichoke thistle (cardoon) dry or the wild carrot
Or the firm deep rooted rape-turnip or lastly the wild bur-parsley (members of the carrot family) Nicander in the second book of the Georgics says:

Among them too there is the deep root and high stalk of fennel, the root of rock parsley and the scraggly carrot too. Which loves dry soils.

With them the soil thistle, the myrrh plant, sow thistle, the hounds tongue and the chicory.
And with them thou shalt  bruise or pound the pungent leaves of edderwort , the tough hard tasted leaves of Arum or  the plant/herb which farmers do entitle Birds Milk.

Diocles, in the first book of his Hygiene (or Treatise of the Wholesomes), calls the carrot (staphylinus not astaphylinus. (It appears he is trying to distinguish the parsnip from the carrot)
There is another kind  - What is called the "sliced," which is a large, well-grown carrot, is juicier than the carrot and more heating, more diuretic, wholesome, very good for the stomach and easy to digest, as Diphilus records and assures us.

Read more here - "The Deipnosophists; or, Banquet of the learned, of Athenaeus. Literally translated by C.D. Yonge, B.A. With an appendix of poetical fragments, rendered into English verse by various authors, and a general index,by Athenaeus, of Naucratis; Yonge, Charles Duke, 1812-1891" Here

It is said that the Roman invaders fed carrot broth to their female hostages in hope of unfettering their straight-laced demeanor!

The breakdown of the Roman Empire resulted in social disturbances, destruction of the large cities, and a general decline in culture, a period often referred to as the Dark Ages. This is evidenced in the deterioration in the accuracy and content of plant illustrations. Scribes continued to reproduce and embellish previous manuscripts, rather than observing and representing the existing native plants, and a dogmatic scholasticism that stifled original investigation.

The carrot was certainly cultivated in the Mediterranean area before the Christian Era, but it was not important as a foohistory bookd until much later. There is a long gap of about 900 years between the writings of the Greeks and Romans of the first to third centuries and the next clear records about the carrot. 

carrot pointerTurn the pages of history to find out what happened next in the Carrot's journey after the demise of the Roman Empire.

Reference material is here.     Continue your time travel - A.D. 200 to 1500

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