The North African cities of Cyrene and Barce, in Cyrenaica, were renowned for their exports of silphium. This ancient plant had countless uses, from medicinal uses, flavouring in food, a delicacy in its own right, to an aphrodisiac and even as a contraceptive. It was extremely popular across the Mediterranean in antiquity.
So important was the silphium plant to the economies of Cyrene and Barce that both chose it for the designs of their coins. Taking pride of place on the obverse of the large tetradrachm above is an impressive depiction of the plant. The fact that the plant itself occupies the obverse of this coin, and the portrait of the revered Zeus Ammon appears on the reverse, should give us an idea of silphium’s importance. Depictions of the plant are far more numerous in the numismatic record than any other ancient medium. It is depictions such as this that have led archaeologists, historians and botanists to believe the silphium plant was some sort of giant fennel.
While many coins of Cyrene and Barce depict silphium in its full splendour, other, usually smaller denominations focus on a fascinating part of the plant. The seeds of the silphium plants ‘heart shaped’. This distinctive feature, combined with the plant’s supposed use as an aphrodisiac, has led many to believe it may have been the origin of the heart shape we know so well today.
The exact reason for the plant’s extinction remains a mystery. One theory is that popularity simply lead to overharvesting. Another is that silphium crops were used as animal feed (possibly to improve the quality of meat) and that this overgrazing led to the disappearance of the plant. This, combined with information provided by the ancient writer Theoprastus, who wrote that silphium was unable to be cultivated, may account for the extinction. He also mentions that harvesting or silphium and the tapping of its precious resin was strictly controlled, akin to mining rights, though these practises appear to have been largely ignored by the 1st Century BC.
The cities of Cyrene and Barce would have been mostly reliant on a plant which was essentially wild, extremely sensitive to the nature of local soils and climate, and was difficult to cultivate. This, combined with the extreme popularity of the plant and it is not surprising that, by the 1st Century AD, silphium would be driven to extinction.
The author Pliny mentions that Silphium was, worth its weight in silver when it was still available, though by his time, had long been extinct. The final stalk of silphium was supposedly presented to the Emperor Nero as a curiosity. Given the emperor’s notoriously hedonistic nature, it would appear a fitting and poetic end for the legendary and mysterious ancient plant.