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Investigations into Cucumber & Rose

Around the world in 80 cucumbers: The Cucumbers of Rome

Blog image of Around the world in 80 cucumbers: The Cucumbers of Rome

Emperor Tiberius loved cucumbers, as did both the rich and poor of Rome…or did they? Find out why everything you think you know about Roman cucumbers may not be true.

Emperor Tiberius of Rome grew cucumbers in his greenhouse and insisted on eating one every day as he believed it vital for good health (this we know thanks to the famous historian Pliny). The cucumber was popular in the Rome, thanks to sophisticated agricultural techniques that made them easy to grow in large numbers. Not only where they eaten, they were also used as medicine. They were recommended to treat scorpion bites, short-sightedness, and women trying to conceive wore cucumbers around their waists. After the sacking of Rome, the cucumber largely disappeared. Ah, or so we thought— but recent research by several historians suggests that our understanding of Roman cucumber history may be absolutely untrue— and it all comes down to mistranslation. Follow me, dear reader, and prepare for a shock.

The Great Green Fallacy

H.S. Paris (from the Agricultural Research Organization) and J. Janick (Department of Horticulture & Landscape Architecture) looked into the history of ancient Roman cucumbers in detail and made a remarkable discovery: they found no evidence for the presence of cucumber (Cucumis sativus) in Mediterranean cultures during this time period. Historians had repeatedly translated cucumis and sikyos hemeros as ‘cucumber’ despite the fact that many of the written descriptions of these fruit did not seem to tally with cucumbers at all. It seems that one man’s cucumber is another man’s melon, and all the contemporary references that were previously thought to be discussing cucumbers were actually describing melons! In a further revelation, H.S. Paris and J. Janick found no pictorial evidence for cucumbers in Europe until the 14th Century “…suggesting the possibility that cucumber was introduced overland into Europe from the east following the Mongol conquests, which began with Genghis Khan in the early 13th century”.

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