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The Unusual Times
World Cucumber Day

Why everything you think you know about Roman cucumbers is wrong

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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 Rome, thanks to sophisticated agricultural techniques that made them easy to grow in large numbers. Not only were they eaten – they were also used as medicine. They were recommended for treating scorpion bites and short-sightedness, and women trying to conceive often wore cucumbers around their waists.

However, after the sacking of Rome, the cucumber largely disappeared… or so we thought. Recent research by several historians suggests our understanding of Roman cucumber history may be wholly 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 written descriptions of such fruit did not seem to tally with cucumbers at all. It seems that one man’s cucumber is another man’s melon, and that all the contemporary references we once thought were to 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 the cucumber was introduced overland into Europe from the east following the Mongol conquests that began with Genghis Khan in the early 13th century.” 

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