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Anointing the living and the dead – the art of perfumery in antiquity – part 2

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‘Ergo regale unguentum appellatum, quoniam Parthorum regibus ita temperatur, constat myrobalano, costo, amomo, cinnamo comaco, cardamomo,nardi spica, maro, murra, casia, styrace, ladano, opobalsamo, calamo iuncoque Syriis, oenanthe, malobathro, serichato, cypro, aspalatho, panace, croco, cypiro, amaraco, loto, melle, vino. Nihilque eius rei causa in Italia victrice omnium, in Europa vero tota praeter irim Illyricam et nardum Gallicum gignitur: nam vinum et rosa et myrti folia oleumque communia fere omnium terrarum intellegantur.’


‘What then is called the ‘royal’ unguent, because it is a blend prepared for the kings of Parthia, is made of behen-nut juice, costus, amomum, Syrian‘cinnamon, cardamom, spikenard, cat-thyme, myrrh, cinnamon-bark, styrax-tree gum, ladanum, balm, Syrian flag and Syrian rush, wild grape, cinnamon leaf, serichatum, cyprus, camel’s thorn, all-heal, saffron, gladiolus, marjoram, lotus, honey and wine. And none of the components of this scent is grown in Italy, the conqueror of the world, and indeed none in the whole of Europe excepting the iris in Illyria and nard in Gaul—for as to wine and roses and myrtle leaves and olive oil, they may be taken as belonging to pretty well all countries in common.’

PLINY THE ELDER, Natural History LCL 370: 108-109 (Pliny and Rackham 1938)


Chapter 2 – Perfume of the King of Parthia, prepared according to Pliny the Elder recipe from “Natural History.’


Perfumes were part of the extravagant life of the wealthy people of antiquity. The Parthian perfume was supposed to be used by the kings and to be the most complex and expensive perfume of the classic antiquity. I have my doubts about the origins of the recipe. Real Parthian recipe should include white sandalwood (Santalum album) and camphor in its list of ingredients  (Grami 2013; Mohagheghzadeh, Zargaran, and Daneshamuz 2011). I suspect that a talented perfume seller/maker advertised an expensive perfume to the wealthiest elites and used the ‘King of Parthia’ name as a trademark to justify the price. The Romans were sworn enemies with the Parthians and officially abhorred the luxurious lifestyle of the Parthian aristocracy, but secretly ‘adopted’ many of its elements, including love for exotic perfumes and silks (Voudouri and Tesseromatis 2015; Schlude 2009)(Pollard 2009).

The perfume for the Parthian king consists of several ingredients, known for their olfactory and therapeutic properties. In my redaction of this recipe the following substances were used: moringa oil (Moringa oleifera), Retsina Kourtoki white wine, saffron (Crocus sativus), costus root (Saussurea lappa), balsam (Commiphora opoponax), benzoin resin (Styrax benzoides), labdanum resin (Cistus villosus var. creticus ), cyperus  (Cyperus rotundus), cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum), black cardamom (Amomum subulatum), cassia (Cinnamomum cassia), cinnamon chips (Cinnamomum verum), myrrh (Commiphora myrrha), storax bark (Liquidambar orientalis), spikenard root (Nardostachys jatamansi), orris rhizome (Iris germanica), calamus root (Acorus calamus), rhodiola root (Rhodiola rosea), wild mint (Mentha longifolia), lemon balm (Melissa officinalis),  lemongrass (Andropogon schoenathus), lemon verbena (Aloysia triphylla), marjoram (Origanum majorana), nutmeg (Myristica fragrans), Hagar resin (Commiphora erythrea), cypress absolute essential oil (Cupressus sempervirens) and blue lotus absolute essential oil (Nymphaea caerulea). The first impression (when I was bottling the freshly expelled green oil) was of heavy oriental spicy notes (Fig.1).


parthian perfume

Fig.1. The Parthian perfume stored in a glass bottle.

As the perfume ages (and it may takes months according to Dioscorides and Theophrastus writings), the overall scent will change and mature. I am looking forward to observing this process as it may offer directions for improving the recipe version.


The extant perfume recipe


The perfume of the King of Parthia is mentioned in ‘Natural History’ by Pliny the Elder as the most expensive and flamboyant perfume in existence. The detailed recipe unfortunately does not contain any amounts of individual ingredients (Pliny and Rackham 1938). I used several sources to try to reconcile the different translations and interpretations of Pliny the Elder’s Latin text. I used three different editions of ‘Natural History’  (Pliny and Rackham 1938; Pliny 2016; Pliny the Elder, Bostock, and Riley 1855), Galen’s  pharmacopeia (Everett 2012) and two translations of Dioscorides’  ‘De Materia Medica’ (Riddle 2013; Dioscorides Pedanius, Osbaldeston, and Wood 2000). I also consulted many modern books on medicinal and aromatic plants from the Mediterranean Sea region and Middle East  (Duke and Duke 2008; Baumann 1993; Yaniv 2016). My interpretation is just one possible version of this recipe. The recipe ingredients are summarized in Table 1:

Latin name Translation (Loeb edition) Translation (Delphi edition) Possible identity of ingredient Ingredient used in this project
myrobalano behen-nut juice myrobalanus Moringa (ben oil)                  Moringa oleifera Moringa (ben oil)           Moringa oleifera
costo costus costus Costus root Saussurea lappa Costus root      Saussurea lappa
amomo amomum amomum black cardamom Amomum subulatum black cardamom seeds Amomum subulatum
cinnamo comaco Syrian cinnamon cinnamon, comacum cinnamon chips Cinnamomum verum                     Cinnamom Zeylanicum   or nutmeg seeds            Myristica fragrans cinnamon chips Cinnamomum verum and nutmeg seeds          Myristica fragrans
cardamomo Cardamom





cardamum cardamom Elettaria cardamomum cardamom  Elettaria cardamomum
nardi spica spikenard spikenard spikenard roots Nardostachys jatamansi spikenard roots Nardostachys jatamansi
maro cat-thyme marum Cat-thyme   Teucrium maru not available at this time

mint leaf powder (Mentha longifolia) was used instead

murra myrrh myrrh myrrh gum resin Commiphora myrrha myrrh gum resin Commiphora myrrha
casia cinnamon-bark cassia Cassia powder Cinnamomum cassia Cassia powder Cinnamomum cassia







styrax tree gum storax storax bark (sweet gum)                   Liquidambar orientalis                or benzoin resin Styrax benzoides


storax bark      Liquidambar orientalis and  benzoin resin Styrax benzoides
ladano ladanum ladanum gum labdanum resin                                               Cistus villosus var. creticus gum labdanum resin  Cistus villosus var. creticus
opobalsamo balm opobalsamum Balsam (sweet myrrh)  Commiphora opoponax Balsam (sweet myrrh) gum resin       Commiphora opoponax
calamo iuncoque Syriis Syrian flag and Syrian rush Syrian calamus and Syrian sweet rush Lemon (camel) grass Andropogon schoenathus   Schoenus mariscus

calamus root Acorus calamus

Lemon (camel) grass Andropogon schoenathus  and   lemon verbena     Aloysia triphylla  and lemon balm            Melissa officinalis    and calamus root Acorus calamus              
oenanthe wild grape oenanthe Oenanthe pimpinellifolia


Not available at this time
malobathro cinnamon-leaf malobathrum Indian bay leaf  Laurus cassia or Laurus malabratus or Cinnomom tamela

or betel leaf   Piper betle

Not available at this time (the ordered spice was not delivered so far)
serichato serichatum serichatum Chinese cinnamon Cinnamomum aromaticum Cassia powder Cinnamomum cassia
cypro cyprus cyprus cypress        Cupressus sempervirens cypress  essential oil Cupressus sempervirens
aspalatho camel’s thorn aspralathus rose wood Convolvulus scoparius

rhodium wood Convolvulus floridus

Rhodiola root Rhodiola rosea

Rhodiola root      Rhodiola rosea and

orris rhizome            Iris germanica

panace all-heal panax Opopanax       Panax Copticum  or Somalia Hagar resin Commiphora erythrea Somalia Hagar resin Commiphora erythrea
croco saffron saffron saffron             Crocus sativus saffron                      Crocus sativus
cypiro gladiolus cypirus gladiolus     Gladiolus communis or nut grass (cyperos) rhizome Cyperus rotundus nut grass (cyperos) rhizome                      Cyperus rotundus
amaraco marjoram sweet marjoram marjoram Origanum majorana



marjoram          Origanum majorana
loto lotus lotus blue lotus Nymphaea caerulea Blue lotus essential oil Nymphaea caerulea
melle honey honey raw honey clover raw honey
vino wine wine resinated wine Retsina Kourtoki  white wine

Table 1. The original list of ingredients for the Parthian perfume and proposed use of plants in the redacted recipe.


Some plants are not available in US or will not survive the harsh winters of the Kingdom where I reside. I have managed to find a person interested in growing these perennial plants in a much balmier climate of the south. I am planning to import seeds for cat-thyme (Teucrium maru), Oenanthe pimpinellifolia, rose wood (Convolvulus scoparius) and rhodium wood (Convolvulus floridus). We will have to wait for the first harvest though, especially for the rose wood rhizome, as the roots are aromatic enough after at least 2-3 years of grow.

The cypress leaves and lotus flowers were substituted by absolute essential oils as the plant parts are not available in this country. The ancient resinated wine was substituted with modern Greek wine, Retsina Kourtoki, which contains less than 0.5% pine resin. The wines of antiquity contained between 5-10% of the resin (Bowring and Mill 1825; “Wines of the Ancients” 1836; Thurmond 2006). I have found a small vineyard in France that specializes in making the Roman wines of antiquity with high resin content and I am planning on buying them for future experimentation when I will be traveling this summer (http://www.tourelles.com/prestashop/index.php?id_category=6&controller=category&id_lang=1).

I have introduced the Eurasian mint leaves (Mentha longifolia) in place of cat-thyme to break a little bit the heavy spice notes in the Parthian perfume. Another departure from the original recipe was the addition of orris root (Iris germanica). It is a very good fixative in perfumes,  much more efficient than rhodiola  (Donato 1989).

The identity of  ‘calamo iuncoque Syriis’ is hard to determine so I used four different ingredients that may have been originally in the recipe, lemongrass, lemon verbena, lemon balm and calamus root. Their presence will counterbalance the heavy resin presence.

Since the best honey from Attica is not available nowadays, I used heated raw clover honey to cover surfaces of the glass bottle. Modern raw honey is the closest equivalent to ancient honey and the clover variety is very neutral in scent (Dioscorides Pedanius, Osbaldeston, and Wood 2000; Thurmond 2006).


Making  perfume


The experimental work was the most enjoyable part of this project. The perfumes are made in several steps which are spread over time. The recipes below mirror this extended processing time.


The ‘King of Parthia’s perfume.’

Day 1

  1. 4 g saffron soaked in 20 ml moringa oil at room temperature (RT),
  2. 1 g whole cardamom seeds soaked in 25 mL water overnight at RT,
  3. 1 g crushed black cardamom seeds soaked in 10 mL water overnight at RT,
  4. 5 g calamus root, 2 g myrrh and 5 g rhodiola root soaked in 50 mL Retsina Kourtoki wine overnight at RT.

Day 2

  1. 5 g costus root and 3.3 g balsam resin soaked in 25 mL Retsina Kourtoki wine for 2 hours at RT,
  2. water from cardamom soak was filtered through linen cloth,
  3. cardamom scented water and wine with soaked aromatics were combined in a Florentine glass flask and heated for 2 hours in a bain-marie (Fig.2),
  4. 3 g cyperus rhizome, 1 g storax bark, 3 g spikenard root, 2.5 g cinnamon chips, 3 g orris roots chips, 3 g benzoin resin  and 50 mL moringa oil  were added to the flask, mixed and the heating in the bain-marie continued for another hour.


florence flask

Fig.2. The bain-marie (double boiler) fits different shape of glass vessels. Shown the Florentine flask with Parthian perfume.

Day 3

  1. 4 g Hagar resin, 1 g marjoram, 1.2 g grated nutmeg, 2 g cassia powder, 1 g labdanum resin, 2 g lemon grass and 10 drops cypress essential oil (EO) were added to the Florentine flask,
  2. 10 mL Retsina Kourtoki and 15 mL moringa oil were added and the aromatics mix was heated in bain-marie for an hour.

Day 4

  1. moringa oil with soaking saffron was filtered through linen cloth and the oil was added to the flask with aromatics mix,
  2. 3 g powdered mint, 1.5 g lemon balm and 1.5 g lemon verbena were added to the aromatics mix,
  3. 25 mL moringa oil was added to the flask and the flask was heated for an hour in bain-marie.

Day 5

  1. 40 drops of cypress EO and 24 drops of blue lotus EO were added to the aromatics in the flask, mixed and left overnight at RT.

Day 6

  1. the glass bottle for the perfume storage was filled with small amount of raw honey, heated to liquid form, and the bottle was turned around until the internal surfaces were covered with honey (Fig.3),
  2. the aromatics mix was transferred to a large piece of double folded linen and the aromatic oil was squeezed into the bottle by twisting the linen cloth containing the plant matter.


honey bottle

Fig.3. Different steps in making the perfumes. Covering the internal surfaces of a storage bottle with honey for the Parthian perfume.


The final yield of the perfume is approximately 60 mL. I do not have enough strength in my hands to fully expel the aromatized oil from the plant matter and I am considering looking for some kind of press to help with this final process of the perfume making. The perfume at the time of bottling have mostly the oriental notes of the resins and the blue lotus aroma as it was the last ingredient added. Usually the last added element defines the perfume character but the flowery aromas are the least stable (Dioscorides Pedanius, Osbaldeston, and Wood 2000; Brun, Fernandez, and Voinot 2015). This experiment will have a follow up part to observe the changes in scent over time.

I have collected some replicas of period glassware and pottery that would be used for making and storing perfume in antiquity. The glassware is generally described as Roman type but similar items were discovered much earlier across Middle East (Dayagi-Mendeles and Muzeʼon Yiśraʼel (Jerusalem) 1993; Nassau 1980) (Larson 2016; Grossmann 2001). The extant glass bottles are missing the stoppers whereas the modern replicas include the glass ones (Fig.4).


glassFig.4. Different types of perfume bottle used in antiquity in the Mediterranean Sea region and across Middle East. A, glass, 1st century CE, B, perfume juglet of the Cypro-Phoenician type, 9th-8th centuries BCE (Dayagi-Mendeles and Muzeʼon Yiśraʼel (Jerusalem) 1993) and C, Replica glass perfume bottles with stoppers and glass juglets.


Discussion and summary


The main objective of this project was to recreate the period perfumes of antiquity and I believe that this goal has been achieved and the lessons learnt will help others who are interested in working with scents.

Following the period recipes was the biggest challenge. We do not know exact amounts required for making these particular perfumes and therefore the final scent cannot be really predicted. Determination of the ingredients based on the original text is another problem. Many plants and aromatics can have several modern equivalents and we do not really know which one is the correct one. Trying to reconcile all the major texts of antiquity on plants is a real work.

As much as I followed the extant sources, I have introduced some changes into the recipes. The Parthian perfume was enriched with wild mint and orris rhizome which are not in the original list of ingredients. Mint was added to break the overly spicy aroma, as the cat thyme would originally do. Orris rhizome is the additional fixative in lieu of rose wood and to add more flowery aroma in place of Oenanthe pimpinellifolia.  The mysterious ‘calamo iuncoque Syriis’  was represented by four different substances (calamus root, lemongrass, lemon balm and lemon verbena) as there are conflicting opinions on what aroma is supposed to be introduced by this particular ingredient (Manniche 1999). The Indian bay leaf was originally ordered from India and did not arrive in time (lost package). Unfortunately none of the US sellers had this ingredient in stock when I tried to place the order.

This project will definitively open new avenues to explore. I need to find more efficient way to expel the aromatized oils from the plant matter to lower the stress on my hands. As I am not good in constructing stuff, I will probably look for collaboration on this project. The portable stove for outdoor events will be also useful for period cosmetic project. There are several recipes mentioned by Dioscorides which I would like to recreate next summer when I have the ability to gather fresh flower petals. And the Far East incense project will start this fall.

I wish I had much more time to dedicate to these two perfume projects. The time constraints (less than 7 weeks) are especially hard on the process of sourcing the necessary ingredients from different continents. Fortunately I have already started collecting relevant literature by the time I decided to go ahead with the project.

My advice for anyone interested in period perfumery art is to have at least 6 months for any major project. This should allow for gathering necessary documentation, sourcing ingredients and experimentation part.




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