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Historical Perfumery in the West. How To Be Like Empress Zoe

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Supplementary material for the class taught on April 13th 2020 as part of online activities within Virtual Classroom and Artisan Display group on Facebook.

The history of perfumery covers over 6000 years so I decided to divide the class into several blocks. This second part is dedicated to Eastern Empire (Byzantium).

Fragrance use

•Religious ceremonies

–blessing of oil

–the perfumed scent of holiness

•Court ceremonies (procession, audiences, the augousta’s wedding night bath ritual, emperor’s bath, gifts to officials and foreign envoys)

–garlands of roses, laurel, myrtle, rosemary, marjoram, two apples and cinnamon stick gifted to highest officials on Holy Thursday of Easter, myrrh (incense for emperor’s bath)

–wild vine and rosewater mentioned when receiving ‘Saracens’ (envoys from the Muslim states)

–for military campaign, antidotes, ready incense and unguents, aromatics: mastic, frankincense,  first and second grade of cinnamon, musk, ambergris, wood and oil of agarwood, saffron, cane sugar

•Fumigation of enclosed spaces (air purification)

–perfumed oils were also used for lighting, especially the rose and lily ones.

•Medication (including antidotes)

•Body care and the art of seduction

*the use as  medication or for pleasure was considered as one.

Guilds and professions (10th century)
The Book of the Eparch to Leo the Wise

•Spicers (grocers)

–sold individual ingredients, used both for cooking and pharmacy •Perfumers

–could not sell simples drugs or individual aromatics

–traded in compound fragrances and dyes

•Apothecaries (manufacturers of simples)

–precursors to pharmacists

Sources for recipes

•Extant texts dedicated to perfumery or medicine

— Oribasius (4th century)

–Aëtius of Amida (late 5th century)

–Metrodora (5th-6th century)

(Byzantine deodorant recipe # 56: rose petals (Rosa centifolia), orris root (Iris x germanica), smyrna (Commiphora erythraea), myrrh (Commiphora myrrha), Malvasia wine)

–Alexander Tralles (6th century)

–Paulus Aegineta (7th century)


— Nicolaus Myrepsus (13th century)

–John the Physician (13th century)


Written by doctor practicing  in provincial town but bad smell and halitosis were still an issue)

(122. For smelling armpits: Grind a liquid astringent with myrrh, mix it with wine and apply to the armpits. Do this when there is smell. 2 Grind litharge, myrrh and cardamom, mix it with good wine and apply to the armpits)

•Extant samples

–catalog of organic plant material from excavations

•Period literary sources which discuss scents use in general

–these are not recipes but they give enough base information to facilitate archaeological experimental reconstruction

Fragrance types

•Scented oils and ointments

–mastic, rose, dill, quince, lily, saffron, marjoram…

— similar recipes to the ones from ancient Greece and Rome


–infusions of aromatics in wine


–compound incense, bound with wine and/or honey, also used as ingredient in antidotes

•Masuaphium (Masucha)

–type of incense cakes bound with wine and tragacanth gum from Astragalus


–antidotes (though often burnt as incense to increase body strength)

•Distilled flower or herb waters with musk and camphor (especially after 9th -10th century, when the influence of the early Arabic pharmaceutical technology started)

Молли / CC BY-SA

Glass alembic for distilling perfume. Early Byzantine period (ca. 6th-7th c. A.D.). Unknown provenance. Archaeological Museum, Nicosia, Cyprus

Aromatics from Byzantium

•Basil, rosemary, marjoram, savory, sage,  coriander, cumin, dill, fenugreek, mint, costmary, borage, myrtle, laurel bay, melilot, wild thyme (serpyllum), periwinkle (Vinca major), poppy, sweet flag, nut grass, asarabaca (Asarum europeum – nefrotoxic), birthwort (Aristolochiaclematitis – nefrotoxic), hyssop, rue (hepatotoxic), wormwood (toxic).

•Crocus (saffron), roses, lily, iris, chrysanthemum, narcissus, meadowsweet, violets, hyacinth, carnations.

•Peony, blue lotus, oleander (toxic) and orchid (all naturalized).

•Grapes (wine and raisins), olives, apples, almonds (bitter almond – toxic), figs, citrons, quinces, cherries and  peaches (both for resin), pomegranates, lemons, oranges, privet.

•Cedar, fir, cypress, savin (toxic), Pistacia trees (for terebinth and mastic), juniper,  ivy (for resin), tamarisk, wild poplar, oak (gall oak and oak bark), pine (pine nuts and bark), chaste tree.

•Sweetgum, styrax (Styrax officinalis), labdanum, balsam (?), colchicum (autumn crocus – nefrotoxic, hepatoxic, hallucinations), branched asphodel (Asphodelus ramosus – nefrotoxic and hepatoxic), scammony, southernwood.

•Honey, bee glue (propolis), beeswax.

*Empress Zoe (11th century) was accused of getting rid of her two husbands. Prolonged serving of wine flavored with perfumes was enough to cause death due to kidneys and liver failure.

Aromatic substances imported from the East and the West

•Costus, valerian, Indian nard, Indian valerian, Celtic nard, galangal, cinnamon, cassia, black and green cardamom, long pepper, cubeb, betel nuts (Areca catechu), cassamum (plai), ginger, zedoary, turmeric, pepper (black and white).

•Bdellium, frankincense, myrrh, Smyrna, camphor, galbanum, gum ammoniac.

•Sow bread (cyclamen), Arabian and royal jasmine.

•White and red sandalwood, agarwood (especially after 9th-10th century), Indian aloes (Aetoxylon sympetalum).

•Deer musk, civet, castoreum, ambergris, onycha (from Red Sea and from India, also use of local opercula from the snails producing the Tyrian purple dye).

•Oak moss, camel grass, rosewood (Dalbergia sissoo), sweet cane, elecampane, cassia fistula, cloves, black myrobalan (Terminalia chebula).

•Tragacanth gum from Astragalus, gum Arabic.

*Independent books or chapters in medical texts discussed replacements for ingredients not available at any given time. It later inspired similar works within Arabian medicine.

Opercula from the Red Sea

Preparing onycha (onyx) or the operculafrom marine snails

–soaking overnight in wine vinegar

–cooking in white vinegar

–washing with water and brush

–burning (in an old frying pan)

–grounding to powder


Oil of Indian nard in sesame oil (cold maceration). Byzantine texts mentioned this oil as ingredient  in compound  oils and ointments.

Examples of perfumery containers






Selected bibliography

Al-Helabi, Abdulaziz, Dimitrios G. Letsios, Moshalleh Al-Moraekhi, and Abdullah Al-Abduljabbar, eds. 2012. Arabia, Greece and Byzantium. Cultural Contacts in Ancient and Medieval Times: Proceedings of the International Symposium on the Historical Relations between Arabia, the Greek and Byzantine World (5th Century BC – 10th Century AD) Riyadh, 6-10 December, 2010. Vol. 2. Riyadh: King Saud University.

Bodin, Helena, and Ragnar Hedlund. 2013. Byzantine Gardens and beyond. Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis. Studia Byzantina Upsaliensia, 13. Uppsala.

Dalby, Andrew. 2003. Flavours of Byzantium. Prospect.

Dalby, Andrew, Scholasticus. Cassianus Bassus, and Emperor of the East Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus. 2011. Geoponika: Farm Work: A Modern Translation of the Roman and Byzantine Farming Handbook. Prospect Books.

Lafont, Olivier. 2005. “Le Livre Du Préfet de Léon Le Sage: Intérêt Pour l’histoire de La Pharmacie et Des Médicaments .” Revue d’Histoire de La Pharmacie  346: 247–56. https://www.persee.fr/doc/pharm_0035-2349_2005_num_93_346_5804.

Moffatt, Anne, and Maxeme Tall, eds. 2018. Constantine Porphyrogennetos – The Book of Ceremonies. BRILL. https://doi.org/10.1163/9789004344921.

Panas, Marios, Effie Poulakou-Rebelakou, Nicoalos Kalfakis, and Dimitrios Vassilopoulos. 2012. “The Byzantine Empress Zoe Porphyrogenita and the Quest for Eternal Youth.” Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology 11 (3): 245–48. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1473-2165.2012.00629.x.

Pointer, Sally. 2005. The artifice of beauty: a history and practical guide to perfumes and cosmetics, Stroud: Sutton.

Zipser, Barbara. 2009.  John the Physician’s Therapeutics. Brill. https://doi.org/10.1163/ej.9789004177239.i-378.

The survey of perfume and incense

Travel in time and place starts here…

Metrodora’s incense recipe # 58 (5th-6th century CE manuscript)

Metrodora’s incense recipe # 57 version 1 (5th – 6th century CE manuscript)

Metrodora’s recipe # 58 (5th-6th century CE manuscript) – scented oil version

Metrodora’s recipe # 57 version 1 (5th-6th century CE manuscript)

Metrodora’s recipe # 57 version 1.2 (5th-6th century CE manuscript)

Oenantharium called Mesopotamenum, Paulus Aegineta, 7th century CE

Oenantharium, Paulus Aegineta, 7th century CE

This is oenantharium (or infusion of aromatics in wine) in making.
It takes 40 days for the infusion to be ready.
The Paulus Aegineta’s text from mid 7th century described oenantharia as scented wines used solely for their fragrance. They were used to wash the body, the household objects like furniture and even sprinkled on the flooring.

Suffimentum rosatum, Paulus Aegineta, 7th century CE

Suffimentum liliaceum, Paulus Aegineta, 7th century CE

*Myrtle is used here as replacement for opobalsamum/balsam (Commiphora opobalsamum) which is not available commercially. From Paulus Aegineta’s work.

Suffimentum rosatum – drying disks.
Suffimentum is both an incense and an ingredient for making antidote

I hope you have enjoyed the journey!

For more information, please contact me by email at murcielago53@hotmail.com

An ongoing perfumery course on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/807436473052978/

For perfume samples or customized products: https://www.etsy.com/shop/TreasuresofTrecio?ref=simple-shop-header-name&listing_id=655226216

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