Ancient Ointments Thanks to the Romans

A batch of ointments setting.

Ointment making is a good wet weather activity – as long as the herbs are air dried before you use them.   You can make ointments out of all sorts of herbs , Comfrey, Calendula, Hypericum, Yarrow, Arnica – the list goes on.  My patients like to buy homemade natural ointments made from fresh herbs so I try to keep a good range in stock.

I like to experiment and last year I decided to recreate some ancient ointment recipes.  I was spurred on by the fact that I wanted to take some ancient ointments to the UK Primitive Archery Championships.  Primitive archers are a great bunch (I may be a bit biased here) loving all things natural and handmade, spurning modern technology and embracing the environment.  Ointments based on Roman recipes seemed as though they would go down well (and they did!).

Pedanius Dioscorides was a Roman army surgeon who traveled throughout the Roman Empire with Nero’s army about two thousand years ago.  He was an avid herbalist, collecting samples of herbs on his travels and he wrote a monumental reference work, ‘De Materia Medica’ which was published in 70 AD.  This book remained the supreme authority on herbs and pharmacy for over 1500 years.  In Dioscorides’ line of work he would have had to deal with a lot of trauma injuries, so he was particularly interested in herbs that would stop bleeding, such as Yarrow, and healing herbs such as Comfrey and Calendula.  The Romans also suffered from joint ailments such as arthritis.  They blamed it on the cold weather in the further reaches of the Empire, but I suspect consumption of wine and rich food may have played its part too.  Nettle was used to alleviate the pain and inflammation , with the ripe Nettle seed being considered especially effective.  The seed was combined with Rosemary, which stimulates the circulation.

Having researched the herbs used in Dioscorides’ time I decided to make two Roman ointments, one as a general purpose healing ointment, another for arthritic joints, especially the fingers.  The healing ointment combines healing and astringent herbs which would have been used by Dioscorides.  The second ointment is based Nettle seed and Rosemary for arthritic hands and fingers.  I chose olive oil as the base and beeswax to set the ointment as both of these ingredients would have been widely available in Roman times.  

Ingredients for Dioscorides’ healing ointment.

Both ointments have astounded me with their popularity.  It seems that the Romans knew a thing or two about how to combine herbs for best effect.   As the ointments seemed so effective and popular I did consider launching them to sell as a non prescription item to a wider customer base.  Sadly though, new UK regulations prevent the sale of any product designed to address a health condition unless it has a licence.  A health condition includes a graze or a bruise so the regulations are pretty all encompassing.  A licence is only issued to a product which has been proven to work for the intended condition and a manufacturer has to supply the Medicines and Healthcare Regulatory Agency with a dossier of evidence to support this.

Actually I don’t have a problem with supplying evidence to support the action of these ointments.  That would be quite straight forward.  Herbs can be considered effective if they have been used successfully for a condition for more than 30 years, 15 of which have to be within the EU.  All of the herbs that I use have a very good track record which extends back to Roman times.  What I do have a problem with is that one has to pay several thousand pounds for each product that one wants to bring to market.  Now I can see that the intention is to protect the public from products which are not effective or which are even harmful, but unfortunately this means that small traditional manufacturers or new start ups are immediately ruled out and only the ‘big boys’ can deal in natural medicines.

Luckily for me as a registered medical herbalist I can continue to make and prescribe my ointments to my own patients.  That is allowed.  It is a shame though that these ointments which are so effective and natural are not available to the wider public.

There is only one thing for it.  If you want to enjoy the benefits of these ointments you will have to make them yourself!

Here is how:

You will need:

Olive oil 1 litre.

Beeswax 1g for every 7ml of oil in the finished product.

Herbs, either fresh but air dried, or dried.

A double boiler.

A funnel and empty glass oil bottle (use the one that the olive oil came in if it is glass).

Small jars.

The ingredients are infused in the oil in a double boiler.

Take a litre of olive oil, choose a mild version so that the ointment does not smell too olive oily, and put it into a double boiler.  Take a generous handful of each of the herbs that you are going to use in the ointment cut them up and place them into the oil, ensuring that they are covered.  For the healing ointment I use Comfrey, Agrimony, Lavender and Calendula flowers.  For the arthritis ointment I choose Nettle seed and Rosemary.

Place the double boiler on a low heat so that the water boils steadily and the oil is not exposed to direct heat.  Simmer for at least one hour, preferably two.  If you are like me you will need to set a timer to remind you to keep topping up the water.

Once the herbs are infused in the oil, filter it into another container, using a coffee filter paper and a large funnel.  Squeeze the filter paper to get all the goodness and oil out of the herbs.  At this stage you can simply bottle the infused oil and reserve it for when you wish to make the ointment.  This is a good plan so that you can make plenty of oil while the herbs are in season, and then set it into ointment in small batches as required.

When you are ready to make the ointment, measure the oil and return it to a clean double boiler.  Heat it gently.  Add 1g of beeswax for every 7mls of oil and stir until the wax has melted.  Pour into jars.  Do not pick up the jars until the ointment has set so that you get a nice neat line of ointment at the top of the jar.  Label and store in a cool dark place.

Use the healing ointment on cuts, scrapes, bites, grazes and burns.  It is great for sunburn, very useful for fair skinned herbalists like me who stay out in the sun too long gathering herbs.  Mind you as I write this the chance of sunburn seems like a distant memory!

The Nettle seed and Rosemary ointment is best applied twice a day to the affected area.  I have received really good reports about it, for its ability to reduce the pain and swelling of arthritic joints.  I prescribe it often these days.

I will be posting more herbal recipes on here over the course of the year so pop back regularly to be able to create a good home herbal medicine chest.

To find out more about Myrobalan Clinic please visit www.myrobalanclinic.com

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About myrobalanclinic

I am a registered medical herbalist who uses a unique approach combining Tibetan Medicine with Western Herbal Medicine. I love my job - it is so rewarding seeing people taking control of their health and feeling healthier and more positive. I like to think that I help people get more out of life.
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2 Responses to Ancient Ointments Thanks to the Romans

  1. O says:

    What is the ratio of the herbs used

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