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A recent discussion about the Queen Mab Speech in Romeo and Juliet, prompted us to wonder whether Mercutio was on drugs.

Which then led to the question of how prevalent recreational drugs where throughout history, very specifically through the ancient and medieval world. Are drugs a (relatively) new phenomenon? Did any ancient kingdoms (not including the Opium Wars) have problems with the citizens abusing drugs? What sort of drugs, and are they still popular today?

Preferably answers should focus on History before 1500 C.E

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Drugs are certainly not a new phenomenon. Two well-known examples are opiates and cannabis. A great deal has been written about the use of hashish by medieval Nizari Ismailis (which gave us the word "assassin", derived from the Arabic "Hashshashin").

When I was studying the archaeology of Cyprus at Birkbeck in the late 1990s I wrote a paper on opiate use in the ancient Eastern Mediterranean. I've summarised many of the salient points from that paper (with a few updated links) below:


Opiates were certainly very prevalent in the Eastern Mediterranean in antiquity. The earliest written source that I know of is Hesiod's Theogony, where Prometheus is supposed to have tried to use poppy juice to drug Zeus at the city of Mekonê ("poppy town") near Corinth.

The earliest use of opiates that I'm aware of in Europe dates to the Bronze Age. On Crete, excavations of what appear to be "shrines" dating to the Minoan Post-Palace period (1,400 - 1,100BCE) have discovered figurines that Professor Spyridon Marinatos described as the "Poppy Goddess". A careful examination of the poppies confirms that they were the shape and colour of the opium poppy [S. Marinatos, 'The Minoan goddesses of Gazi', Journal of Archaeology (Greece) 1937, Vol. I, pp. 278-291].

The British Museum holds a number of small Cypriot base-ring jugs which have been dated to the Bronze Age and which are shaped like inverted poppy seed pods. This type of jug has been found in excavations across the Eastern Mediterranean. An archaeologist named Robert Merrillees suggested that the shape of the jug might have been a form of advertisement for its contents, and that the drug might have been exported across the region from Cyprus.

Residue analyses carried out on one of the jars in the British Museum collection did, in fact, detect traces of opiates which appeared to confirm Merrillees' theory. However, subsequent analyses from other jugs excavated in the region failed to detect any evidence of opiates, and it has been suggested that the confirmed case was a result of the re-use of the jar.

One note of caution though. Even if the use of opiates was fairly widespread in the Eastern Mediterranean in the Bronze age (and the evidence is inconclusive), we cannot be certain to what extent they were taken recreationally. The use of opiates for pain relief is fairly well known, but I also remember that my tutor (who was a big fan of the Minoan culture on Crete) was keen to point out that opiates can also be used as as an anti-diarrhoeal drug, and that (at that time) only one of the Cypriot poppy jugs had been found on Crete. (She also pointed out that the Minoan sites on Crete and Santorini appear to have had toilets connected to sewers with running water to dispose of the waste, and invited us to draw our own conclusions). However, if the drug was widely available, then it is hard to believe that it wouldn't have been taken recreationally.


EDIT: While doing a little further research on the subject, I just found this paper from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime which covers the use of poppies and opiates in the ancient Eastern Mediterranean. Hope this is useful.


The final part of your question, asked whether any ancient kingdoms (not including the Chinese opium wars) had problems with the citizens abusing drugs?

In the Islamic world, alcohol was (and is) prohibited under Sharia law. This is often interpreted as prohibiting all intoxicants (not only alcohol). Despite that, the practice of hashish smoking seems to have continued throughout the history of Islam (against varying degrees of resistance at different times and in different places).

Apart from the prohibition under Islamic Sharia law, I'm not aware of any legal prohibitions against recreational drug use in the ancient or medieval periods in Europe or the eastern Mediterranean. This suggests that, if there was a problem with recreational drug use at these periods, it wasn't considered to be serious enough to require legislation.

Hopefully others can add answers which cover other recreational drugs in other geographic regions in the ancient and medieval world.

  • The question is about all drugs, but the answer only discusses opiates. – Aaron Brick May 21 '17 at 18:27
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    @AaronBrick Actually, my reading of the question was that it asked about how prevalent recreational drug use was through history. I don't know a great deal about other classes of drug, or their usage in the ancient world, but I wrote a paper on opiate use in the ancient Eastern Mediterranean when I was studying the archaeology of Cyprus at Birkbeck back in the late 1990s (which is why I had some names and references available to hand). I hope that other answers will cover other drugs and other regions. – sempaiscuba May 21 '17 at 18:36
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    @AaronBrick it is fine to have answers covering just one aspect of the question. Of course a broader answer that can "cover all bases" is always better, but that should not diminish the value of a in-depth answer covering part of the problem proposed by the question. This is why we have several answers, the collective of answers drawing a panoramic view of the problem through various facets of specialists. Feel free to vote up or down individual contributions based on your own criteria though. Also sempai-scuba, great answer, +1 – Mindwin May 22 '17 at 19:16
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    opiates can also be used as as an anti-diarrhoeal drug or for pain relief – Ben Crowell May 23 '17 at 0:43
  • @BenCrowell exactly. Can't forget pain relief. Also, "dispel grief". – RonJohn May 23 '17 at 2:08
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I think one of the largest problems you are going to have is the term "recreational drugs". That term is by and large a new term. People and civilizations from back then would not have categorized drug usage in that manner.

Let me give you a good example, though much closer to modern day than you mean. Cocaine was a common pain reliever, sold over the counter at nearly any general store in the 1800s and early 1900s. People used it, and some people got addicted. But the people that used it "too much" weren't labeled as recreational drug users.

The same is true with other "recreational drugs". Peyote, pot, opiates, and the like could all be used for recreational use, but all had significant "real" uses.

Another example might be laudanum. While it had many medical uses, it could be overused. The people that overused it, though, were generally not labeled as "recreational", but instead as mentally ill, or unstable.

The point is this: "recreational drugs" is a new term meant to signify that a drug has no other use than "fun". Every one of the "traditional" drugs actually had a real legit medical or religious use. The people that abused those drugs or used them incorrectly fell into two categories (this is more modern, of course, where we have writings to go by):

  1. Someone that had a good time that one time.
  2. Someone that is unstable and needs care.

Only very recently have we really started to target "recreational drug" and "recreational drug usage".

So to answer your question, there are civilizations, both old and new, that use intoxicants of one kind or another for various reasons. A really common example would be ancient Egypt and their "heqet" (beer), which was used as both "control" and a staple food. But, no ancient civilization really labeled its drug usage as "recreational". That's a totally new concept.

The ancient civilizations saw overuse of drugs as a problem, from time to time, but generally "cured it" by treating the problem (sometimes very harshly). It wasn't till about the 20th century that we shifted our thinking into this idea that drug usage was a moral issue, and not a "medical" one. With that came the idea that drug usage could be "recreational". Before that, drug usage was either just fun, with a purpose, or a sign that someone was sick.

You can see some examples of ancient drugs at http://www.ancient-origins.net/opinion-guest-authors/drugs-ancient-cultures-history-drug-use-and-effects-006051

Clarification: I do not mean to say that there are no instances of people abusing drugs throughout history. Just that the people that would have done so either did it infrequently enough that it wasn't an issue, or did it so much that it was an issue. If it were an issue, then the person was sick, or unstable.

  • It's a very big claim to say that no historical civilisations had any drugs that were used exclusively recreationally. Even so, there's no referrence to exclusivity in the question at all. The point that drugs had legitimate uses is not relevant to their recreational use, even in the modern day. – Richard May 22 '17 at 13:57
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    It wasn't till about the 20th century that we shifted our thinking into this idea that drug usage was a moral issue, and not a "medical" one Not quite true. Go back to the bible and read up on various passages against drinking too much. Moral guideline, not medicinal. The rest of your answer holds together nicely. There was also a moral and social backlash in China against the opium dens in the 19th century. – KorvinStarmast May 22 '17 at 14:08
  • I read or heard somewhere that Queen Victoria used medicinal Cannibus monthly. These don't fall into the right age based on the question but I think you are right that our current understanding of drugs is not how they were thought of in the past I don't think many people realize that Heroin was a common medicine sold by companies like Bayer. – JimmyJames May 22 '17 at 15:16
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    @KorvinStarmast biblical references are tricky so I tired to not include them. For example there are many sections of "law" that would today be considered very like our government laws and not really "moral" laws. But there are also sections of "moral" law. Telling the difference and separating the religious and historic is beyond me. But you make a good point none-the-less. – coteyr May 22 '17 at 15:33
  • @coteyr I can see the difficulty there. – KorvinStarmast May 22 '17 at 17:03
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The number one recreational drug in history is ethanol. Commonly served as beer or fermented fruit juice.

It is and was cheap and easy to make, and has destroyed lives in all of recorded history.

It has also been seen as the very definition of a good party in most of recorded history. (E.g. the story in the Bible of turning water into wine)

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    If one counts alcohol among recreational drugs, it might be worth adding that educated Romans drank wine with water, on the basis that it was deemed vulgar to get drunk too fast. – Denis de Bernardy May 22 '17 at 12:05
  • Beer is not wine, wine is not beer. Otherwise, not a bad answer. FWIW, there is some archeological evidence of wine being made in Eurasia (east of the Black Sea) about 6000 years ago. – KorvinStarmast May 22 '17 at 14:10
  • You understate the case; since in general, water was not safe to drink, effectively 100% of the population partook of recreational drugs daily. – Mark C. Wallace May 22 '17 at 18:08
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    Apropos water was not safe to drink, the introduction of coffee and tea to people's food consumption was a significant health benefit because then people started boiling water before drinking it. – hlovdal May 23 '17 at 8:27
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Not sure if you are asking solely about Europe and the classical world, but the New World people and empires used drugs in a sense that might today be called recreational, but probably more accurately should be called religious or religio-political. Consumption of hallucinogenic plants and animals were part of specific ceremonies, sometimes political rituals, and not just time-killing entertainment or the like :

Hallucinogenic drugs in pre-Columbian Mesoamerican cultures. [Article in English, Spanish] Carod-Artal FJ1. Author information Abstract INTRODUCTION:

The American continent is very rich in psychoactive plants and fungi, and many pre-Columbian Mesoamerican cultures used them for magical, therapeutic and religious purposes. OBJECTIVES:

The archaeological, ethno-historical and ethnographic evidence of the use of hallucinogenic substances in Mesoamerica is reviewed. RESULTS:

Hallucinogenic cactus, plants and mushrooms were used to induce altered states of consciousness in healing rituals and religious ceremonies. The Maya drank balché (a mixture of honey and extracts of Lonchocarpus) in group ceremonies to achieve intoxication. Ritual enemas and other psychoactive substances were also used to induce states of trance. Olmec, Zapotec, Maya and Aztec used peyote, hallucinogenic mushrooms (teonanacatl: Psilocybe spp) and the seeds of ololiuhqui (Turbina corymbosa), that contain mescaline, psilocybin and lysergic acid amide, respectively. The skin of the toad Bufo spp contains bufotoxins with hallucinogenic properties, and was used since the Olmec period. Jimson weed (Datura stramonium), wild tobacco (Nicotiana rustica), water lily (Nymphaea ampla) and Salvia divinorum were used for their psychoactive effects. Mushroom stones dating from 3000 BC have been found in ritual contexts in Mesoamerica. Archaeological evidence of peyote use dates back to over 5000 years. Several chroniclers, mainly Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, described their effects in the sixteenth century. CONCLUSIONS:

The use of psychoactive substances was common in pre-Columbian Mesoamerican societies. Today, local shamans and healers still use them in ritual ceremonies in Mesoamerica.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21893367

The Aztecs consumed magic mushrooms ritually:

Called "Teonanácatl" in Nahuatl (literally "god mushroom"—compound of the words teo(tl) (god) and nanácatl (mushroom))—the Psilocybe genus of mushroom has a long history of use within Mesoamerica. The members of the Aztec upper class would often take teonanácatl at festivals and other large gatherings. According to Fernando Alvarado Tezozomoc, it was often a difficult task to procure mushrooms. They were quite costly as well as very difficult to locate, requiring all-night searches.

Both Fray Bernardino de Sahagún and Fray Toribio de Benavente Motolinia describe the use of the mushrooms. The Aztecs would drink chocolate and eat the mushrooms with honey. Those partaking in the mushroom ceremonies would fast before ingesting the sacrament. The act of taking mushrooms is known as monanacahuia, meaning to "mushroom oneself".

"At the very first, mushrooms had been served... They ate no more food; they only drank chocolate during the night. And they ate the mushrooms with honey. When the mushrooms took effect on them, then they danced, then they wept. But some, while still in command of their senses, entered and sat there by the house on their seats; they did no more, but only sat there nodding."

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aztec_use_of_entheogens#Mushrooms

Inca sacraficial children were given copious amounts of coca and alcohol prior to their deaths:

Three Inca mummies found near the lofty summit of Volcán Llullaillaco in Argentina were so well preserved that they put a human face on the ancient ritual of capacocha—which ended with their sacrifice.

Now the bodies of 13-year-old Llullaillaco Maiden and her younger companions Llullaillaco Boy and Lightning Girl have revealed that mind-altering substances played a part in their deaths and during the year-long series of ceremonial processes that prepared them for their final hours.

Under biochemical analysis, the Maiden's hair yielded a record of what she ate and drank during the last two years of her life. This evidence seems to support historical accounts of a few selected children taking part in a year of sacred ceremonies—marked in their hair by changes in food, coca, and alcohol consumption—that would ultimately lead to their sacrifice. (Related: "Lofty Ambitions of the Inca.")

In Inca religious ideology, the authors note, coca and alcohol could induce altered states associated with the sacred. But the substances likely played a more pragmatic role as well, disorienting and sedating the young victims on the high mountainside to make them more accepting of their own grim fates.

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/07/130729-inca-mummy-maiden-sacrifice-coca-alcohol-drug-mountain-andes-children/

And finally, of course, it should be noted that the Andean people have chewed coca leaves for thousands of years as a stimulate, much like people use caffeine today, to assuage hunger, aid focus, forestay weariness, etc.

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Ancient Greece (among other cultures) are said to have used magic mushrooms in rituals and religious events, for example in the Eleusinian Mysteries

Psychoactive mushrooms are another candidate. Terence McKenna speculated that the mysteries were focused around a variety of Psilocybe. Other entheogenic fungi, such as Amanita muscaria, have also been suggested.[72] A recent hypothesis suggests that the ancient Egyptians cultivated Psilocybe cubensis on barley and associated it with the deity Osiris.[73]

There have been numerous other books and articles published on this topic.

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    Could you cite or refer to some? – SleepingGod May 23 '17 at 20:20

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