What the Roman emperor Tiberius grew in his greenhouses
A number of cucurbits are mentioned and described in Mediterranean writings of the first and second centuries CE, including Dioscorides’ De Materia Medica, Columella’s De Re Rustica, Pliny’s Historia Naturalis, and the codices of Jewish law known as the Mishna and Tosefta. Images of cucurbits from the same region predating, contemporary, or somewhat later than these writings appear to represent the same cucurbit taxa. Based on a reconciling of these texts and images it is clear that the cucumis described by Columella and Pliny and grown in proto-greenhouses of the Roman Emperor Tiberius was the same as the qishu’in mentioned in the codices of Jewish law and are here identified taxonomically as Cucumis melo subsp. melo Flexuosus Group, known today as snake melon, vegetable melon, and faqqous. We found no evidence, descriptive or illustrative, for the presence of cucumber, Cucumis sativus, in Mediterranean cultures during this time period, despite the repeated translations of cucumis and sikyos hemeros as cucumber by translators of these ancient documents.
In the first century CE, two Roman agricultural writers, Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella and Gaius Plinius Secundus (Pliny the Elder), referred to proto-greenhouses (specularia) constructed for the Emperor Tiberius (42 BCE–37 CE), presumably adjacent to his palace, the Villa Jovis on the Isle of Capri, which is still visited by tourists to that magical isle. Pliny wrote (Book 19, 23: 64) that the specularia consisted of beds mounted on wheels which they moved out into the sun and then on wintry days withdrew under the cover of frames glazed with transparent stone (lapis specularis or mica). Apparently the specularia were built to provide, in Pliny’s words, a delicacy for which the Emperor Tiberius had a remarkable partiality; in fact there was never a day on which he was not supplied with it. Herein, we consider the long-held assumption, endlessly copied throughout nearly two millennia, that the emperor’s delicacy, referred to by Columella and Pliny as cucumis, was cucumber, Cucumis sativus L. Our goal was to re-examine this assumption and ascertain if there really is any evidence for the presence of Cucumis sativus around the Mediterranean, previous to or during Roman times.
Proceedings of the IXth EUCARPIA meeting on genetics and breeding of Cucurbitaceae, Avignon (France), May 21-24th, 2008