What's cooking
A dash of Mrs. DashReader Wood commented on the LiveJournal message board: “When I saw the drawing, my first thought was that it was an heroin-addict emptying his packet in a spoon.” I suppose what Helvius is preparing could very well be some form of dried and powdered opiate. Or maybe just a strong antacid 🙂 To the next question, whether they already used opium in Rome back then, or had to import it from India, here’s the scoop:

Poppies were cultivated 5000 years ago in Mesopotamia (always way ahead of everyone else), and 2000 years after that, poppies were well known in and heavily exported by Egypt in the time of Akhnaten and Tutankhamen, and thence spread throughout the mediterranean ancient world. According to the presumably reliable PBS, the Greeks spread poppies into India during the time of Alexander.

Greek and Roman doctors knew the uses of different types of poppies in different forms and distillates, though some considered poppies too dangerous and poisonous even for medicinal use. There were religious and ceremonial uses as well, and associations with Demeter, the mother of Persephone, sleeping along with all growing things through the winter; and associations with other gods symbolic of sleep and death. In our time (that is, in SPQR Blues time), several varieties of derived narcotics could be had from Egypt.

And, poppy seeds were used in Roman cooking, just as today. Trimalchio’s celebrated Satyricon feast includes dormouse sprinkled with poppy seeds and honey. Tasty. I assume.