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Basic Information

Silphium was (being now extinct) a herb, probably similar to giant fennel (but with large heart-shaped seeds), which was much regarded in the classical Mediterranean and near East, being regarded as worth its weight in silver. It grew only on the shores of Cyrene on the northern tip of Africa, and area 125 miles by 35 miles, and was never successfully transplanted elsewhere.

It was used, amongst other things, as a food seasoning (for which, apparently, asafoetida could be an acceptable substitute), for a variety of applications in herbalisitic medicine (healing everything from a sore throat to epilepsy to snakebite) and, perhaps most significantly, as a contraceptive and/or abortifacient.

Known to be hard to cultivate, silphium seems to have been driven into extinction by overharvesting, possibly coupled with a fashion for meat harvested from animals fed on the plant. A more bombastic (but quite possibly accurate) way to look at it would be that Ancient Rome had a plant that was such a good form of birth control they farmed it to extinction. In it's heyday, the Roman Empire's birthrate decreased significantly, even though food supplies and life expectancy were up due to the march of civilization and progress - Silphium is the likely cause. The heart-shaped seeds ended up printed on coins in the region, and this is believed to be where the heart-shape became associated with love or passion.

Decline in supply started shortly after 74 BC, when the territorial status of the region changed. From that point forward, new governors were appointed (by Rome) with just a one-year term. They weren't motivated by the long-term fiscal health of the region, but instead just wanted to make whatever profits they could in the year they held the post. Crop production for the over-harvested plant declined over a 100+ year span, but the demand increased all the while. The final stalk was sent to Emperor Nero as a curiosity. The plant was available throughout the Ancient World from around 630 BC up until sometime in Nero's reign (so anywhere between the year 54 and 68 AD).

This also may - or may not - be the plant in whose stalk the titan Prometheus smuggled fire to mankind from Mount Olympus.

Other names for Silphium were Silphion, Laserwort and Laser. A few thousand years later, a homophone of that last one would come to mean something very different.


Game and Story Use

  • A great treasure for your fantasy campaign.
    • It's high-value, but has a shelf life. You need to get it back to civilization in short order to turn your prize into coinage. (Modern fennel only lasts about a week in the refrigerator. Silphium must have been heartier if it survived long enough to be distributed across the ancient world by pre-modern technology. It's possible it was dried to survive transit?)
    • If you don't have a ranger or druid in the party, they may not recognize the value of the loot. It depends on how rare silphium is in the campaign world, and how well know it's properties are. Ideally the difficulty on a herbalism roll to identify the plant should be low enough that the PCs aren't likely to leave money in the dungeon, but not an automatic success, so the players feel like their skill points spent on that ability have paid off. Another option would be to make it obvious that the plant is valuable (the monsters have a huge hoard of it under guard, or they have it in a chest that's booby-trapped), but make a roll to identify it's specific properties very difficult. The PCs may have to take it on faith until they get back to town, and then be careful that some conman won't try to under-pay them for it.
  • A case can be made that a society with access to effective birth control is at least a little bit more likely to feature gender equality, if for no other reason than because women have a greater degree of control over when and how the start a family. The presence of such a plant may help to handwave a more progressive version of history on your world.
  • Silphium's value is directly linked to its rarity (as well as the reliability of its main effect). In a game where druidic magic can grow plants in less hospitable soil or conditions, the value of laserwort may be diminished.
    • That is, unless there's something else keeping it in limited supply.
      • Perhaps there's a fearsome monster type that loves to eat the Silphium, so the farms have to fend off dragon attacks.
      • Perhaps it's the favored plant of a particular goddess and will only grow in soil she has blessed. And if that goddess is fickle, requires human sacrifice, or is out of fashion politically, the plant could be rare as a result.
  • Laser (the plant, not the directed energy weapon) could be a good answer to a riddle, or a source of (comedic?) confusion in a time-travel game.
    • The intercepted letter indicates a potential villain is headed to Rome in the 1st Century to receive a shipment a Lasers. The PCs assume he's building an army to change the timeline. It turns out, he's just a misunderstood biologist hoping to rescue a useful plant lost to the ages.
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