Part I: Buxus – The Plant
Boxwood has been known since Classical times and frequently appears in Roman literature. Loudon (1783 – 1843) [Loudon J.C. Arboretum et Fruticetum Britannicum 1838; 99: 1334] was a landscape artist and encyclopaedist, writing an ‘Encyclopaedia of Gardening‘ and starting a vogue for ‘Gardenesque’, a style of garden design that had been out of fashion for a century. He has been the1838 author whose quotations have been most copied in the ‘History of Boxwood’ section of boxwood books and papers and this article is designed to look at the validity and contexts of his quotations, a particularly difficult project as he gave almost no references, only the names of the authors, and even then sometimes not accurately. He quoted ‘Pliny’, for instance, using the name to cover both Pliny the Elder and Pliny the Younger.
The varieties of boxwood were described by Pliny the Elder. Caius Plinius Secundus (23-79 CE) had served in the Army of the Rhine and was the Prefect of one of the two Roman navies. He died when he went ashore to investigate and help to evacuate victims of the volcanic eruption of Vesuvius at Pompeii in 79 CE. He wrote 37 volumes of Historia Naturalis in around 77 CE but he was primarily a historian and storyteller, editing from previous documents uncritically and at times with errors. He extensively reviewed the knowledge of boxwood of that time.
“Pliny distinguishes three kinds, which he calls the larger, the smaller and the ‘Italian’ box.”
Pliny the Elder indeed said that:
“There are three kinds: the Gallic box (Gallicum), which is trained to shoot up into conical pillars and attains a rather large height; the oleaster, which is condemned for all purposes, and which gives off an unpleasant smell; and a third kind called our native box, a cultivated variety as I believe of the wild box (tertium genus nostras vocant e silvestri mitigatum satu), which spreads more than the others and forms a thick hedge and will stand clipping.”
[Pliny the Elder Historia Naturalis 16:28]
The ‘Gallic box’ was B.sempervirens – ‘American boxwood’ (US), ‘common box’ (UK) – with French forests of it so prolific, particularly around the boxwood industry of today’s St. Claude: ‘oleaster’ is Eleagnus: ‘native box’ is B.semp. ‘Suffruticosa’ – ‘English boxwood’ (U.S.), ‘dwarf box’ (U.K.) – called B.semp.’Nana’ in Italy today.
The geographical distribution of boxwood in Roman times in Europe and Asia Minor is outlined by Pliny the Elder:
“The cedar, larch, torch tree and the other resinous trees love mountains: and so also do the holly, box, holm-oak (item aquifolia, buxus, ilex), juniper, turpentine-tree, poplar, mountain ash, and hornbeam. Thebox tree abounds in the Pyrenees (Buxus pyrenaeis), the mountains of Cytorus and the country about Berecynthus.”
Mount Berecynthus was in Phrygia (in Turkey south of the Bosphorus), the home of the proverbially rich King Croesus. Cytorus was a town in Paphlagonia on the Black Sea (Pontus Euxinus) coast in Turkey. It is often mentioned in Greek and Latin literature as synonymous with boxwood, as the mountains behind it between it and Amastris on the coast further west towards Constantinople were covered with the trees, clearly B.sempervirens from that particular area.
It appears also in Catullus, the Roman poet.
“Box clad Cytorus (Cytore buxifer).”
[Catullus Carmen 4: 13]
Ovid, Publius Ovidius Naso (43 BCE – 17CE), wrote Metamorphoses around the time that he was sent into exile by the Emperor Augustus in 8CE, probably because of the salacious content of his Ars Amatoria offending the strait-laced emperor. The Metamorphoses poetry of the transformation of legendary characters into animals, birds, snakes, trees etc. has been part of world literature ever since. In them Cytoriaco (of Cytorus) is used as a synonym for ‘of boxwood’ when describing combs [Ovid Metamorphoses 4: 311].
The poet, John Dryden [Dryden J. Georgics 2: 612] also mentioned Cytorus in his translations of Virgil’s Georgics:
“How goodly looks Cytorus, ever green. With boxen groves, with what delight are seen. (undantem buxo spectare Cytorum)”
[Virgil Georgicon 2: 437]
In Greek, γεωργός (georgos) was a small farmer and the Georgics were poems about country matters.
A further description of boxwood sites by Pliny the Elder[Pliny the Elder Historia Naturalis 16:28] reads:
“It grows thickest in Corsica, where it bears an objectionable blossom which causes the bitter taste in Corsican honey.”
It would be interesting to know whether that still applies today! The current depletion of native European B.sempervirens however makes it unlikely.
The growth characteristics of boxwood are described by Ovid and Pliny the Elder. Ovid [Ovid Ars Amatoria 3: 691] describes an area round a fountain near the purple hills of Mt. Hymettus and notes the close growth pattern of boxwood:
“Bay, rosemary and dark myrtle scent the glade while dense-leaved box (densum foliis buxum) abounds.”
and he describes a plain on the top of a hill where Orpheus played and where there were many trees, including the evergreen boxwood:
“The river-dwelling willows, and the water lotus and the box tree always green (perpetuoque virens buxum) and the green tamarisk.”
[Ovid Metamorphoses 10: 91]
The evergreen nature of boxwood was also noted by Pliny the Elder:
“Trees of the forest class that do not shed their leaves are the fir, larch, wild pine, juniper, cedar, turpentine, box, holm-oak (terebintho, buxo, ilici), holly, cork, yew, tamarisk.”
[Pliny the Elder Historia Naturalis 16: 33]
and he described the characteristic close-grained, thin-skinned stems and goes into detail about the plant itself, its branches and its leaves:
“In some trees again, there is no trunk at all, as is the case with one species of box and the lotus of the parts beyond the sea”
[ibid 16: 53]
“There is no fat or flesh at all in the box (buxus), the cornel and the olive, nor any marrow.”
[ibid 16: 72]
Which sounds again like his native boxwood, ‘Suffruticosa’. He emphasized also the opposite leaves on the stem and the slightly curled leaves of the same boxwood:
“In the myrtle they are symmetrically arranged, in box concave (concava buxo).”
[ibid 16: 38]
Buxus is, surprisingly, feminine (concava) in spite of its masculine –us ending, as pyxos –os (πύξος) had been for the Greeks and as Buxus is today.
Propagation of boxwood also interested Pliny:
“Still, however, I think I ought not to omit the fact that there are some cuttings that grow without the ordinary articulations of trees upon them: thus, for instance, five or six very small cuttings of box (buxi tenuissimis), if tied together and put in the ground, will take root.”
[ibid 17: 35]
“It was formerly made a point to take these cuttings from a box-tree that had not been pruned (ex imputata buxo), as it was fancied that in the last case they would not live; experience however has since put an end to that notion.”
[ibid 16: 33]
What detail the man went into!
“For many years the author of this article made enquiries in England of coastal clients of Langley Boxwood Nursery, endeavouring in vain to obtain evidence for Elizabeth Braimbridge of the effect of salt spray on seaside boxwood. He foolishly never considered consulting Pliny!”
Its use in topiary and hedging in gardens was made possible by Roman aqueducts bringing water into the cities. Loudon referred to ‘Pliny’ commenting on boxwood in Roman gardens:
“And speaks of the use of the tree for topiary work.”
Pliny the Elder did indeed make a general statement to this effect in passing:
“Box-wood is esteemed for a certain toughness and hardness and for its pale colour, while the tree itself is valued in ornamental gardening (topiario opere).”
[Pliny the Elder Historia Naturalis 16:28]
Loudon went on:
“And it appears to have been much employed in verdant sculpture, and close-clipped hedges, in the gardens of Roman villas in the Augustan age.”
Pliny the Younger, the elder Pliny’s nephew, was the author being quoted here, not his uncle. He described its use in garden decoration in detail, from which Loudon extensively quoted, again just as ‘Pliny’. Caius Plinius Caecilius Secundus (61-113CE) was the main Latin author to talk about topiary and hedging (an example of this style can be seen in the reconstructed garden at the J Paul Getty Museum, Malibu, California shown in the picture below). He was a wealthy civil servant, who had been governor of Bithynia (in Turkey near the Black Sea where he may have acquired his predilection for boxwood in his gardens). He owned four villas, which he described in great detail in letters to his friends. In his letter to Domitius Apollinaris, for instance, he wrote of his Tuscan villa just under the Apennines:
“In front of the colonnade is a terrace laid out with box hedges clipped into different shapes (distinctus concisusque buxo), from which a bank slopes down, also with figures of animals (bestiarum effigies invicem adversas buxus).
The whole garden is enclosed by a dry-stone wall, which is hidden from sight by a box hedge planted in tiers (gradata buxus).
At the end of the winding alleys you return to the straight path, or rather paths, for there are several separated by intervening box hedges (intercedentibus buxis).
In places there are grass plots intervening, in others box shrubs, which are trimmed to a great variety of patterns, some of them being cut into letters forming my name as owner and that of the topiarius (artificis).”
[Pliny the Younger Epistularum 5: 6]
It is good to see that his gardener had the same boxwood name recognition as himself! Cicero [Cicero Paradoxa Stoicorum 5:2], the Roman orator, said that the topiarius was among the higher classes of slave. The modern topiary enthusiast is likewise enslaved but pleased to know, no doubt, that Cicero thought him or her ‘higher class’.
Pliny the Younger again:
“Further off there are acanthuses, then more box figures and names (plures figurae pluraque nomina).”
Clearly a villa that would have merited a visit from the Roman Boxwood Society! There is a coincidence in taste between the Romans and modern Italians with their fondness for ars topiaria, with boxwood fashioned into figures of animals, ships, letters etc.
Another letter to Gallus describes his Laurentine seaside villa 17 miles from Rome:
“The exercise ground has a border of boxwood (gestatio… buxo), or rosemary where the box does not grow well – for box thrives admirably when it is sheltered by buildings, but where it is exposed to wind and weather and to the spray of the sea, though it stands at a great distance therefrom, it is apt to shrivel.”
[Pliny the Younger Epistularum 2: 17]
For many years the author of this article made enquiries in England of coastal clients of Langley Boxwood Nursery, endeavouring in vain to obtain evidence for Elizabeth Braimbridge of the effect of salt spray on seaside boxwood. He foolishly never considered consulting Pliny!
In conclusion, the Romans were thoroughly familiar with the distribution, characteristics and garden planting of boxwood, unlike the Greeks who had apparently little interest in landscape beauty, describing primarily the practical and commercial aspects of plants [A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiq uities eds. Smith W., Wayte W., Marindin G.E. John Murray, London 1890]. Unlike the Greeks, the Roman gardens had plentiful water brought to them by their aqueducts. Pliny the Elder is the main authority for information on the distribution and characteristics of the boxwood plant and his nephew for descriptions of its use in gardens, in which it was used in a very similar way to that in modern Italian gardens and is still so used widely in Europe after its recent resurgence in garden fashion. It has always maintained its place in large formal gardens, such as the Palace of Versailles, (France); Villa d’Este (Italy); Het Loo (Holland) and Herrenhausen (Germany) to this day.
Part II: Buxus – The Wood & Its Uses
The characteristic texture of boxwood wood is mentioned by Loudon:
“Pliny describes it as being as hard to burn as iron, as producing no flame and as being totally unfit for charcoal.”
Pliny the Elder, Caius Plinius Secundus (23-79 CE) had served in the Army of the Rhine and was the Prefect of one of the two Roman navies. He died when he went ashore to investigate and help to evacuate victims of the volcanic eruption of Vesuvius at Pompeii in 79 CE. He wrote 37 volumes of Historia Naturalis in around 77 CE but he was primarily a historian and storyteller, editing from previous documents uncritically and at times with errors. He extensively reviewed the knowledge of boxwood of that time. He did indeed say
“Box loves cold and rugged places (amat frigida,aspera); also in a fire it is as hard as iron and is of no use for fuel or charcoal (nec flamma nec carbone utili).”
[Loudon J.C. Arboretum et Fruticetum Britannicum 1838; 99: 1334]
He contradicts himself here, as he later mentions boxwood charcoal being used by quacks to cure fevers but indeed it was not of much use as fuel [ibid 30:29].
He noted the value and importance of boxwood wood in Roman times:
“But a timber rated in the first rank is that of the box (honorata buxo) which is rarely marked with wrinkles.”
[Pliny the Elder Historia naturalis 16: 28]
He elaborated further:
“The most close-grained of all timber, and consequently the heaviest, is judged to be ebony and box (hebenus et buxus). Neither will float in water (neutra in aquis fluvitat)”
“The following trees do not experience decay and age – cypress, cedar, ebony, nettle-tree, box, yew (lotus, buxum, taxus) …. the cedar, cypress, olive and box (olea, buxum) do not split or crack of their own accord.”
The last is a surprising statement given the care and seasoning that boxwood workmen had to give their boxwood to prevent just that! Pliny [ibid 16: 80]even goes on to discuss maggot and horned worm infestation of wood:
“The birth of these insects is prevented, however, in some trees, for instance the cypress, by the bitter taste of the wood, and in others, for instance the box (ut buxo), by its hardness.”
Architectural use of boxwood was not noted by Loudon, although he quotes Vitruvius, who, he said:
“Recommends box for topiary work.”
Marcus Vitruvius Pollio (70-25 BCE) was a famous Roman architect. Discussing colonnades and walks, he states:
“The space in the middle, between the colonnades and open to the sky, ought to be embellished with green things, for walking in the open air is very healthy.”
[Vitruvius De Architectura 5: 9; 5]
But no boxwood. It is difficult to understand where precisely Loudon found the data that allowed him to use this Vitruvius quotation in the early history of boxwood but it has been regularly copied since. Pliny the Younger, rather than Vitruvius or Pliny the Elder, may be the author meant when Loudon went on:
“And it appears to have been much employed in verdant sculpture and close-clipped hedges in the gardens of Roman villas in the Augustan age.”
Pliny the Younger was the author who talked about such uses of boxwood [Pliny the Younger Epistularum 5: 6] but not Vitruvius.
Vitruvius did however mention boxwood in his architectural recommendations for making vaults:
“Arrange strips to form a curve and make them fast to the joists of the floor above…. by nailing them with many iron nails to ties fixed at intervals. These ties should be made of a kind of wood that neither decay nor time nor dampness can spoil, that is boxwood (id est e buxo), juniper, olive, oak, cypress and others.”
[Vitruvius De Architectura 7: 3; 1]
Quercus robur, he said, it had to be, not ‘common oak’ that warps!
Combs were often made of boxwood because its close grain and hardness made it particularly useful for fashioning their fine teeth – boxwood and similar woods are still so used for Japanese ceremonial bridal combs today (fig.1).
The poet Ovid, Publius Ovidius Naso (43 BCE – 17 CE), wrote Metamorphoses around 8CE. These poems of the transformation of legendary characters into animals, birds, snakes, trees etc. have been part of world literature ever since. He spoke of boxwood combs [Ovid Metamorphoses 4: 311]: Salmacis was a water nymph, a naiad, who was not skilled in either hunting or archery. Her sisters would tell her to become more like the athletic huntress goddess, Diana:
“But she did not get herself a javelin, nor any gaily painted quiver, nor did she take part in the chase as good exercise to vary her hours of leisure: all she would do was bathe her lovely limbs in her own pool, frequently combing out her hair with a boxwood comb (Cytoriaco pectine – with a comb from Cytorus), and looking into the water to see what hairstyle was becoming to her. Then she would drape herself in her transparent robes, and lie down among the soft leaves, or on the grass.”
Hermaphroditus, son of Mercury and Venus, happened by and was skinny-dipping in the pool when Salmacis fell in love with him there, twined herself around him and prayed to the gods that she should never be separated from him. Her call was answered and they became one, half male, half female. Hermaphroditus (fig. 2), distraught at his emasculation, begged his parents to make anyone who bathed in that pool turn into a similar half man and half woman.
Cytorus was a town in Paphlagonia in Turkey on the Black Sea (Pontus Euxinus) coast and was often mentioned in Latin literature as synonymous with boxwood as the mountains behind it were covered with the trees.
On another occasion Ovid was constrained by the advice of the wife of a priest of Jupiter when choosing an opportune day for his daughter’s wedding, and this time he used ‘buxus’ as the synonym for comb rather than Cytoriaco, perhaps because it scanned better in the hexameter:
“Until gentle Tiber’s muddy waters have brought the scourings from Trojan Vesta’s temple down to the sea, I may not comb down my hair with a comb of boxwood (crines depectere buxo) nor trim my nails with an iron utensil.”
[Ovid Fasti 6: 229]
Juvenal, Decimus Junius Juvenalis, famous Roman satirist, lived between the 1st & 2nd century CE. Almost nothing is known about his life. He mentioned boxwood combs when talking of a father suggesting that his son should adopt the military life and apply to the centurion, Laelius. As in Ovid, buxus stands on its own as the word for comb:
“Making sure that Laelius notices your uncombed hair (caput intactum buxo) and hairy nostrils.”
[Juvenal Satires 5: 14; 194]
Juvenal was known for his personal, invective-laden satire, clearly demonstrated here!
Veneer was given a lot of attention by Pliny the Elder:
“The wood of the service tree, the hornbeam, the box (sorbus, carpinus, buxus) have a very strong dislike for cornel wood,”
[Pliny the Elder Historia naturalis 16: 83]
and have difficulty adhering to it. He also discussed preparing the veneer with comments on sawing the thin sheets:
“Those (woods) which are moderately moist are easily sawn …. whereas green woods, except hard oak and box (robur et buxus), offer a more obstinate resistance, and fill up the teeth,”
[ibid 16: 83]
and he recommended bending the teeth of the saw outwards to prevent this. As today.
Veneers were best made from certain woods, he said:
“The best woods for cutting into layers and employing as a veneer are citrus, terebinth, the different varieties of maple, box, palm (aceris genera, buxum, palma), holly, holm-oak, the root of elder and poplar.”
[ibid 16: 84]
Pliny went to endless lengths to note the background of anything he was interested in.
Musical instruments made of boxwood are quoted by Loudon:
“Both Virgil and Ovid allude to the use of this wood for musical instruments, and employ the word box as if synonymous with that of flute.”
Boxwood, particularly the boxwood flute, was indeed associated by Ovid with musical instruments:
“Wherever you go, young men’s voices are raised in cheering, and the women’s voices join in the chorus, palms beat upon tambourines, hollow cymbals clash, to the sound of the boxwood flute’s (longoque foramine buxus – long, multiple-holed boxwood) shrill piping.”
[Ovid Metamorphoses 4: 30]
Loudon was right; ‘buxus’ alone did come to mean ‘flute’, as it had done to mean ‘comb’. This is, as far as can be ascertained, the first time that the word ‘buxus’ appears in surviving Latin sources. The name was subsequently used by Linnaeus for the genus in 1753 [Linnaeus C. Systema Naturae 1753: 2; 983].
The goddess Minerva was particularly associated with the flute, which in Roman times was a vertical instrument, usually played as two flutes together, a truly virtuoso performance! Ovid asks the goddess Minerva why flautists wander in procession through the town of his exile and she replies:
“This group of flautists is another among my discoveries. I was the first to make the long flute produce sounds by drilling holes in boxwood (rara foramina buxo).”
[Ovid Fasti 6: 697]
Transverse flutes began to be used in Greece and Etruria in the 2nd century BCE but most Roman flutes were vertical.
And again Ovid discusses Achilles having a quiet banquet with other nobles, and for entertainment:
“It was not the songs of the lyre or of voices or the long boxwood pipe (tibia buxi) with many holes that entertained them but they drew out the night with conversation.”
[ibid 12: 158]
Very different from Petronius’ Trimalchio orgy below!
Virgil, Publius Virgilius Maro (70 – 19 BCE), wrote the Aeneid in the last ten years of his life and it was published after his death. Modern scholarship has established that he was really named ‘Vergilius’, hence anglicised Vergil, but the familiar spelling is retained here. The Aeneid is the Latin epic equivalent of Homer’s Odyssey. Aeneas was a Trojan hero and was the last defender, escaping from Troy with the survivors to sail all around the eastern Mediterranean before finally ending up in Latium with its capital, Rome, marrying the daughter of King Latinus after killing her other suitor, Turnus – a bloodthirsty lot, those heroes – and succeeding Latinus as king. Virgil talked of boxwood flutes:
Numanus was mocking the Trojans holed up in a besieged town in Latium and told them that they should stay among eunuchs and women, playing on the flute:
“The tambourines call you and the Berecynthian boxwood (tympana vos buxusque vocat) of the Mother of Ida; leave arms to men and quit the sword!”
[Virgil Aeneid 9: 639 ]
The rash Numanus was immediately killed with an arrow by the furious Trojan, Ascanius. Buxus here again used alone to mean flute. Wooded MountBerecynthus was in Phrygia (Turkey south of the Bosphorus) and was often used with ‘buxus’. Tambourines and flutes were traditional in the orgiastic rituals of worship there of Cybele, a goddess of nature often called ‘Mother of Ida’, Ida being another mountain in Phrygia.
Ovid described [Ovid Metamorphoses 14:537] in another episode Aeneas battling against Turnus, who had been previously engaged to the King of Latium’s daughter and who was setting fire to Aeneas’ ships; but the goddess Venus was an Aeneas supporter and she:
“Filled the air with the ringing of beaten bronze and the sound of blowing into the boxwood flute (murmure buxi).”
She sent a thunderstorm to put the fires out, unmooring the ships so that they floated out to sea. Hardly, one would think, the happiest outcome of an intervention by one’s guardian goddess, as the ships sank and were turned into naiads, who, inevitably, as they were derived from Trojan ships, hated all Greeks and would not help them even if they were in trouble at sea! Buxus again used alone as ‘flute’.
Pliny the Elder also referred to boxwood musical instruments:
“At the present day (in Augustan Rome) the pipes used by Tuscans in religious ritual are made of boxwood (e buxo), but those for theatrical performances are made of lotus, asses’ bones and silver.”
[Pliny the Elder Historia naturalis 16: 66]
Boxwood implements were commonplace in Rome. Ovid [Ovid Metamorphoses 6: 131] in Metamorphoses told of boxwood shuttles, which were used in looms by weavers for centuries until quite recent times because of their hard wearing character. Arachne wove a beautiful tapestry showing the sins of the gods. The goddess, Minerva, patron of weavers, was jealous, because the tapestry she wove was inferior to Arachne’s, so she tore up her tapestry and:
“Then, with the shuttle of Cytorian boxwood (Cytoriaco radium) which she held in her hand, three times four times she struck Arachne on the forehead,”
and turned her into a spider!
Pliny the Elder spoke of wood for making tools:
“The most serviceable holders for augers are made from wild olive, box, holm-oak (ex oleastro, buxo, ilice), elm and ash.”
[Pliny the Elder Historia naturalis.. 16: 84]
Petronius, the Roman satirist, noted a pepper-mill [Petronius Satyricon 74] made of boxwood (molea buxea) which was used by Fortunata, Trimalchio’s wife, ‘her with the pudgy arms,’ at the banquet described below in order to flavour a cooked chicken.
Tops were often made of boxwood. Virgil in the Aeneid told of Queen Amata, wife of King Latinus, who was poisoned by a snake put on her by Allecto, one of the Furies, and who then ran around town in a frenzy because her husband, King Latinus, had been told by oracles that their daughter, Lavinia, had to marry a foreign stranger, eliminating her favoured local boy, Turnus. Her mood was likened to a Bacchanalian frenzy like a boxwood top whipped by lads at play:
“Obedient to the thong, it weaves wide circles in the gaping view of its small masters, who, admiring, see the whirling boxwood (volubile buxum) made a living thing under the lash.”
[Virgil Aeneid 7: 17; 382]
Persius, Aules Persius Flaccus (34 -62 CE), was a Roman satirist who spoke with the voice of an angry and alienated young man:
“The thing I wanted most was ….. for no one to whip the whirling boxwood more deftly than me (callidior buxum torquere flagello).”
[Persius Satires 3: 51]
It is interesting how often ‘buxus’ was used alone to describe the object made of it.
Writing tablets were a particular use for boxwood. Papyrus had to be imported from Egypt and parchment from animal skins was expensive. Paper was discovered by Cai Lun in China in 105 CE but only reached Europe in the 8th century. Writing therefore was commonly on tablets covered with wax (tabulae ceratae), which were usually made of boxwood (cerata buxa).
Sextus Propertius was a Roman poet of about 50 BCE – 20 CE and mentioned this:
“Commonly, niggardly wax was put on boxwood (vulgati buxo sordida cera fuit).”
[Propertius Elegiae 3:23:8]
Boxwood, in blocks, has today its main commercial use as being suitable for wood engraving.
A small casket or box is in Latin ‘pyxis’ and such boxes were often used for ointments. Some say that the Greek ‘pyxos’ (πύξος), and the Latin ‘buxus’, in fact got their names from this small casket because it was the wood from which the casket was commonly made.
Juvenal again, inveighing against modern behaviour:
“Profit gained by every kind of crime and money acquired by the sword or poison box (gladio vel pyxide nummos) is iniquitous.”
[Juvenal Satires 13: 25]
The small boxwood casket was not uncommonly used for poison.
Carving and sculpture made use of boxwood because of its close grain and hardness, which made possible fine detail. Pausanias (115 – 180 CE) was a doctor from Greek Asia Minor who travelled all over Greece for 20-30 years in around 160 CE describing in Greek the country at the height of the Roman Empire. He was particularly interested in religious art and architecture. At one of the treasuries in Olympia, the site of the first Olympic Games which started as a small local festival there in 776 BCE, he noted the statues and ceremonial shields:
“There stands a boxwood image of Apollo with its head plated in gold (ἂγαλμα πύξινον Ἀπόλλωνος).”
[Pausanias Description of Greece 6: 19; 6]
Boxwood was considered suitable for carving important artefacts then as later.
Virgil in the Aeneid described the beauty of inlay in boxwood. The Trojans were besieged by Turnus, and in the battle:
“In their midst the Dardan boy himself, Venus’ rightful care, his comely head uncovered, glitters like a jewel inset in yellow gold to adorn neck or head, or as ivory gleams, skilfully inlaid in boxwood or Orician terebinth (inclusum buxo aut Oricia terebintho).”
[Virgil Aeneid 10: 5; 136]
The ‘Dardan boy’ was Ascanius, the son of the Trojan hero, Aeneas, and was the mythical founder of the Julian family – Julius Caesar, Augustus and the emperors up to Nero. Terebinth is the turpentine tree (Pistacia terebinthus) and ‘Oricia’ is thought by some to be the modern Val d’Orcia in Italy but is more likely to be the port of Oricus in Illyria (modern Albania). Inlay of ivory into boxwood was also interestingly mentioned in American versions of Ezekiel in the Hebrew Bible [Ezekiel 27: 6].
Dryden [Dryden Georgics 2: 630] in 1697 translated Virgil’s Georgics [Virgil Georgicon .2:449] on the Planting of Trees:
“The War receives ….
From cornels, javelins; and the tougher yew receives the bending figure of a bow.
Nor box, nor limes without their use are made smooth-grain’d, and proper for the turner’s trade (torno rasile buxum), which curious hands may carve, and steel with ease invade.”
Boxwood is still so used by turners today.
The pale colour of boxwood is often used as a synonym for pallor. Pliny the Elder again:
“A rhinoceros with one horn on the nose…it is the colour of boxwood (color buxeus).”
[Pliny the Elder Historia naturalis 8: 29]
Obviously a white rhino! And talking about black bryony (Tamus communis), a diuretic used then mainly for shrinking spleens, he said:
“The root of it, which is black outside, and of the colour of box inside (intus buxeus colore) is even more efficacious for the extraction of splintered bones.”
[ibid 23: 17]
Ovid too used the simile [Ovid Metamorphoses 4: 134]. When Thisbe saw Pyramus’ bloodstained body after he had committed suicide, thinking that she had been killed by a lion:
“ She drew back shuddering with a face paler than boxwood (oraque buxo pallidiora).”
In another example, Queen Alcyone wept, left behind by King Ceyx who was going to consult the sacred oracles:
“At once her innermost bones took cold, and a pallor just like boxwood (buxoque simillimus) came over her face, and her cheeks were wet with streaming tears.”
A premonition that he was going to drown at sea. Which he did. Pale boxwood was a useful analogy in classical times.
The medicinal and poisonous properties of boxwood were noted by Pliny the Elder. He was very much against quacks posing as medical experts:
“For brain fever it appears to be beneficial to wrap a sheep’s lung warm about the patient’s head … (it is) one of the frauds with which magicians mock mankind and it is especially in fevers that true medicine is opposed to the doctrine of quacks…. and (they say) if the moon is passing through Aquarius, pounded boxwood charcoal (e buxo carbonis) is rubbed in with grains of barley, bat’s wing and leaves of tamarisk.”
Reminiscent of Macbeth’s three witches! And he goes in with an extraordinary litany of weird applications, which make the ‘true medicine’ of that time seem similar to sheep’s lung therapy today!
Residues from the lining of metal furnaces and strange metallic mixtures were also used medicinally at that time but Pliny recommended using more natural substances:
“Foliage of box (buxi coma) burnt in a pot of raw earth heated in a furnace until the earthenware is thoroughly baked.”
[Pliny the Elder Historia naturalis 34: 35]
He also mentioned boxwood’s more poisonous properties.
“The seed of the box is held in aversion by all animals.”
Boxwood affected beeswax also to make it pharmaceutically useful:
“Next to these varieties comes the Corsican wax, which, being the produce of the box-tree (ex buxo fit), is generally thought to be possessed of certain medicinal properties.”
[ibid 21: 49]
Finally, Petronius’ Roman banquet. Gaius Petronius Arbiter (27-66 CE) was a satirist at the Emperor Nero’s court. His scurrilous Satyricon in 61 CE described millionaire Trimalchio’s saturnalian feast. The multicourse elaborate menu included puns and practical jokes, such as a pig’s belly, which when slit open revealed cooked sausages and black puddings inside, and fruit which squirted perfume when lifted, all lowered through a ceiling which came open. There an unruly guest, the ‘curly headed onion’, is subjected to a long harangue, including:
“Don’t think that I’m taken in by the boxwood armlet (anulus buxeus) that you did your mistress out of!”
[Petronius Satyricon 58]
The giggling tipsy wives wore gold armlets, and even had them weighed at the banquet to see who had the most valuable ones, so boxwood to compete must have been an expensive material for bracelets and rings even then. Altogether a riotous Roman banquet! Very different from Ovid’s sober Achilles’ banquet above.
In conclusion boxwood wood was a respected (honorata buxo) part of Roman life in so many ways and would have been familiar to the average man in the street – combs, veneer, musical instruments, shuttles, augers, tops, writing tablets, small caskets, sculpture, medicine and armlets – to a much greater extent than it is in America or Europe today. We no longer have waxed boxwood writing tablets, tops or combs – except in Japan – and it is rarely used architecturally because of its rarity and expense. Its value as material for detailed carving died out in the Middle Ages. Some musical instruments are still sometimes made of boxwood and it is still used by turners for bowls and ornaments; as blocks for wood engraving; and until recently by carpenters for rulers and handles for tools. But never fortunately for medicine!
My thanks are due to the staff of the British Library, the British Museum and the Institute of Classical Studies Library of London University. Particularly grateful thanks are due to my classmate, Christine Rennie, without whose skilled scanning of classical literature this article could not have been written, and to Robin Trew for his invaluable help with its format.
This article combines two pieces reprinted from ‘The Boxwood Bulletin’ of the American Boxwood Society for Topiarius Vol. 12 Summer 2008 (Part I) & Topiarius Vol. 13 Summer 2009 (Part II).