Legumes and disease in the Graeco-Roman world

  • F. P. Retief Navorsingsgenoot, Universiteit van die Vrystaat
  • L. Cilliers Departement Engels en Klassieke Kultuur, Universiteit van die Vrystaat


Legumes formed an important part of the diet in Graeco-Roman times, and included broad beans (Vicia fava) and probably beans of the Phaseolus genus, lentils (Lens culinaris), peas (Pisium sativum) and chickpeas (Cicer arietinum) and peas of the Lathyrus genus, e.g. grasspeas (Lathyrus sativum). Vetch (Vicia ervilia) was eaten only in times of severe food shortages. Symptoms and health prob-lems associated with the consumption of legumes are reviewed, and include relatively minor issues like abdominal distention and flatulence, but also alleged sexual problems, abnormal pregnancies, bad dreams and dulling of the senses. In the 5th century BC the Hippocratic writers reported in Epidemics II that the inhabitants of Ainos developed irreversible weakness of their legs due to the eating of pulse (legume mixtures) in times of war and starvation. It is argued that this represents the lathyrism syndrome caused by a neurotoxin present in grasspeas - and that the Hippocratic doctors were the first to recognize this neurological disease. In the 6th century BC Pythagoras prohibited his followers from eating or coming into contact with broad beans. The possibility is reviewed that he might have been aware of favism - a potentially fatal illness precipitated by broad beans in patients with G6DP-deficiency (a hereditary condition common in Mediterranean peoples). It is perhaps more likely that the prohibition rested on mystic and religious considerations, as the bean (as possible origin of the human soul) was enveloped in a veil of mysticism and superstition.
Original Research