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Crocodile Dung Anyone?

Apothecary is the obsolete term for the modern pharmacist or the retail shop of the pharmacist. In addition to dispensing medicines and toiletries, the apothecary offered medical advice from a knowledge of many hundreds of ancient drugs and prescriptions and the lore of many thousands of years of practice. Rather than seek treatment from a physician, patients would often go to their local apothecary. In Miriam bat Isaac’s first-century CE Alexandria, that meant a visit to Aspasia’s in a neighborhood of five- or six-story tenements shoulder to shoulder around a public fountain:

When I knocked on the closed shutters of the apothecary shop, a frail-boned, old woman with a pleated mouth and liquid blue eyes squinted through the slats. Opening the shutters against the blazing daylight, she was still gripping the long wooden key she’d used to unlock the grille, perhaps to have it handy as a makeshift club. But she’d been expecting me.

Stepping aside and ushering me in with a wave of her knotted hand and a sympathetic pat on my shoulder, she explained that she needed but a minute to belt her tunic—it was vermillion, probably dyed with red cinnabar—and exchange her slippers for sandals. Sidling past bundles of herbs that hung from her ceiling on ropes, she ducked behind the wicker screen at the back of her shop giving me some time to appreciate the orderly arrangement of her inventory and test myself on the use of each herb and tonic, seed and powder, paste and unguent, preparation and mixture as my tutor had taught me.

A waist-high, wooden bench spanned the warped floorboards at the center of her shop. I could see from the pyramid of crushed cannabis leaves and an open scroll of De Medicina that she’d been compounding suppositories to relieve the pain of hemorrhoids. With the sunlight streaming through the open shutters, I could read on neatly printed labels the contents of each amphora, ceramic jar, and alabastron on the tower of shelves near her bench. She stocked the usual: castor oil, figs, and white hellebore for constipation; opium for pain, diarrhea, and insomnia; aloe for rashes; crocodile dung and sour milk to blend for a contraceptive; and various animal fats to combine for treating baldness. Those were just some of the remedies I recognized.

But Miriam finds more than remedies in the apothecary shop. In The Deadliest Lie, Aspasia leads her to the apartment where she’ll be alone with Judah for the first time. A few clicks and you can be a fly on that wall.

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