Mandrake is a mysterious nightshade with a long, thick taproot that resembles the human body. At one time, people believed the plant would shriek when uprooted, emitting a scream so powerful it could kill the unfortunate person who attempted to harvest it.
Although botanists disagree on how to divide the genus Mandragora into its various species, the one found around the Mediterranean is likely to be called Mandragora autumnalis, the autumn mandrake. Its root was widely used in ancient times as a hallucinogenic and narcotic, and because it induced a state of unconsciousness when given in sufficient quantities, it was used as an anesthetic for surgery.
In THE DEADLIEST HATE, Miriam tells us its smoke was used to sedate and ease the pain of the professional gladiators injured in the arena. In fact, by following its scent through the labyrinth of tunnels below the arena, she was able to locate her brother Binyamin in the saniarium after his bout:
At first, I passed cell after cell of the condemned stinking in their filth, crying out to their gods. The strangled sobs and wails of misery would ring along the walls until they were replaced by a fresh chorus of agony. But then, in another tunnel, some salutary signs reached out to me: the odors of opium and astringents; of mossy herbs wrapped in linen; and of salves blended from ibis fat, honey, and lint. Along with these, I heard the whistles and wheezes of men thick with sleep, their phlegmy snores fed by eddies of smoke from censers burning mandrake root.
But beware. Mandrake roots and leaves are poisonous. Depending on the concentration of their various alkaloids, they can cause asphyxiation, hallucinations, vomiting, diarrhea, and death. Fortunately, unlike Miriam, you can explore the thrill of the gladiatorial games without risk of intoxication. Just click here.