Aromatherapy History and the Fall of Rome

Much of Greek medicine was founded on Egyptian healing, but the Greeks can take credit for greatly developing these systems. Medicine began to separate itself from religion and aromatics went into private use during the times of the Ancient Greeks and Romans - more so than at any previous time.

Both the Greeks and the Romans used aromatherapy extravagantly. Physicians used essential oils to treat athletes and soldiers and incense was burned as much in private homes as in temples.

An age of darkness

The over-extravagance of Rome's use of aromatics was condemned by the doctrines of the Christian Church and when the Empire collapsed, so did private use of fragrant herbs and oils. Across Europe a dark veil had fallen and aromatherapy retreated back to the religious orders to be used solely in liturgy. But while the West endured the Dark Ages, the use of aromatics flourished in the East.

The Perfume Trade of Arabia

The medical literature of Greece and Rome was translated into Arabic and its works continued by physicians such as Avicenna (980-1037 AD). Also called Ibn-Sina or the Arabic Gallen, Avicenna invented the process of steam distillation, having conceived of the coiled cooling pipe that improved steam condensation and the collection of essence.

Botanic Man

A prolific author, he wrote about more than 800 plants and recorded their total effects on humans. Thanks to growing trade, the perfumes of Arabia became increasingly famous throughout the known world, but it was during the Crusades that aromatherapy returned to Europe.


The knights brought back knowledge of distillation to herbalists at home along with a range of new plants from the Mediterranean.

Aromatherapy through the Middle Ages

By the time the knights of the Crusades retrieved the old knowledge of aromatics from the East, Europe was rife with sickness.

The Plague

After the fall of Rome, European cities became over-crowded and filthy. The Church's doctrines forbidding the personal use of aromatics meant the pious rarely washed. Outbreaks of the Plague altered these views considerably as it was believed that foul odours caused disease and many perfumers appeared to be immune to the disease. This further fuelled ideas about the medicinal and purifying qualities of essential oils.


Bonfires of fragrant woods were lit to cleanse the air and people carried bunches of lavender mixed with other herbs for protection.
Households were aired with the scent of pomanders, oranges stuck with cloves, and vinegar mixed with rosewater was sprinkled on the floors.

The Realm of Science

It was more out of necessity, then, that aromatherapy returned to Europe, rather than through religious reform. In fact, the religious orders continued to cultivate their own herbs and priests were still the most educated class. For example, German abbess Hildegarde was renowned for her gardens of lavender in the 12th Century.

German physician Jerome of Brunswick continued to develop the method of distillation. He referenced 25 essential oils in his famous work Vollkomen Distillierbuck, 1597.

Things improved as aromatherapy left the hands of the church and entered the realm of science. Pioneers like Paracelsus (1493-1541) encouraged physicians to carry out their own experiments rather than blindly following the ancient texts of Greece and Rome.

The Quack's Charter

in 16th-century England, the use of plant material in healing was regulated at the request of the formally-trained medical community. The Royal College of Physicians was given power to fine unqualified healers under the Medical Act of 1511 and the king allowed similar authority to his barber-surgeons, who zealously prosecuted so-called quacks. These 'quacks' were often village herbalists who followed centuries old traditions and treated the poor.

The reduction in practitioners officially allowed to practise led to a shortage of healers and so the Quacks Charter was introduced, permitting 'unqualified' herbalists to work under the 1511 Act.

quacks charter

In their continuing efforts to maintain supreme control of their field, the gaze of the medical community now fell upon the village wise women, or hedgewitch, and penal laws were soon passed against witches.

Synthetic vs Natural

Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, famous herbalists wrote massive tomes that brought literary recognition to local herbal folklore by combining it with Latin texts. By the late 18th to early 19th century, most apothecaries had their own stills and distributed essential oils and potions to the masses.

Scientists continued to refine the art of aromatherapy, becoming more and more interested in the individual chemical constituents of essential oils rather than the whole plant. This created a divide between the medical elite and traditional herbalists.

For example, willow bark has been used in old remedies for centuries, but by 1852 its active constituent salicylic acid was derived synthetically in a laboratory.

The healing power of plants faded into obscurity as a strong scientific mind took over, promoting synthetic drugs as new and improved medicine.