The history of saffron cultivation and usage reaches back more than 3,000 years and spans many cultures, continents, and civilisations. Saffron, a spice derived from the dried stigmas of the saffron crocus (Crocus sativus), has remained among the world’s most costly substances throughout history. With its bitter taste, hay-like fragrance, and slight metallic notes, saffron has been used as a seasoning, fragrance, dye, and medicine. Saffron is native to Southwest Asia, but was first cultivated in Greece. The wild precursor of domesticated saffron crocus is Crocus cartwrightianus. Human cultivators bred C. cartwrightianus specimens by selecting for plants with abnormally long stigmas. Thus, sometime in late Bronze Age Crete, a mutant form of C. cartwrightianus, C. sativus, emerged. Saffron was first documented in a 7th-century BC Assyrian botanical reference compiled under Ashurbanipal. Since then, documentation of saffron’s use over a span of 4,000 years in the treatment of some ninety illnesses has been uncovered. Saffron slowly spread throughout much of Eurasia, later reaching parts of North Africa, North America, and Oceania. Greco-RomanIn the Greco-Roman classical period (8th century BC to the 3rd century AD), the saffron harvest is first portrayed in the palace frescoes of Minoan Crete, which depict the flowers being picked by young girls and monkeys. One of these fresco sites is located in the “Xeste 3” building at Akrotiri, on the Greek island of Santorini (also known to ancient Greeks as Thera). The “Xeste 3” frescoes have been dated from 1600–1500 BC. Various other dates have been given, such as 3000–1100 BC and the 17th century BC. They portray a Greek goddess supervising the plucking of flowers and the picking of stigmas for use in the manufacture of a therapeutic drug. A fresco from the same site also depicts a woman who uses saffron to treat a bleeding foot. These Theran frescoes are the first botanically accurate pictorial representations of saffron’s use as an herbal remedy. However, the two saffron-growing Minoan settlements of Thera and Acrotiri, both on Santorini, were ultimately destroyed by a powerful earthquake and subsequent volcanic eruption sometime between 1645 and 1500 BC. Much of the original island’s central portion sank underwater, and saffron harvests there were severely curtailed. Yet the volcanic ash from the destruction entombed and helped preserve the saffron frescoes. Ancient Greek legends told of brazen sailors embarking on long and perilous voyages to the remote land of Cilicia. There they hoped to procure what they believed was the world’s most valuable saffron. The best-known Greek legend involving saffron was that detailing the tragedy of Crocus and Smilax: The handsome youth Crocus sets out on a pursuit of the nymph Smilax in the woods near Athens. They enjoy a brief period of idyllic love in which she is initially flattered by the amorous advances. Soon, however, Smilax tires of Crocus. After he continues to pursue her against her wishes, she resorts to bewitching him. He is thus transformed into a saffron crocus flower, with its radiant orange stigmas remaining as a faint symbol of Crocus’s continuing passion for Smilax. For the peoples of the ancient Mediterranean, the saffron gathered in the Cilician coastal town of Soli was the most valued, particularly for use in perfumes and ointments. However, such figures as Herodotus and Pliny the Elder rated rival Assyrian and Babylonian saffron from the Fertile Crescent as best for use in treatments against gastrointestinal and renal ailments. In late Hellenistic Egypt, Cleopatra used a quarter-cup of saffron in her warm baths because of its colouring and cosmetic properties. She used it before encounters with men in belief that the saffron would make lovemaking more pleasurable. Egyptian healers used saffron as a treatment for all varieties of gastrointestinal ailments. Indeed, when stomach pains progressed into internal haemorrhaging, an Egyptian treatment consisted of saffron crocus seeds mixed and crushed together with aager-tree remnants, ox fat, coriander, and myrrh. These together comprised an ointment or poultice that was to be applied to the body. The physicians expected this to then “[expel] blood through the mouth or rectum which resembles hog’s blood when it is cooked.” Urinary tract conditions were also treated with an oil-based emulsion of premature saffron flowers mixed with roasted beans; this was used topically on men. Women ingested a more complex preparation. Saffron in Greco-Roman times was widely traded across the Mediterranean by the Phoenicians. Their customers ranged from perfumers in Rosetta, Egypt to physicians in Gaza to townsfolk in Rhodes, who wore pouches of saffron in order to mask the presence of malodorous fellow citizens during outings to the theatre. For the Greeks saffron was widely associated with professional courtesans and retainers known as the hetaerae. In addition, large dye works operating in Sidon and Tyre used saffron baths as a substitute. There, royal robes were triple-dipped in deep purple dyes; for the robes of royal pretenders and commoners, the last two dips were replaced with a saffron dip instead, which gave a less intense purple hue. The ancient Greeks and Romans also prized saffron for its use as a perfume and deodoriser. They scattered about public spaces such as royal halls, courts, and amphitheatres. Upon Emperor Nero’s entrance into Rome, they even spread it along the streets. Indeed, wealthy Romans made daily use of saffron baths. They also used saffron as mascara, stirred saffron threads into their wines, used it in their halls and streets as a potpourri, and offered it to their deities. Roman colonists took their saffron with them when they settled in southern Gaul, where it was extensively cultivated until the AD 271 barbarian invasion of Italy. Competing theories state that saffron only returned to France with 8th century AD Moors or with the Avignon papacy in the 14th century AD.