Ancient Botany

Gavin Hardy and Laurence Totelin, Ancient Botany, Routledge 2016

a book of the series Sciences of Antiquity, ed. Liba Taub


Review by James Jope © James Jope

Gavin Hardy is known for his work on medicinal uses of plants. Laurence Totelin is a historian of Greek and Roman science. I refer to the authors as H&T.

Although this book’s meticulous documentation makes it useful for researchers in either classics or the history of science, its main attraction is as a superb interdisciplinary introduction to ancient botany for students of both fields. Its aim is to provide an overall understanding of ancient botany from the point of view of the ancient ‘actors’, including their cultural context. H&T argue throughout that given the unavoidable limitations of ancient knowledge (such as no microscopes) actors’ theories were generally reasonable and worthy of attention. They take care to explain the conventions and concepts of classicists and botanists for students of the other discipline, which not only makes the book more understandable, but incidentally teaches readers much about the other discipline. Classicists will learn about the cause of oak galls, why fungi are not plants, etc., while botanists will be given a sense of the vicissitudes of manuscript transmission, pseudepigraphy, etc. Both will learn the differences between the plant sexuality on which Linnaeus’ system is built and the anthropomorphic sexuality ascribed to plants by the ancients.

In an apparent compromise between scientific and classicist conventions, H&T minimize notes, placing parenthetical references in the text instead. Occasional long lists with documentation may annoy some readers.

The book is not organized chronologically, but rather by themes: the classification and description of plants, their life cycles, and their environments. However, topics within each theme are usually discussed chronologically.

‘Actors’ includes ‘handlers’, or people other than authors, who dealt in herbal remedies, farming, etc; for, the first principle emphasized by H&T is that the separation of pure and applied science which has become so deeply ingrained in modern botany can not apply to the ancient knowledge, since there is much to be learned about the ecology and morphology of plants from these sources. H&T draw upon not only authors like Theophrastus, Dioscorides, or Galen, but also the Roman agronomists, Pliny’s encyclopedia, Virgil’s Georgics, even Homer.

Identifying plants mentioned in ancient sources-- i.e., matching them with modern genus and species names-- is a thorny issue which has taxed scholars for a couple of centuries. H&T do not offer any new identifications; instead, they examine how ancient plants were named. Theophrastus and Dioscorides did not coin names, they took them from the handlers. Those names could be meaningfully based on morphological or physiological characters, habitat, or medical uses. However, the ancient terms ‘genus’ and ‘species’ were used so loosely that H&T argue they should both be translated ‘type’. Ancient authors were aware of the nomenclatural disarray, and tried to promote clarity by producing lists of synonyms.

Theophrastus classified plants under four categories: trees, shrubs, undershrubs and herbs. Pharmacologists like Dioscorides classed them by their medical uses. Some sources, especially in Late Antiquity, simply arranged them alphabetically.

Ancient plant descriptions were not without value. Theophrastus constructed technical terms for plant parts much like those used today (e.g. ‘pericarp’); but when describing individual plants he, like others, used comparisons with more familiar plants or other objects.

Many readers may know of the justly famed plant illustrations in the Vienna manuscript of Dioscorides; but plant illustrations existed much earlier. Ancient authors distrusted them, partly because they would show only one stage of a plant’s life. H&T note that this was a valid criticism. Here, however, their usual helpfulness in explaining scientific matters to classicists flags. They should have mentioned that botanical illustrations of the modern era often include smaller drawings of seeds, fruits, etc to fix this limitation.

Pliny has been criticized because his work on plants is organized loosely. H&T try to defend him. They argue that books 12-16 are arranged by geographical regions, while book 17 focuses on agriculture, albeit with ‘excursuses’. --In other words, the work is loosely organized.

A more important issue on which H&T take a controversial stance is whether there was widespread deforestation in the classical Mediterranean region, as some scholars have suggested. They briefly list several arguments against this. However, they do give a fair presentation of their opponents’ arguments, and they conclude that “In order for definitive conclusions to be reached on this question, classicists, archaeologists, botanists and environmental historians need to join forces in multi-disciplinary themes.”

Chapter 5 on plants’ life cycles compares ancient and modern concepts of plant sexuality, but also asexual propagation, such as grafting. The environmental chapter 6 demonstrates ancients’ awareness of plant habitats and their success in transplanting economically useful plants throughout the Roman empire.

The fifth chapter concludes surprisingly with a Priapic poem, which actually shows how common good botanical knowledge was. The sixth, in a sly wink to classicists, is titled “Airs, Waters and Places”, although the Hippocratic work is only once mentioned and not discussed. Sparks of humour also occur in a few other places, as when our authors list some topics discussed in Plutarch’s Table Talk: “why women do not eat the middle part of lettuce (4.10, 672) (unfortunately, the answer to that last question is lost).”

There are a number of typographical errors, all of which suggest that the publisher relied too much on computerized proofreading: confusion of singular and plural, wrong words such as ‘were’ for ‘where’. Only once did I see a mistake which even a computer should have spotted: ‘Romands’ for Romans.

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