Tracing the roots – stems, leaves, fruits… – of modern botany

Ancient Botany. Gavin Hardy and Laurence Totelin. Routledge, 2016.

AncientBotany-CoverWhat do you get if you combine the academic interests of a marine phycologist with those of a member of the British Society for the History of Pharmacy? The latest addition to Routledge/Taylor & Francis’ Sciences of Antiquity book series Ancient Botany, by Gavin Hardy and Laurence Totelin. And what a nice read it is. Designed to appeal to both students of ancient Greek and Roman societies and modern botanists with an interest in the history of their discipline, Ancient Botany appears to be unique in that ambition (and certainly expands substantially upon that period in Morton’s 1981 tome, “History of Botanical Science”).


Ancient Botany’s 17 pages of ‘front matter’ include four scene-setting maps (of the Greek world, the conquests of Alexander, the Roman Empire, and a close-up of Italy), and important information about the conventions used in referring to ancient texts – a major feature of the book. The 180 pp. of text is divided into 6 chapters, and a Conclusions section (each with accompanying Notes and in-text References). There follow a Bibliography (c. 32 pages); a Passages Cited section (which details the pages whereon the ancient texts themselves are considered – approx. 9 2-columned pages); an Index of Plants (3.5 2-columned pages); a Key to Index of plants’ scientific names (2.33 pages); and a General Index (about 9 2-columned pages). The book is illustrated with 15 black-and-white figures.

Throughout its pages, Ancient Botany – which spans the period from the 8th century BCE to the 7th century CE – underlines the close association that exists between medicine and plant science, which emphasises the very practical approach to plant knowledge of the ancients. But, it’s not all about medicines, Ancient Botany is also at pains to point out the broad botanical expertise in herbals and other ancient texts, which include many aspects of the technical knowledge of plants, their names and morphology, classification, physiology, and their habitats. Indeed, technical botanical knowledge was quite widespread amongst the inhabitants of those ancient times and ancient lands. Which accords with the book’s authors’ main aim of placing ancient botany in the social, economic and cultural context of the Greek and Roman world. And this they do, admirably.


More detailed consideration

Chapter 1 Introduction

As one who runs a course that considers plant-people relationships I thought I had a reasonable grasp of some of the material covered in the book, but in my reading of the text I’m reminded of how cursory that was. Certainly, Ancient Botany will be an invaluable help in beefing-up my lectures on this important aspect of the development of botany and plant-people interactions. As an example of my selective knowledge in this area, I was at least aware of the contribution of such ancient writers as Theophrastus (with his multi-volume tomes “Enquiry into Plants” and “Causes of Plant Phenomena”), Dioscorides (and his influential pharmacological text De Materia Medica), and Pliny the Elder (famous as much for his “Natural History” as being a victim of the eruption of Vesuvius), Aristotle, Galen, and Hippocrates. But, there was so much more about this sextet that I hadn’t appreciated previously! And, I was ignorant of the works and important contributions of others such as Nicander of Colophon (who wrote of plant poisons and antidotes – which was usually olive oil as an emetic…), the Roman agronomists Varro (who talks of agriculture as both an art and a science), and Columella (a highly-regarded agronomy writer), and Vergil. Chapter 1 therefore provides an essential – but fascinating – account of those notable early ‘botanists’ whose writings survive to this day and whose musings form the basis of the rest of the book.


Chapter 2 Acquiring knowledge of plants in the ancient world

An important reminder of the sources used to glean the plant knowledge that is contained within those ancient texts. Arguably the best source is direct observation by the author (but whose significance is not always appreciated because of the general state of botanical knowledge at that time, hence widespread use of analogy or anthropomorphism to describe plant phenomena…). Next is information the author has read in the works of others (with its own problems of the veracity of that information – and which echoes modern-day concerns over the use of un-referenced entries on Wikipedia or other even less reliable sources…). Finally, what the author has heard (although maybe from reputable sources such as those who daily work with plants or plant products, but nevertheless might things have been misheard or misunderstood prior to their being written down..?). Notwithstanding the various concerns over the accuracy, etc. of what is written, there is a lot of good material in those old texts – true wisdom of the ancients. And there was a clear focus on studying plants at all stages of growth, and in seeing them in their natural habitat (which needs travel, often the result of conquest by the various armies of the Greeks, Macedonians and Romans…).

Chapter 3 Organising the vegetable kingdom

This was quite a philosophical section with much consideration of the ancients’ views of the definition of a plant. In summary, the only main agreement was lack of locomotion; thus, fungi, truffles, lichens and plant galls were considered to be plants. Which isn’t too bad, all things considered. It also had lots to say about plant classification, at least as far as plant types were considered. Consequently, given good mention were Theophrastus’ four categories of plants – trees, shrubs, understorey plants, and herbs. Which quartet was used by Dioscorides, although – and as befits his particular plant interests – his main classification was on medical effects of botanicals. Taking matters further, Galen also recognised the distinction between fruit and seed. There was also the ‘revelation’ that Theophrastus recognised five types of radish (!), and that Columella knew of 15 varieties of cabbage (!!). The whole chapter is nicely summarised thus, plants tended to be classified on morphology or on usage, which utilitarian view is a prominent feature of ancient botany/Ancient Botany.


Chapter 4 Naming, describing and depicting plants in antiquity

This section tackles the perennial nightmare that is the identification of plant species mentioned in ancient texts, which is largely due to the fact that common or vernacular names are used (because Linnaeus’ nice binomials did not exist at that time…). But, that problem is compounded and confounded by use of pseudonyms to hide the true identity of plants with ‘magical’ properties (sacred knowledge must remain secret, after all…). However, ancient commentators were usually quite careful in their choice of ‘phytonyms’ which tended to indicate the characters or properties of the plant in question (much like today’s binomials). Furthermore, recognising variations in names for the same plant, synonymy lists were often used to enable readers from different areas to relate names to the plants with which they were familiar (a sage bunch those botanical sages of old…). We are also introduced to the concept that “Naming is taming” (p. 97), and the notion that in describing the annual parts of a plant, Theophrastus gives us “the most classic piece of elementary botany in existence” (quote attributed to Edward Lee Greene in 1909).


Chapter 5 The Life of a plant,

considers male and female plants, contains some very racy lines by Pliny and by Florentinus re palm tree pollination, and provides interesting accounts of, and views on, grafting and spontaneous generation.

Chapter 6 Airs, waters and places: Plants and their environments in antiquity

With their various attempts at ‘empire-building’, Greeks and Romans were not only well-travelled, but were extremely mindful of the important link between botanical knowledge and empire (a theme that is repeated down the years to the European Voyages of Exploration of the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, and the blossoming of the British Empire in the 19th century…). Consequently, the ancients were acutely aware of the strong links/interactions between plants and environment; each plant has own proper environment wherein it grows best. But, if conditions are not right in a different place, then they can be ameliorated – to some extent – so plants can grow in such a place. The botanists of days gone by also knew the important distinction between wild and cultivated plants – although the latter were best for food, the former were very important, too, e.g. for fibre, and as sources of medicines. They were also mindful of the need to look after the environment and Columella acknowledges that Man exhausts soil by overproduction of crops. Hardy & Totelin also reflect on the ancients’ views of gardens, which range from Pliny the Elder (who disapproved of them because they deprived the poor of food and promoted useless produce), to Columella, who was much more appreciative of the role and importance of gardens as places where useful produce was grown.

Conclusions: useful and wonderful plants

Although for Aristotle plants were at the bottom of the chain of nature, he did acknowledge that they were useful to animals – humans especially – as food and medicine, fibres for clothing, wood as building material. And this idea of plant utility is very much a central theme of the book, reflecting as it does that central notion of ancient botanical thought. And, as the authors conclude, there is no sense of pure vs applied botany 1500 years ago, all ancient botany is applied. A view which is mirrored by today’s view of plants and plant products, they are a major natural resource which we are trying to harness for the good of Mankind. What goes around does indeed come around!

But, does this sort of reflective, ‘navel-gazing’ – as exemplified by Ancient Botany – actually matter? Do we need to know what the ancients thought about plants? Surely, it’s what we think about plants now that’s important? Well, science (and botany is surely one of the oldest) is – and always has been – a cumulative activity; what we do today adds to that done yesterday, and will be added to by that which is done tomorrow. So, yes, I think it is important to know the route that’s been taken to arrive at our present understanding. The ability to pause, take stock, and reflect on the history of our subject helps us to re-examine and maybe re-appraise those foundations to get a better sense of perspective, and to marvel at the journey travelled, and still to come.

And another reason for going back to those ancient texts (and very much back to utility!) is that they may contain within their pages the next medical breakthrough (Totelin, 2015), such as the treatment for an eye infection found within a 10th Century Anglo-Saxon ‘leechbook’ (Harrison et al., 2015). Good news, then, that co-author Hardy is currently researching the history of botany during the period c.1480 – c.1730!

Overall view

The book’s authors are keen to bring to bear modern botanical knowledge and understanding to the phenomena described by the ancients. In that respect, Ancient Botany is a great marriage of the ancient and the modern, helping to put modern-day botany in its historical context. Ancient Botany is a work of true scholarship (in the old-fashioned sense), and contains loads of examples for incorporation into lectures on a Plants and People course – and those dealing with plant taxonomy, anatomy, morphology, physiology, cultivation, etc.


Harrison F, Roberts AEL, Gabrilska R, Rumbaugh KP, Lee C and Diggle SP (2015) A 1,000-year-old antimicrobial remedy with antistaphylococcal activity. mBio 6(4):e01129-15. doi:10.1128/mBio.01129-15.

Morton AG (1981) History of Botanical Science. Academic Press.

Totelin L (2015) Could ancient textbooks be the source of the next medical breakthrough? The Conversation, accessed 14th February, 2016.