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by Archaeology Newsroom

The Greek origin of botany

The texts and other documents, which have survived from antiquity, definitely confirm the knowledge and multiple use of numerous plants in ancient Greece. The tablets discovered at Knossos, Mycenae and Pylos, dating from the fourteenth and thirteenth century BC mention among other food provisions a number of aromatic herbs, plants and even trees. Almost seven hundred years later the vegetable kingdom plays ar significant role in Hesiod’s rural diary “Έργα και Ημέραι” (Works and Days). Also, in many essays of the Hippocratic Collection of the fifth century, a multitude of pharmaceutic plants is listed. However, the practical knowledge of effective plants and herbs for special purposes has almost nothing to do with Botany, the science of plants, that names, describes and classifies with the same interest all plants regardless of their utility to man. As a result, a double question arises. First, if the science defined as botany originates from Greek antiquity and secondly, which ancient work can be considered as fundamental in this field of science.

The credit for the first, ample composition of all kinds of information regarding nature should be given to Aristotle (384-322). However, the oldest, most thorough essay on Botany known today is the Περί Φυτών Ιστορία” ( On the History of Plants) written by Theophrastus, an assistant of Aristotle since 348, and his most celebrated disciple, succesor and head of the Lyceum. Another important work of Theophrastus is the “Περί Φυτών Αιτιών” (= On the Reasons of Plants).

Judging from the content of his work, Theophrastus’ concern with the vegetable kingdom was universal. Book A’ is a report on the morphology of plants. The different types of roots, sprouts, leaves, flowers and fruits are presented with precise examples. Book B’ describes the natural procedure and techniques for the plants multiplication. Book P deals with trees and schrubs of the Mediterranean flora, while A’ with exotic kinds (of Egypt, Libya, Persia and India), strange plants, sea-weeds and the phenomena of plant pathology. Book E’ deals with wood and its properties; book Στ΄ with the decorative plants, treated in antiquity alike our flower bouquets; book Z’ with vegetables and finally, book H’ with cereals, which are described in the book in all their known varieties. To this abundant material book 0′, whose authenticity is sometimes questioned, adds the aromatic and pharmaceutic plants.

This is probably the entire volume of information, which was possible to be collected at that period. The most important part of this knowledge derives from personal observation and research among peasants, farmers and lumbermen. Theophrastus tried to obtain all the necessary information on whatever he could not directly observe. Therefore, he was what we would call today a man of the “field”, although his book on the History of Plants is the product of team-work — he even acknowledges the name of one of his assistants. Under the circumstances it does not really matter, whether or not Theophrastus travelled across Egypt and Libya, this has not as yet been proven, or if he simply described the flora of these countries as well as that of Persia and India on the basis of the reports of a team working according to his principles and methods. A great part of Theophrastus’ methodology is scientifically correct, since he would never classify by force a special case in a group unsuitable to contain it. The strangeness of biologic phenomena had made him fully aware of the vanity of any attempt to try and subordinate them by sophistry. Therefore, already in the first chapter of his work, he openly declares, how erroneous would be to draw early conclusions on the basis of an artificial approach: “Όσα μη οίον τε αφομοιούν, περίεργο το γλίχεσθαι πάντων” (= It is vain to seek by all means what cannot be assimilated). It is quite significant, that his valuable work has the modest title “On the History of Plants” and that the difficult in content parts of the text are often accompanied by such reservations as “this matter must be examined” or even “We must deal with these species to the extent of our knowledge”. Theophrastus was more than aware that he was a pioneer; thus, he has left to posterity the correction, elucidation and completion of the botanical knowledge, which he promoted to a science.