Scholia Reviews ns 11 (2002) 3.

John E. Raven, Plants and Plant Lore in Ancient Greece. Oxford: Leopard's Head Press, 2000. Pp. Xxvii + 106, incl. 20 color illustrations, 5 drawings, 16 color photographs and a botanical index. ISBN 0-904920-40-2. UKú25.00.

John M. McMahon
Classics, Le Moyne College, Syracuse, NY

John E. Raven (1914-1980) was a noted Cambridge classicist, a skilled amateur botanist, and an experienced gardener. Plants and Plant Lore in Ancient Greece consists of his four J. H. Gray Lectures given at Cambridge in 1976[[1]] and an earlier seminal lecture to the Alpine Garden Society of Oxford. The lectures are accompanied in this handsomely produced volume by essays from other notables in the field of ancient botanical studies, including W. T. Stearn, Nicholas Jardine, Alice Lindsell and Peter Warren. The work is attractively illustrated by Lindsell's 'plant portraits' and by photographs taken by Raven's wife Faith. As complementary elements of a whole, these diverse contributions, grafted together into a careful and colorful excursus through the byways of ancient botany, produce a fitting tribute to a pioneering investigator of ancient plants.

Raven's lectures constitute the heart of the book. As Jardine explains in 'John Raven and Ancient Greek Botany' (pp. xviif.), they covered 'nothing less than the development of botany in all its aspects, aesthetic, taxonomic, agricultural and pharmacological, from Homer to Dioscorides, with an aside on Minoan depiction of plants thrown in for good measure' (p. xvii). In Stearn's 'Biographical and Bibliographical Introduction to John Raven's Lectures on Greek Plants' (pp. xxi-xxvii), moreover, the reader learns that a planned book on Ancient Greek botany never germinated because of Raven's many other interests and, eventually, ill health (p. xxii). Yet Stearn, who edited the lectures, does not hesitate to criticize Raven's oversights nor to offer some scholarly refinements of his own. For example, he questions Raven's botanical identifications of certain depictions of Minoan plants and, more importantly, takes him to task for ignoring important scholarly works (p. xxiii). As a corrective, Stearn concludes his own article with a useful bibliography of ancient botany (pp. xxv-xxvii).[[2]]

The first lecture in the series (pp. 3-10) immediately sets the stage for Raven's approach to the identification of plants in ancient texts with a severe critique of William Thisleton-Dyer (1843- 1928), whose botanical identifications are included in Liddell and Scott's Greek-English Lexicon, citing the victim's familiarity with 'less than half the evidence available in extant Greek literature' (p. 6). Raven's subsequent admonition, moreover, is sobering: 'If you take my advice you will henceforth view every entry in Liddell and Scott (LSJ) under a Greek plant name with a measure of scepticism' (p. 6). Venturing on into botanical matters proper, Raven discusses Homeric knowledge of plants (sixty in all) then concludes that three tendencies, 'the aesthetic, the agricultural and the medicinal,' are at the basis of almost all ancient botany and that it is only Theophrastus who saw botany as an independent field worthy of study on its own (p. 7). Both Sapphic and Theocritean botanical references also come under Raven's close scrutiny, and he uses the appearance of such particular plant names as A)/NQRUSKON, I)/ON and KRO/KOS to illustrate the complexities (and foolishness) of identifying these plants down to the species level in accordance with Linnaean taxonomy (pp. 7-10).

In the second lecture (pp. 11-20) Raven expresses his preference for field botany, which he equates to ecology: 'what lives and grows with what, where, and why' (13), illustrating it with his experiences in studying Cretan tulips (pp. 13f.). This fascinating account leads Raven to the real topic of the lecture: the methodology of Theophrastus (pp. 14-20) and his affinity toward the agricultural tendency mentioned earlier. Among a wealth of information the reader learns that although Theophrastus was no field botanist, he made first-hand observations in both Cyprus and Egypt (pp. 16-18). Furthermore, Raven's perceptive readings of the text of Historia Plantarum reveals Theophrastus as a frequently accurate taxonomist, and a patient and careful investigator, but one whose preference for the 'shelter of the garden' prevented him from achieving greater success in the ecology and botanical topography that Raven himself so loved (pp. 18-20). In the end, Raven, for all his admiration of the Hellenistic researcher, admits, quite surprisingly, that he finds Theophrastus' botanical writings boring (p. 20).

Raven's third lecture is a tour de force of literary and archaeological detective work emphasizing the aesthetic aspects of botanical knowledge. After a briefly mentioning Theophrastus's contributions to ancient botany, Raven surveys the poetry of Theocritus, agreeing with Lindsell (see below) that the poet had first-hand knowledge of the plants of the eastern Mediterranean, specifically the island of Cos. Moreover, by meticulously comparing textual description and ecological actuality, Raven locates on Cos the very pool from the story of Hylas in Idyll 12 (pp. 24-27). Raven then applies his comprehensive botanical expertise to Minoan archaeological remains, including those from Knossos and Thera, with the careful scholarship and engaging style that mark the lectures as a whole (pp. 27-30).

Raven's final lecture focuses on medicinal botany. It begins by outlining the features of 'primitive' (as opposed to 'scientific') medicine that inform the use of folk materia medica in Greek society (p. 33). Such knowledge is nowhere more evident than in the realm of the herbalists known as R(IZOTO/MOI ('rootcutters'), whom Theophrastus describes in Book 9 of the Historia Plantarum and whose activities Raven briefly considers before moving on to Crateuas and herbal illustrations (pp. 34f.). The main subject of the lecture, however, is Dioscorides, his naming and descriptions of plants, and his place in the 'herb-lore tradition' (p. 38). Raven concludes that Dioscorides 'like his contemporary Pliny, has come nearer to anticipating the Linnaean binomial system ... than Theophrastus ever did' and yet was less lucid in comparative plant descriptions (p. 36). Likewise, Dioscorides was also less inclined to add specific information about the ecology of individual plants although he was well aware of the concept of geographical distribution (p. 37). The lecture ends with Raven's insightful observations concerning the coexistence and interdependence of primitive and scientific botany and medicine (pp. 38f.).

Much of the material in these four lectures is presaged by Raven's 1971 lecture to the Alpine Garden Society of Oxford (pp. 79-96). Accompanied by Faith Raven's striking photographs, this presentation is at once informal and informative, tracing theoretical approaches to botany in Theophrastus and Dioscorides and emphasizing for his specialist audience the difficulties of plant identification so often highlighted in the Grey Lectures. More concise than the later talks, the Alpine Garden Society lecture also offers different examples of plants to support Raven's contentions.

The remaining pieces constitute a variety of scholarly investigations. Three of Alice Lindsell's works appear here. Lindsell, as Jardine's 'Postscript: Amateurs of Ancient Botany' (pp. 41-45), was a pioneer in ancient botany and a gifted artist. After her death, her papers, her correspondence, and her botanical sketchbook came into Raven's possession, inspiring much of his botanical work (p. 43). Lindsell's unpublished 'A Note on a Greek Crocus' from 1937 (pp. 49-54), in which she also demolishes Thiselton-Dyer's identification of plants, features her line drawings and a convincing argument based on personal observation and close textual analysis. 'Alice Lindsell's Botanical Sketchbook' with an introduction by Anthony Bryer (pp. 55-62) offers an all too limited selection of plant portraits produced while Lindsell was studying at the British School at Athens in 1930-31. Finally, her groundbreaking article 'Was Theocritus a Botanist?' (pp. 63-75),[[3]] shows definitively that the details of Theocritus's life can be linked to the floral descriptions in his poetry and that most of his works are directly linked to the island of Cos (pp. 74f.). An epilogue by Peter Warren (pp. 97-101) brings up to date the specialized bibliography of Mediterranean plants published since 1976, thus supplementing that of Stearn.

There is little to censure and much to praise in this attractive, inspirational volume. Not only is it a significant contribution to the field of ancient botany, but it also a represents a fitting appreciation of Raven's and Lindsell's perceptive, if somewhat unforgiving and relentless, reexamination of plant identifications and of their affection for the plants that figured so prominently in the culture and learning of the ancients. Moreover, in these days when popular knowledge of and authentic engagement with nature are disappearing as rapidly as those untouched places that host countless and diverse communities of non-human life, Plants and Plant Lore in Ancient Greece reminds us that a relationship with the natural world is worth cultivating for its experiential as well as its intellectual fruits -- as has been so lovingly demonstrated in these pages through text and image.


[[1]] The lectures first appeared in print in Annales Musei Goulandris 8 (1990) 129-80.

[[2]] To which I would add, specifically as regards Theophratus's Historia Plantarum 9, John Scarborough's 'Theophrastus on Herbals and Herbal Remedies', Journal of the History of Biology 11.2 (1978) 353-85 and his 'The Pharmacology of Sacred Plants, Herbs, and Roots' in Christopher A. Faraone and Dirk Obbink (edd.), Magika Hiera: Ancient Greek Magic and Religion (New York 1991) 138-74. Also worth noting is Anthony Preus, 'Drugs and Psychic States in Theophrastus' Historia Plantarum 9.8-20', in William W. Fortenbaugh and Robert Sharples (edd.), Theophrastean Studies On Natural Science, Physics and Metaphysics, Ethics, Religion, and Rhetoric, Studies in Classical Humanities Vol. 3 (New Brunswick 1988) 76-99.

[[3]] Greece and Rome 6 (1937) 78-93.