Plant Science in Antiquity

Natural philosophy, the "science" of its day, arose in Greece during the 500's b.c.e. and included speculations about plants, such as whether domesticated plants descended from wild plants. Full-fledged science began at the Lyceum in Athens, founded by Aristotle in 335 b.c.e. Upon Artistotle's departure from Athens in 323, his colleague Theophrastus became head of the Lyceum. He was author of two botanical treatises which cover general natural history. Historia plantarum ("Enquiry into Plants" in Enquiry into Plants and Minor Works on Odours and Weather Signs, 1916) emphasizes de scription of plants, their parts, and their locations, and De causis plantarum (De Causis Plantarum, 19761990) emphasizes physiology. The works include accounts of crops, fruit trees, and medicinal plants, but the stronger emphasis is on abstract knowledge. Greek physicians and pharmacists were more practical-minded, as is seen in Pedanius Dioscor-ides' De materia medica, compiled during the first century c.e. Although it concerns medicinal plants, practically all plants had medicinal uses, and Dios-corides was the first to give a species-by-species description of the different plants known in much of the Mediterranean region.

The Romans were heavily influenced by Greek civilization, yet Romans were more practical and less abstract thinkers than the Greeks; there were no important Roman scientists. Instead of botanical treatises, Romans wrote agricultural manuals, of which the longest and most thorough was Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella's in the early first century c.E. He used Greek sources, especially the work of Theophrastus of Eresos, and also Roman sources and his own experiences. Columella's near contemporary, Gaius Plinius Secundus (also known as Pliny the Elder), was one of the Roman compilers of encyclopedias; he also used Greek and Roman sources, but his goal was to educate and entertain. However, that did not preclude dispensing practical knowledge. His lengthy accounts of plants emphasized useful species and included curious folklore.

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