Select Page


The term ‘antiquity’ refers to the period of history extending up to the Middle Ages, one major segment being ‘classical antiquity’ (classical era or Greco-Roman world) as the period from the 8th century BCE to the 6th century CE when the Western world was dominated by civilizations surrounding the Mediterranean Sea.

Bronze Age civilizations (3000-500 BCE)

From c. 1500-500 BCE medicine was in the hands of priestly classes in Egypt (Thebes, Memphis). Thebes especially, located on the Nile about 800 km south of the Mediterranean was, at its height, the wealthiest city in Egypt on an important trade route from both the northern Mediterranean and southern Nubia (today’s southern Egypt and northern Sudan) notable pharoahs working with plants including Hatschepsut, Tuthmosis III and Amenhotep I. In Mesopotamia there were cities at Nineveh, Babylon, Sumer, Akkad,and Uruk (Tiglath-Pileser I, Sennacherib, Ashurbanipal II) before, with the rise of Aegean cultures (Minoan culture at Knossos in Crete and on the island of Thera (Santorini, now believed to be the site of Plato’s lost city of Atlantis) and Mycenae on the Greek mainland, 2300-900 BCE).


In Egyptian cities life expectancy was low for both males and females who could only expect to live into their late 20s. Treatment frequently involved herbal medicines that are described in detailed written records preserved on papyrus scrolls. This permitted a comparison of remedies over time.

Kahum Papyrus – c. 1900 BCE
Edwin Smith Papyrus – c. 1600 BCE
Ebers Papyrus – c. 1600 BCE
Brugsch Papyrus – c. 1300-1200 BCE
Berlin Medical Papyrus – c. 1250 BCE
London Medical Papyrus – c. 1250 BCE

Herbal remedies listed in these papyri included mint and caraway for chest pains; mustard seed, aloe and juniper for headaches; poppy seeds for insomnia and burns; and camphor for vomiting. Though records of medicinal gardens are few, it can be assumed that medicinal plants were specially cultivated in preparation for use. As the Egyptian empire expanded its borders into Libya, Canaan (Near East), Nubia (Africa) and Asia, new plant remedies would have been eagerly added to the lists of materia medica.

Classical antiquity (c. 700 BCE – c. 500 CE)

European cultures and civilizations of the classical period were centred on the Mediterranean. Though texts written in Mycenean Greek mentioning plants used as spices and perfumes have been recovered from Pylos, Mycenae and Knossos, the earliest texts written in alphabetical Greek, the Homeric poems, also mention many plants. Those Greek texts generally regarded as having special botanical significance are relatively few and date from about the 5th century BCE.

Ancient Greece

Ancient Greek references to plants date back to the Mycenaean period from 1600 to about 1100 BCE: they are found on texts recovered from Pylos, Mycenae and Knossos. There are also many plants named in the Homeric poems c. 700-600 BCE.[10]


Ancient Greek herbalists, known as rhizotomi (root-cutters), had learned much of their medicine from Egypt and Mesopotamia. Medicinal recipes have been found on stone tablets retrieved from ancient Assyria and Sumeria and accounts of herbs and their properties written on Egyptian papyrus, with illustrations. These date back more than two millennia BCE and some have names that have been passed on to us – names like sesame, turmeric, and saffron. Greek medicinal knowledge of the classical age, though now lost was, we are told by historian Morton, summarised by Diocles of Carystos (c. 375-295 BCE) who was known to Theophrastus and who followed the famous Greek physician Hippocrates of Cos (Hippocratic oath). Diocles might well be the first ancient author to write a rhizotomicon (root-cutter’s treatise) with ‘short descriptions of plants, their natural habitats, and medicinal applications’ what we would now regard as a herbal.[1] Book 9 of Theophrastus’s Historia Plantarum is possibly, at least in part, derived from this source.[2]

Later, the root-cutter Crateuas (fl. 120-60 BCE) certainly produced a Rhizotomicon, now also lost, but a source for the work of Dioscorides and later herbalists. Plants were listed in alphabetical order with descriptions, properties and synonyms and he followed up with a popular supplement of paintings and medicinal properties only. Crateuas was, Pliny claims, the first true Greek botanical artist and his herbal was well in advance of those that would be published in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Pliny also records that Crateuas corresponded with king Mithradates (ruler of the Kingdom of Pontus in northern Anatolia from 120 to 63 BCE) who had built up a library of books recording plant medicinal properties which was seized by the Roman general Pompey who had them translated into Latin by his freedman Lenaeus.[3]

Origin of plant science

Aristotle, who was Theophrastus’s mentor at the Lyceum in ancient Athens, complained bitterly at the way human attention is invariably focused on self-interest and what can be exploited in the world, rather than trying to understand and explain what is going on. He objected:

‘How tiresome it is to keep asking of natural things – what is its use? . . . Once we have got what we need to survive, we should turn our attention to understanding nature in terms of its own ends and goods‘.[7]

Biology was born when Aristotle and Theophrastus divided up the living world into animals and plants with Aristotle beginning a systematic account of the former and Theophrastus the latter. Plant science began with Theophrastus who, at the very outset of his Enquiry into Plants, responded to Aristotle’s request for an impartial investigation of the natural world by issuing a challenge to future plant scientists:

We must consider the distinctive characters and the general nature of plants from the point of view of their morphology, their behaviour under external conditions, their mode of generation and the whole course of their life

To satisfy his curiosity about plants Theophrastus used objective reason, what might be called analytic empiricism (see Socrates, Plato & Aristotle and Reason & science) a much more rigorous methodology than the proto-botany of the ancient civilizations of Egypt and the Mediterranean, Mesopotamia, India, and China all of which emphasised the various ways of using plants, the learned or priestly members of society having particular interest in the medicinal properties of plants. Theophrastus looked beyond plant utility to ask additional questions about the plants themselves – about their structure and function – how they were related to one-another in form, how they reproduced, their physiology, ecology, geography and so on. His studies were part of a research program in an institute of learning, the Lyceum in Athens, which along with the Academy of Plato served as models for today’s universities. Like his mentors Theophrastus questioned everything he was told, always demanding evidence and clear thinking: he was therefore suspicious of the views of his day, the prevailing myths, the influence of deities, and all manner of questionable subjective beliefs and traditions. He was in the tradition of thinkers like Empedocles (c. 495–435 BCE) who had not only derived a crude theory of evolution but also suggested that there was sex in plants, both theories well ahead of his time. Theophrastus’s challenge does not sound unduly onerous to us today but historically it proved extraordinarily difficult to carry out as amply demonstrated by the fact that it took 1500 years for the flame of plant science to be reignited as plant study was reduced once again to descriptive pharmacology. Rather than being a new beginning, Theophrastus’s botany was more a botanical culmination of Ionian Presocratic philosophy.

The ancient Greeks had discovered a method of penetrating and understanding the natural world as never before, a highly effective method that we still cherish today. What they had discovered was science, and it would transform the world. Science was not a miracle technology or secret recipe – it was a mode of thinking.

So how did the history of plant science unfold after Theophrastus?

The history of botany has been the topic of several books but this account has drawn heavily on the excellent History of Botanical Science by Alan Morton (1981), it is discussed mainly from a Western perspective.

Economic botany, plant introduction, gardens & plant science

Other developments at this time included the curious, beautiful and economically useful plant trophies sent back to Athens by explorers and from military campaigns. Epicurus had established what was possibly the first decorative garden in Athens and gardens were generally becoming more elaborate and commonplace across the Mediterranean and Persian world descending, we assume, from the ancient palace gardens and designed city precincts of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. But the best known medicinal manuscript influenced by this period of history was written in about 65 CE was De Materia Medica (Materials of Medicine) a list of herbs and their properties written by Pedanios Dioscorides (c. 40–90 CE) a Greek physician in the Roman army. For many centuries this work would be regarded as definitive and slavishly copied again and again well into the Renaissance even though we now know of works like De Simplicibus by the brilliant Greek physician in Roman Pergamon, Galen (c.131–201 CE) which is much more informative.


The Greek world was transformed into a Hellenistic Macedonian empire with the military campaigns of Alexander the Great. Alexander had Aristotle as a tutor and was imbued with Greek science, he and his officers combining military activity with natural science. Among the botanical sources were the jour nals of the naval officers.

Nearchus (c. 360 – 300 BCE) was an admiral in the navy during the military campaigns of Alexander the Great which were also equipped as scientific expeditions. He is known for his celebrated voyage following the Indian campaign of Alexander the Great in 326–324 BC. This was from the Indus river near Karachi along the Balochistan coast to Hormuz at the mouth of the Persian Gulf and then sailing up the eastern coast to the head of the Gulf. His naval journal includes descriptions of the banyan, mangroves, cotton and the spiny euphorbias of the Balochistan desert.

Androsthenes of Thasos, was another admirals of Alexander the Great who, gaining experience with Nearchus, under Alexander’s orders sailed down the Euphrates exploring the coast of the Persian Gulf, skirting the coast of Arabia and sailing further than his predecessor Archias of Pella. His account of the voyage, The Navigation of the Indian Sea was mainly devoted to botanical topics.


Macedonian Empire of Alexander the Great – 334-323 BCE

Showing the campaigns of Alexander the Great and his admiral Nearchus

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons. By Generic Mapping Tools – CC BY-SA 3.0 – Accessed 16 August 2019

Roman plant science

Interest in scientific botany waned through Hellenistic (see also Ancient Greece) and Roman times (see Ancient Rome). Athens was overrun by the Roman forces of General Lucius Sulla in 86 BCE and the Greek peninsula fell under Roman rule. Roman society lacked scientific curiosity engaging more with the principles and practice of agriculture and horticulture, educated Greek slaves often acting as family tutors to the wealthy and sources of scientific information.

Agriculture & encyclopaedias

Medicinal works remained but it was overall plant utility that mattered – food production and agriculture in particular. Theophrastus had attempted to integrate agriculture and botany by developing a crude theory of plant growth and physiology. There were Greek authors on agriculture but their writings have been mostly lost: it was their writings that informed the Phoenician farmers who settled in North Africa and Spain. Though the Romans contributed little to botany they have bequeathed us a handsome literature on agriculture.

In a series of works titled De Re Rustica (On agriculture) four Roman writers Cato the Elder (234–149 BCE), Varro (116–27 BCE) but especially Columella (4–70 CE), who was the inspiration for the later work of Palladius (4th century CE), laid out the principles and practice of agriculture that was later published during the Renaissance as a compendium Scriptores Rei Rusticae (Writers on Agriculture) and a probable influence on educated farmers of the Middle Ages. Certainly Varro and Columella were aquainted with the works of Theophrastus.

The other major work of the period was Naturalis Historia (Natural History) of Roman encyclopaedist Pliny the Elder (23–79 CE) who in his synoptic account of natural history devoted Books 12 to 26 of his 37-volume treatise to plants and it is this work that captured subsequent historical interest. Pliny frequently alludes to Theophrastus but with little botanical understanding or appreciation. At the time of Julius Caesar (100-44 BCE) physicians were established were established across the empire as an independent medical profession.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email