Carl Linnaeus is unquestionably the father of botany as we know it today. But what about the botanists who came before him? If Linnaeus is the father of botany, then Theophrastus of Eresus could justifiably be called its grandfather.
Theophrastus was born in Eresus on the island of Lesbos in Greece in around 372 BCE and died around 286 BCE. He studied in Athens under Plato and later Aristotle, and eventually became head of the Lyceum in Athens following Aristotle’s death (he held this position from approximately 322-287 BCE). Much like Aristotle, Theophrastus wrote on an incredibly wide range of subjects. In his work The Lives of the Philosophers, the biographer Diogenes Laërtius attributes 225 works (‘In all 232,808 lines’) to Theophrastus (Lives V.42-50). These works covered subjects as wide-ranging as weather-signs, stones, physics and metaphysics. However, the works for which Theophrastus is most often remembered, and the ones of most interest to us here, are his books on botany.Some editions of Theophrastus’ work were quite elaborate. We can see that this 1644 edition (published in Amsterdam) contained numerous woodcuts of the plants the work describes.
There are two surviving botanical works by Theophrastus – The Enquiry into Plants and On the Causes of Plant Phenomena. In his Causes Theophrastus looks at plant physiology and considers different methods of cultivation. In the Enquiry Theophrastus turns his attention in a more taxonomical direction. In this work he was one of the first authors to attempt to classify plants into different types, dividing them into ‘trees’, ‘shrubs’, ‘undershrubs’ and ‘plants’. These two books give Theophrastus a good claim to the title of ‘the grandfather of botany’.
The ninth and final book of the Enquiry is arguably the most interesting (an ancient ‘book’ was the amount of text that would fit onto a scroll – so it is roughly equivalent in length to a modern chapter). This final chapter focuses on the medicinal properties of and uses for plants, and so is one of our earliest surviving texts concerning medicinal plants. It ultimately had a huge influence on later medical treaties, including the Materia Medica of Dioscorides.
It is possible that Theophrastus’ interest in botany went beyond the purely academic. Diogenes Laërtius states in his Lives of the Philosophers (V.39) that Theophrastus acquired his own garden after Aristotle’s death. Theophrastus expressed a wish to be buried in the garden and left instructions regarding its care in the event of his death, suggesting a practical as well as theoretical interest in botany (V.52-4).
Now we jump ahead by more than a millennium to the early days of the printing press. Some quick background: in around the year 1439, Johannes Gutenberg developed a printing press with moveable type, and the printed book as we know it today was born. Books printed prior to 1501 are also known as incunabula (from the Latin incunabulum meaning ‘cradle’ or 'birthplace').
In the 15th century, Latin was the language of academic discourse, so it is perhaps unsurprising that the first printed edition of Theophrastus’ works was Theodorus Gaza’s Latin translation rather than the Greek original. This Latin edition was published in Trieste (near Venice) on 20 December 1483 by Bartolomeo Confalonieri, who was active as a printer between 1478 and 1483. The publication date of 1483 makes our copy of Theophrastus’ works the oldest printed books in our library’s collection.The title page from a 1552 edition of Theophrastus’ works, published by the Aldine Press in Venice. The title is given in both Ancient Greek and Latin.
Later editions of Theophrastus’ works were published in the original Greek rather than Latin. The picture above is the title page from the 1552 edition produced by the Aldine publishing house in Venice. Venice was an important centre for the publication and distribution of classical texts, particularly Greek ones, from the very earliest days of the printing press. Although the title page is in both Greek and Latin, the text of the book is entirely in Ancient Greek.
One of the challenges facing libraries is how to preserve items like this edition of Theophrastus for future users. It is important for us to preserve these books as items of historical importance, but to do so in a way which means readers can still consult them. As such, a microfiche edition of this book was made at Kew in the 1980s, which means that readers can consult the microfiche edition of the work instead of necessarily having to handle the original. This minimises any risk of damage to the book.
Another copy of the 1483 edition of Theophrastus is held by one of the Smithsonian libraries in Washington D.C. The Smithsonian’s copy was digitised and contributed to the collection of books held online in the Biodiversity Heritage Library, of which our library is one of the founding members. This enables readers to consult this work who may not otherwise have had a chance to do so.
We hope this has been an interesting introduction to Theophrastus’ life, works and legacy. Anyone who wants to find out more about the subject may wish to consult the bibliographies below.
- Francesca Railton -
(Library Graduate Trainee)
Theophrastus On the Causes of Plant Phenomena
Theophrastus Enquiry into Plants
Diogenes Laertius The Lives of the Philosophers
Dioscorides De Materia Medica
Bauman, Hellmut (1988). Greek Wild Flowers and plant lore in ancient Greece, London.
Greene, E. L. (1909). Landmarks of Botanical History, Washington.
Grove A. T. and Rackham, Oliver (2003). The Nature of Mediterranean Europe: an ecological history, New Haven.
Hardy, F. G. (1998). Studies in Greek botany, with particular reference to non-flowering plants, Newcastle.
Hardy, Gavin and Totelin, Laurence (2015). Ancient Botany, London.
J. Donald Hughes, Theophrastus as Ecologist, Environmental Review: ER Vol. 9, No. 4, Special Issue: Roots of Ecological Thought (Winter, 1985), pp. 296-306
Keyser, Paul T. and Irby-Massie, Georgina L. (eds) (2008). Encyclopaedia of Ancient Natural Scientists: the Greek tradition and its many heirs, Oxford.
Morton, A. G. (1981). History of botanical science: an account of the development of botany from ancient times to the present day, London.
Scarborough, John, Theophrastus on Herbals and Herbal Remedies, Journal of the History of Biology Vol. 11, No. 2 (Autumn, 1978), pp. 353-385