Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.07.24

Suzanne Amigues, Théophraste. Recherches sur les plantes. Tome V. Livre IX.   Paris:  Les belles lettres, 2006.  Pp. 397.  ISBN 2-251-00529-3.  €55.00.  



Reviewed by Laurence M. V. Totelin (lmvt2@cam.ac.uk)
Word count: 1490 words

With this fifth volume, Suzanne Amigues closes her monumental edition of Theophrastus' Historia Plantarum (HP), which she started in 1988. Volume V is devoted exclusively to the ninth book of the HP, a composite work that was not part of the original version of Theophrastus' Enquiries, and the authenticity of which has long been object of debate. The volume is composed of a long introduction (longer than the general introduction to the HP); an edition of the text; almost 200 pages of notes; two appendices; and a series of indices. This edition replaces Arthur Hort's work (1916), and is an impressive contribution to the history of botany and medicine.

Book 9 of the Historia Plantarum is composed of two distinct texts: chapters 1-7 (entitled Peri phytôn opôn in part of the tradition) deal with aromatic plants; whereas chapters 8-19 (entitled Peri dynameos rhizôn in part of the tradition) deal, from a utilitarian perspective, with plants used in medicine. These two texts, Amigues argues, were composed by Theophrastus himself, shortly before he embarked upon his HP. They were destined neither to be joined, nor to be attached to the eight books of the HP; both acts were the work of a 'reviser' active after Theophrastus' death.

Peri phytôn opôn is found in the same manuscripts as HP 1-8, and, according to Amigues, was written by 320 BC. It is concerned with plant juices (chapters 1-3) and aromatic plants in general (chapters 4-7). Most of the material for this book is derived from Theophrastus' personal observations and enquiries into plants; however, for plants from far-away countries, Theophrastus had to rely on the stories, often fanciful, recounted by traders. In the favourable cases of frankincense and myrrh, Theophrastus was able to compare the traders' stories with the observations made during Anaxicrates' expedition in Arabia (324 BC). Amigues dates Peri dynameos rhizôn to the final quarter of the fourth century BC (probably to 324/323); it is probably slightly earlier than Peri phytôn opôn. The book's subject matter is both botanical and pharmacological, the word rhiza meaning both 'root' and more generally 'medicinal plant'. It deals with issues such as how to obtain pharmaceutical substances from plants (chapter 8); the problem of homonyms (chapters 10-12); the preservation of materia medica; botanical geography applied to medicinal plants (chapters 15-16); and the effects of medicinal substances on animals and humans (chapters 18 and 19). To compose this book, Theophrastus relied on three main sources of information: physicians, drug-sellers (pharmakopôlai) and root-cutters (rhizotomoi), although Amigues rightly notes that the boundaries between these three categories (and especially between the pharmakopôlai and rhizotomoi) is often blurred. Amigues does not reject the possibility that Theophrastus knew works of Diocles of Carystus (such as his Rhizotomikon, now lost) or discussed botany with him; but, breaking away from a tradition set out by Max Wellmann (1898), she refuses to see Theophrastus as a mere epigonos of Diocles. Instead, she focuses on the sources which, unlike Diocles, are named in the Peri dynameos rhizôn, such as the physician Alexias, and the drug-seller Thrasyas of Mantinea. She notes that Theophrastus always uses the past tense to talk about the drug-sellers he lists: they were not contemporary with Theophrastus, but were active at the beginning of the fourth century BC -- their fame lived on after their death.

After Theophrastus' death, a reviser attached to the first eight books of the HP a ninth book composed of the Peri phytôn opôn, the Peri dynameos rhizôn, and a series of notes (chapter 20). This reviser also made a series of personal additions, easily observable, which were destined to make the diverse parts of book nine cohere, and to make book 9 fit together with the other books of the HP. Amigues' judgement of this reviser is far from positive: 'Personal mediocrity and scrupulous concern for preserving Theophrastus' writings: such are the characteristics of the revisers which are revealed by the reorganization of the Historia' (p. XLIV). She adds that Theophrastus 'would never have accepted the addition, to books 1-8, of two opuscula that were not part of the general scheme of the work' (p. LV). Since all sources suggest that the division in nine books of the HP occurred shortly after the death of Theophrastus, Amigues argues that the reviser was Neleus of Scepsis, friend and disciple of Theophrastus. At the death of his master (287 BC), he inherited the library of the Peripatos, and, angered by the promotion of Strato to the head of the School, he retired to Scepsis. From 287 to 280-275 (when the books were sold to the Alexandrian Library), Neleus was the only person in possession of Theophrastus' books; it is then that he must have taken the liberty of creating the ninth book of the HP.

The edition of the ninth book of the HP offered by Amigues surpasses and replaces the edition by Arthur Hort (1916, Loeb). Most significantly, it includes a passage (9.18.3-9.18.10) omitted by Hort, most probably for reasons of propriety: this passage is concerned with aphrodisiacs and abortifacients. The tradition of HP 9 poses certain problems with which Amigues deals admirably. Indeed, in MS Urbinas gr. 61 (U), the ninth book of the HP is followed by another version of chapters 9.8.1 to 9.19.4 (U*), under the title Peri dynameos rhizôn 10; it seems that a version of this small treatise was transmitted independently from the HP. Different versions of chapters 9.8.1 to 9.10.3 are also found in MS Laurentianus 85,22 (M and M*). Amigues chose not to present these two versions in parallel columns (which would have made the text difficult to read), except for chapter 16 for which U and U* give widely diverging readings. For the other chapters, she gives a handy recapitulative list of the readings she favours (p. LVIII-LIX).

The strength of this new edition is undeniably in the notes. Amigues has read widely in the fields of botany, ethnopharmacology and history, and quotes from numerous travel accounts. She has herself done botanical fieldwork: for instance, she dug up a root of thapsia (Thapsia garganica L.) with her bare hands, thus verifying the statement of Theophrastus (9.8.5): thapsia does provoke painful rashes. Amigues is first and foremost an historian of botany, and her bibliography in the field of the history of medicine has some gaps. For instance, in her discussion of the root-cutters, a reference to G.E.R. Lloyd's discussion on 'Theophrastus, the Hippocratics and the root-cutters: Science and the folklore of plants and their use' (in Science, Folklore and Ideology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983, p. 119-135) would have been useful. In the history of medicine, Amigues appears to rely mostly on francophone publications, somehow neglecting recent works, such as V. Nutton, Ancient Medicine. London: Routledge, 2004. This sometimes leads to small problems. For instance, in her note on the 'Cnidian berry' (the fruit of Daphne gnidium L.) (p. 239, note 3), she writes that the epithet 'Cnidian' is due, not to the geographical origin of the plant (which grows all around the Mediterranean) but to the fact that the 'physicians from the School of Cnidus' made frequent use of it. However, recent contributions to the history of medicine have seriously questioned the very existence of such a School of Cnidus. At times, Amigues cannot resist judging Theophrastus according to modern standards: for example, in her note on the use of hemlock in poisons (p. 211, note 32), she argues that 'the author of Peri dynameos rhizôn had not yet acquired the cold objectivity (toute la froide objectivité) of a man of science'. However, works in the sociology of science have shown that modern scientists are not always as objective as one would wish.

The edition also includes two appendices (appendix 1 includes the fragments of the HP from the indirect tradition; appendix 2 is devoted to a Latin scholion to HP 9.16-4-5 found in MS Urbinas gr. 61, folio 127v) and a series of useful indices for the nine books of the Historia plantarum. The index of plants follows the principles used by Hort: name of the plant in Greek, name in French, and scientific name, followed by a list of the occurrences in the HP. Two keys to the index are provided: a list of scientific names and a list of French names. Amigues' plant identifications are very reliable, and, no doubt, this index will prove an extremely valuable tool for historians of botany and medicine. Amigues also offers indices of personal and geographical names, none of which is found in Hort's edition. The geographical index will be of particular interest to those who are interested in economic history.

Suzanne Amigues' edition of Theophrastus' HP is outstanding, both from a philological and a botanical point of view -- the above criticisms of her work are mere quibbles. This edition, the work of almost 20 years, is and will be an invaluable reference for generations of historians of medicine and botany.

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