Annette Giesecke, Centre for Science in Society, Victoria University of Wellington
The eruption of Mt Vesuvius in the year 79 CE was indisputably a calamity for the residents of Pompeii, Herculaneum, and other settlements around the Bay of Naples. Yet the misfortune of these individuals has provided later generations with an invaluable window into daily life in the Roman world. Houses, their roofs collapsed but complete with cookware, furniture, toys, and, in some cases, their inhabitants, were preserved by Vesuvius’ pyroclastic flow. The houses’ gardens, of course, did not survive, but carbonized pollens and seeds, together with root cavities left in the hardened volcanic ash, have revealed that every Pompeiian house, however large or small, had a garden. Additional evidence for the character and appearance of these gardens has been gleaned from the many Pompeiian frescoes depicting densely-planted landscapes. Interestingly, identifiable plant species and, in some cases, even cultivars still appear in domestic gardens and other designed landscapes today. For example, a fresco from the so-called House of Venus in the Shell, depicts a garden planted with roses (Rosa gallica), southernwood (Artemisia abrotanum), myrtle (Myrtus communis), cherry plums (Prunus cerasifera), strawberry trees (Arbutus unedo), oleander (Nerium oleander), pine (Pinus spp.), and ivy (Hedera helix) (Figure 1).
Roman garden plants may be recognizable and familiar to us, but do the names we today assign botanical specimens correspond to names used in antiquity? Take the pomegranate, Punica granatum, for example. The modern English “common” and Latin “scientific” names for the pomegranate do, in fact, derive from classical antiquity. In classical Latin, the fruit was known either as malum punicum or malum granatum (also melogranatum). Malum is the Latin word and mēlon the Greek for “apple” (which could be used for a range of tree fruit). Granatum derives from granum, “grain,” and means “(multi-) grained”, alluding to the fruit’s numerous grain-like seeds (see Figure 2). The adjective punicus, strictly speaking, refers to Phoenicia in Asia Minor but was more frequently used with respect to Carthage, the Phoenician colony in northern Africa, the birthplace of Hannibal and long Rome’s mortal enemy; the pomegranate was believed to be of African origin. The Romans thus called the pomegranate by at least two names, “Punic apple” and “many-seeded apple.” The Greeks, incidentally, called the pomegranate rhóā but also referred to it as mēlon.
While this plant’s modern names are indeed derived from the classical, it is important to note that they do not reflect actual ancient usage. The common English name “pomegranate” is a combination of Latin pomum, “fruit,” and granatum, “many-seeded.” The modern scientific name Punica granatum (the feminine ending -a being appropriate for a fruit-bearing and thus “feminine” tree) borrows from both malum punicum and malum granatum but reflects modern plant taxonomy, the science that finds, identifies, describes, classifies, and names plants by designating, among other things, a plant’s Family (group of genera that share a set of underlying features); Genus (group of one or more plants sharing a wide range of characteristics); Species (group of plants capable of breeding together and producing offspring similar to themselves); Subspecies (naturally occurring distinct variants of a species often in isolated populations and indicated by the abbreviation “subsp.” followed by a descriptor); Variety (minor subdivisions of a species differing slightly in botanical structure and indicated by the abbreviation “var.” followed by a descriptor); and Cultivar (distinct variant or hybrid known only in cultivation and indicated by a name in single quotes).[i] In particular, Punica granatum is a binomial, adhering to the formal two-part naming system indicating genus and species established by Carolus Linnaeus in the eighteenth century to classify all life.
In antiquity, plant names were neither consistently binomial—indeed, they were often not—nor were they necessarily consistent even within a given culture or language. In fact, some plants were not named (if wild and not “useful”), and others were known by multiple names: by Latin names, Greek names, and names given them in their places of origin and in the language of that region, for instance[ii]. This is not to suggest that names assigned in antiquity were random or meaningless, far from it. Rather, it is the case that naming is a direct reflex of the desire to “own,” and this desire is predicated on usefulness. It is also the case that plants’ names, however flexible, appear largely to have reflected their physical characteristics, their place of origin, or their agency in medicinal or alimentary contexts. An example, is Artemisia spp. (“spp.” indicating a range of species), perhaps most likely the species vulgaris known commonly as “mugwort”? Here again the Linnaean name is derived from its ancient Greek name, artemisía, which was employed to treat gynecological conditions and was named after the goddess Artemis, goddess of childbirth.
It is not the case, however, that ancient names always found their way into modern nomenclature, and they can be misleading to a modern reader of an ancient text. The rhododendron is an example. What we know today as Rhododendron spp., a genus of some one thousand species of woody plants in the heath family (Ericaceae), is a very different plant from what Roman encyclopedist Pliny the Elder in the sixteenth book of his Natural History called rhododendron (from the Greek meaning “red tree”), namely the Nerium oleander, a shrub or small tree in the dogbane family Apocynaceae—though both, notably, are shrubs or small trees that can bear red or reddish flowers:
Belonging to this last class, there are the following trees that do not lose their leaves:the olive, the bay laurel, the palm, the myrtle, the cypress, the pine, the ivy, the rhododendron …. The rhododendron, as its name indicates, comes from Greece. By some it is known as the nerium, and by others as the rhododaphne. It is an evergreen, bearing a strong resemblance to the rose-tree, and throwing out numerous branches from the stem; to beasts of burden, goats, and sheep it is poisonous, but for man it is an antidote against the venom of serpents. (Natural History 16.33.79)[iii]
Yet elsewhere, Pliny uses rhododendron to name what has been identified in modern times as Rhododendron ponticum:
In the country of the Sanni, in the same part of Pontus, there is another kind of honey, which, from the madness it produces, has received the name of “maenomenon” [maddening]. This evil effect is generally attributed to the flowers of the rhododendron, with which the woods there abound; and that people, though it pays a tribute to the Romans in wax, derives no profit whatever from its honey, in consequence of these dangerous properties. (Natural History 21.45.77)[iv]
Do the names we assign botanical specimens correspond to names used in antiquity? The answer, then, is “sometimes in part, and sometimes not.”
Excerpt (adapted) from Annette Giesecke, “Plants and Culture in Antiquity”, Introduction to A Cultural History of Plants in Antiquity, A. Giesecke ed. and contrib. (Bloomsbury: London, 2022), pages 7-10.
[i] Brickell, Christopher, and Judith D. Zuk. 1997. The American Horticultural Society A-Z encyclopedia of garden plants. New York: DK Books.
[ii] Hardy, Gavin, and Laurence Totelin. 2016. Ancient Botany. London and New York: Routledge.
[iii] Pliny the Elder. Natural History, Vol. 4: Books 12-16. Edited and translated by H. Rackham. 1945. Loeb Classical Library 370. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
[iv] Pliny the Elder. Natural History, Vol. 6: Books 20-23. Edited and translated by W. H. S. Jones. 1951. Loeb Classical Library 392. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.