Animals & Plants

Finding scholarship on specific animals and plants​​ can be particularly frustrating. There is always the inevitable problem of identification, as animals and plants often have conflicting descriptions between sources, or even​​ multiple names (see Reveal 1996). Another common problem is that lexicons can (and do) give incorrect identifications. A good example of the latter is the LSJ entry for κολοκύνθη, which confidently lists the Linnaean binomial​​ Cucurbita maxima​​ (a cultivar of pumpkin). Pumpkin is actually a New World plant, meaning that κολοκύνθη was more likely a gourd (cf.​​ Brill Dictionary of Ancient Greek, s.v. κολοκύνθη, which gives “gourd”).1

Unfortunately, the best method for being thorough is to search the Greek or Latin word of interest on L’Année​​ philologique. Lexicons are not always reliable, though the​​ Brill Dictionary of Ancient Greek​​ (BrillDAG) does improve​​ on some of the​​ LSJ​​ entries. There are, however, a number of reference works that should be used as a starting point. Books in the Routledge series “The Ancient World from A to Z” have​​ useful indexs​​ of Greek and Latin names for animals and plants. As for archaeology of plant remains, searches in the journal​​ Vegetation History and Archaeobotany​​ may be more effective by including one or more parts of the binomial (genus and/or species; e.g.​​ Vicia ervilia​​ instead of “bitter vetch”). ​​ 

Many binomials have changed since Linnaeus, especially for insects. Special care should be given to verifying that the binomials reported in one’s source are still valid, or​​ at least, that the binomial given is not a synonym that is no longer preferred in the scientific community. This is often a recurring problem when using earlier scholarship from the 20th​​ Century; taxonomic databases may help to mitigate. The following two​​ databases note synonymy.

Integrated Taxonomic Information System (ITIS) (North America):​​

Fauna Europaea (Europe):​​


I. Animals

Kitchell​​ 2014 mostly covers mammals but has entries for various animals. For fish and sea animals in general, Kitchell must be supplemented with Thompson 1947 and Dalby 2003. Wood 1927 covers a number of sea animals that are absent in Thompson (e.g. σελάχια). Use Arnott 2007 for birds, which profits from the work of André 1967 and Capponi 1979 (Thompson 1895 is helpful but outdated for certain taxa). Beavis 1988 is fundamental for insects (use the index of Greek and Latin words for quicker navigating); Davies and Kathirithamby 1986 is less thorough.​​ 


André, J. 1967.​​ Les noms d'oiseaux en latin. Paris.

______. 1991.​​ Le vocabulaire latin de l’anatomie.​​ Paris.

Arnott, W. 2007.​​ Birds in the Ancient World from A to Z. London.​​ 

Beavis, I. 1988.​​ Insects and Other​​ Invertebrates in Classical Antiquity. Exeter.

Bodson, L. 2014. “Zoological Knowledge in Ancient Greece and Rome,” in G. Campbell (ed.)​​ The Oxford Handbook of Animals in Ancient Thought and Life, Oxford: 556-578. [online]

Capponi, F. 1979.​​ Ornithologia latina. Genova.​​ 

Chrone-Vakalopoulos, M. and Vakalopoulos, A. 2009. “Fishes and other aquatic species in the Byzantine literature. Classification, terminology and scientific names,”​​ Byzantina Symmeikta​​ 18, 123-157.

Dalby, A. 2003.​​ Food in the Ancient World from A to Z. London.

Davies, M. and​​ Kathirithamby, J. 1986.​​ Greek Insects. Oxford

Gil Fernández, L. 1959.​​ Nombres de insectos en griego antiguo.​​ Madrid.​​ 

Kitchell, K.F., Jr. 2014.​​ Animals in the Ancient World from A to Z. London.

Leitner, H. 1972.​​ Zoologische Terminologie beim alteren Plinius.​​ Hildesheim.​​ 

Opsomer, C. 1989.​​ Index de la pharmacopée latine du Ier au Xe siècle,​​ 2 vols.​​ Hildesheim.​​ 

Thompson, D. 1895.​​ A Glossary of Greek Birds. Oxford.​​ 

______. 1947.​​ A Glossary of Greek Fishes. London.

Wood, F. 1927. “Greek Fish Names,”​​ American Journal of Philology​​ 48: 297-325.

______. 1928. “Greek Fish Names, Part II,”​​ American​​ Journal of Philology​​ 49.1: 36-56.​​ 

______. 1928. “Greek Fish Names, Part III,”​​ American Journal of Philology​​ 49.2: 167-187.​​ 


II. Plants

For a general introduction to plants in antiquity, see Hardy & Totelin 2016. Dalby 2003 is a learned reference with entries that give both primary and secondary sources, particularly useful for plants because Dalby often errs on the side of caution. André 1985 is usually cited as the foremost authority on Latin names for plants. The notes in André’s editions of Pliny the​​ Elder (Les Belles Lettres, “Les Budés”) are often worth consulting. Amigues is a prolific scholar of ancient botany and worth keeping up with; only a few works are listed below.​​ Beck 2017 translates Dioscorides and includes a helpful index sorted by English-Greek and Greek-English. Beck relies on the identifications assigned by Berendes 1902 and André 1985. Mantovanelli 2012 and Jouanna-Bouchet 2016 have dedicated sections on plants that occur in Scribonius Largus. Janick et al. 2007 uses the first edition​​ of Beck from 2005 and reaches some differing identifications for certain cucurbits. ​​​​ 


Aliotta, G. 2003.​​ Le piante medicinali del Corpus Hippocraticum. Milan.​​ 

Amigues, S. 1988.​​ Théophraste. Recherches sur les plantes. Tome I. Livres I-II.​​ Paris.

______. 1989.​​ Théophraste. Recherches sur les plantes. Tome II. Livres III-IV.​​ Paris.

______. 1993.​​ Théophraste. Recherches sur les plantes. Tome III. Livres V-VI.​​ Paris.

______. 2002.​​ Études de botanique antique.​​ Paris.

______. 2003.​​ Théophraste. Recherches sur les plantes. Tome IV. Livres VII-VIII.​​ Paris.

______. 2006.​​ Théophraste. Recherches sur les plantes. Tome V. Livres IX.​​ Paris.

______. 2012.​​ Théophraste. Les causes des phénomènes végétaux. Tome I. Livres I et II.​​ Paris.​​ 

______. 2015.​​ Théophraste.​​ Les causes des phénomènes végétaux. Tome II. Livres III et IV.​​ Paris.

André, J. 1956.​​ Lexique des termes de botanique en latin. Paris.​​ 

______. 1985.​​ Les noms de plantes dans la Rome antique.​​ Paris.​​ 

Beck, L. 2017.​​ De Materia Medica: Pedanius​​ Dioscorides of Anazarbus, 3rd​​ ed.​​ Hildesheim.​​ 

Berendes, J. 1902.​​ Des Pedanios Dioskurides aus Anazarbos Arzneimittellehre.​​ Stuttgart.​​ 

Dalby, A. 2003.​​ Food in the Ancient World from A to Z. London.​​ 

Hardy, G. and Totelin, L. 2016.​​ Ancient Botany. London.​​ 

Janick, J. et al. 2007. “The Cucurbits of Mediterranean Antiquity: Identification of Taxa from Ancient Images and Descriptions,”​​ Annals of Botany​​ 100: 1441–1457.​​ 

Jouanna-Bouchet, J. 2016.​​ Compositions médicales. Paris.

Mantovanelli, L. 2012.​​ Ricette mediche.​​ Padova.

Opsomer, C. 1989.​​ Index de la pharmacopée latine du Ier au Xe siècle, 2 vols.​​ Hildesheim.​​ 

Reveal, J. 1996.​​ “What’s in a name: identifying plants in prelinnaean botanical literature,” in B. Holland (ed.),​​ Prospecting for Drugs in​​ Ancient and Medieval European Texts: A Scientific Approach​​ (Australia), 57-90.​​ 


III. Materia Medica

Beck 2017 and Opsomer 1989 also include minerals and inorganic materials. Caley and Richards 1956 translate Theophrastus'​​ On Stones​​ and provide a commentary. Meier 1977 studies the symbolism of medieval gems.​​ 


Beck, L. 2017.​​ De Materia Medica: Pedanius Dioscorides of Anazarbus, 3rd​​ ed. Hildesheim.​​ 

Caley, E. and Richards, J. 1956.​​ Theophrastus on Stones: A Modern Editdion with Greek Text, Translation, Introduction, and Commentary.​​ Columbus.​​ 

Meier, C. 1977.​​ Gemma Spiritalis: Methode und Gebrauch der Edelsteinallegorese vom frühen Christentum bis ins 18.​​ Jahrhundert. München.​​ 

Opsomer, C. 1989.​​ Index de la pharmacopée latine du Ier au Xe siècle, 2 vols.​​ Hildesheim.​​ 


IV. Archaeology of Animals & Plants

Multiple chapters in Jashemski & Meyer 2002 deal with animal and plant remains (Jashemski was an important pioneer in archaeobotany for Classical archaeology). The journals​​ Vegetation History and Archaeobotany​​ and​​ Journal of Archaeological Science​​ sometimes have articles on Greco-Roman antiquity in addition to pre-history. Panagiotakopulu 2000 covers some remains of stored grain pests in various Eastern Mediterranean sites (Panagiotakopulu also has a number of articles on insect remains from other locations not listed below).​​ 


Jashemski, W. and Meyer, F., eds. 2002.​​ The Natural History of Pompeii. Cambridge.

Journal of Archaeological Science. Mar. 1974 (vol.1) onward. [online]

Livarda, A. 2019. "Investigating Roman Diet through Archaeobotanical Evidence," in P. Erdkamp and C. Holleran (eds.)​​ The Routledge Handbook of Diet and Nutrition in the Roman World​​ (Abingdon).​​ 

Moe, D. et al., eds. 1994.​​ Garden History: garden plants, species, forms and varieties from Pompeii to 1800. Strasbourg.​​ 

Panagiotakopulu, E. 2000.​​ Archaeology and Entomology in the Eastern Mediterranean: Research into the history of insect synanthropy in Greece and​​ Egypt. Oxford.

Vegetation History and Archaeobotany. Jan. 1992 (vol.1) onward. [online]


​​ For a recent phylogenetic study of​​ Cucurbita maxima, see H. Kates et al., “Evolutionary and domestication history of Cucurbita (pumpkin and squash) species inferred from 44 nuclear loci,”​​ Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution​​ 111 (2017): 98–109.​​