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 d0) 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. BrillDAG, 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 upon the LSJ. 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 an useful index 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”).  

NB: 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 Use Arnott 2007 for birds, which profits from the work of André 1967 and Capponi 1979 (Thompson 1895 is helpful but outdated for certain taxa).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 often cited for insects but has been rightly criticized for its organization, so try the index of Greek and Latin words first. 


André, J. 1967. Les Noms d'oiseaux en latin. 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 Campbell G.L., ed., The Oxford Handbook of Animals in Ancient Thought and Life, Oxford: 556-578. [online]

Capponi, F. 1979. Ornithologia latina. Genova. 

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. 

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 errs on the side of caution with binomials. André 1985 is usually cited as the foremost authority on Latin names for plants, but 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. The index of Beck 2011 is helpfully sorted by English-Greek and Greek-English, and includes the animals and materia medica of Dioscorides. 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. Texte établi et traduit par S. Amigues. Paris.

______. 1989. Théophraste. Recherches sur les plantes. Tome II. Livres III-IV. Texte établi et traduit par S. Amigues. Paris.

______. 1993. Théophraste. Recherches sur les plantes. Tome III. Livres V-VI. Texte établi et traduit par S. Amigues. Paris.

______. 2002. Études de botanique antique. Paris.

______. 2003. Théophraste. Recherches sur les plantes. Tome IV. Livres VII-VIII. Texte établi et traduit par S. Amigues. Paris.

______. 2006. Théophraste. Recherches sur les plantes. Tome V. Livres IX. Texte établi et traduit par S. Amigues. Paris.

______. 2012. Théophraste. Les causes des phénomènes végétaux. Tome I. Livres I et II. Texte établi et traduit par S. Amigues. Paris. 

______. 2015. Théophraste. Les causes des phénomènes végétaux. Tome II. Livres III et IV. Texte établi et traduit par S. Amigues. Paris.

André, J. 1985. Les noms de plantes dans la Rome antique. Paris. 

Beck, L. 2011. De Materia Medica: Pedanius Dioscorides of Anazarbus, 2nd ed. Hildesheim. 

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. 

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. 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 often 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]

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.