I have been silent for a month now. It has been a busy time with teaching and travelling to Philadelphia for a conference on Ancient drugs. Halloween fever was in full swing at the B&B where I stayed, and pumpkins have been on my mind since then. As if on cue, yesterday I was translating a passage on pumpkins (well technically on colocynths, but the subtlety of cucurbit nomenclature will not bother us here) for one of the chapters of a forthcoming book on ancient botany. The passage is a fragment from a play by the comedian Epicrates (fourth century BCE). It portrays character A (we do not know his exact identity) telling Character B how he encountered a group of philosophy students debating the thorny botanical issue of how to classify pumpkins.
A. At the Panathenaea [the most important Athenian festival in honour of Athena] I saw a group of young men gathered at the gymnasium of the Academy. I heard them pronounce these unutterable, extraordinary words. They were defining nature and separating into categories the world of animals, the nature of trees, and the species of vegetables. And among other things, they were trying to determine the species to which the pumpkin belongs.
B. And how did they classify it? To what species does this plant belong? Do tell me if you truly know.
A. Well, at first they all sat in silence, and with their heads down, they pondered a long time. Then suddenly, while the young men were still thinking with their heads between their hands, one said that it was a round vegetable (lachanon), another said it was a grass (poia), an a third a tree (dendron). On hearing that, a physician from the land of Sicily eructed as them, as if they were raging mad.
B. They must have got terribly angry at the impertinence and shouted at him? To do such things in public places is very rude.
A. It did not bother the young men at all. And Plato, who was nearby, very gently, without anger, told them to start from the beginning and define the species to which the pumpkin belongs. So they started again their enquiry. [Epicrates ap. Athenaeus 2.57]
This is reminiscent of the Clouds of Aristophanes, which mocks Socrates’ silly natural philosophy. The humour is, as usual in Athenian comedy, rather crude: the pumpkin/colocynth was used in ancient medicine for its laxative properties, which are no doubt responsible for the Sicilian’s farts/burps of boredom. I must have been working on the topic of ancient botanical classificatory systems for far too long because I found this absolutely hilarious. For you see, these systems are sometimes so difficult to get your head round that I feel quite a lot of sympathy for the Sicilian doctor. However, this also happens to be an important passage for the historian of botany: it appears to be older than Theophrastus’ Enquiry into Plants and Causes of Plants, the first botanical writings preserved in full. In the former work, Theophrastus divided the vegetable kingdom into trees, shrubs, under-shrubs and herbs – a classification that would be influential for centuries. We do not know how Theophrastus’ teachers, Plato and Aristotle, classified plants, but Epicrates’ fragment seems to indicate that they did debate such topics. Now remind me, is the pumpkin a fruit or a vegetable?