2021 Spring Fellow:
Alessandro Buccheri

A poetic botany?

My research aims to answer three interrelated questions: What did the botanical knowledge of the archaic and the classical Greek era look like? How and why did it offer Greek authors of the time convenient ways of thinking (analogically) about other aspects or areas of experience and speculation, such as the body, kinship ties, or society? Ultimately, may all this help us understand how archaic and classical Greek authors conceived of what we now call “nature”?

Through this research, I engage in the ongoing debates on plants and nature, which have gained momentum in the academic, cultural, and political conversation. On the one hand, especially in light of recent discoveries by botanists, we are learning to “think with plants” – that is, to use their peculiar and sometimes surprising features as a starting point for philosophical, anthropological, or ecological reflections. On the other hand, the way we conceive of the relationship (or the divide) between human society and nature shapes our behavior towards the environment: the political and ecological crises of our time urge us to rethink this relationship.

In the monograph that stems from my PhD dissertation, Penser les hommes à travers les plantes. Métaphores botaniques du corps et de la parenté d’Homère aux tragiques (to appear in print in fall 2021), I studied a selection of the botanical metaphors that appear often in archaic and classical poetry. Drawing upon historical anthropology and cognitive metaphor theory, I analyzed those metaphors as a shared way of understanding and/or depicting analogically multiple facets of human life. The world of plants thus appears to have offered models to capture the functioning of the human body, growth and aging, changes in skin tone, the dynamics of passions or diseases, but also kinship and the obligations it entails.

My post-doctoral research focuses instead on botanical knowledge, from Homer to Theophrastus. I worked on the first book of Theophrastus’ Enquiries into plants, which inaugurated botany as an independent field of research, with its own object, aims and methods. In particular, I analyzed how metaphors played a role in Theophrastus’ definition of the botanical lexicon and concepts – a topic that echoes current debates on the acceptability of metaphor in botany.

As a Fellow of the Center for Hellenic Studies, I am now working on the hypothesis that the archaic and classical poetic traditions enshrine a form of shared botanical knowledge. To be sure, whereas they recognize the therapeutic use or symbolic value of some vegetal species (the ‘bitter root’ of Hom., Il. 11.846, the squill in Theogn., 535-9 and Hippon., fr. 6 Degani), archaic and classical authors do not offer any overt depiction of the plants’ anatomy or physiology. However, a close analysis of the lexicon they use with reference to the life processes of the plants reveals a subtle understanding of them. For example, different families of words related to vegetal growth may capture quite different aspects of it, such as morphogenesis (that is, the development of the overall form of the plant) as opposed to humoral nutrition processes (the plant was supposed to grow by “cooking” the liquid nutrients it drew from the ground). Archaic and classical poetry seems to share this understanding of vegetal processes with later authors, which raises the question of the impact of this “poetic botany” on the subsequent history of the discipline.

As I see it now, my future work will need to develop in two directions. First, I envision expanding my enquiries into archaic and classical botanical knowledge to include prose authors as well. Second, the work on plants may be extended to include a consideration of how ancient authors understood what we now call “nature” (although this concept has no equivalent in ancient Greek, and the various meanings of phusis only partially overlap with those of our “nature”). The multiple ways in which plants feature in ancient Greek texts is in fact a good point of observation to understand where ancient authors draw the lines between the natural world and the cultural, social, political and religious one – in ways that often are quite different from our own and that may help us rethink some of our own categories.

Alessandro Buccheri works on archaic and classical Greek poetry and on ancient botany, in dialogue with anthropology and social sciences. He was trained in Classical Philology and in Historical Anthropology at the University of Siena (Centro AMA) and at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris (Centre ANHIMA, PhD 2017). The revised version of his PhD dissertation will appear in fall 2021 under the title “Penser les hommes à travers les plantes. Métaphores botaniques du corps et de la parenté d’Homère aux tragiques” (Thinking about human beings through plants. Botanical metaphors of the body and kinship in greek poetry, from Homer to the tragedians).