Down the Rabbit Hole

I’ve apparently become the go-to person at my office for questions about anything ancient. [Realistically, I was probably asking for it when I pointed out that a caption describing something as a statue of Julius Caesar (for unclear reasons—the text proper was only concerned with the church behind it) very much should have read Augustus.] But it’s all good, because if there’s anything I like being, it is definitely the go-to person for questions about anything ancient.

At any rate, a few evenings ago an editor asked if I had any idea who an old dead Greek dude named Androstene might be; the author insisted it was correct in Italian and the editor couldn’t find anything on the internet. I pretty quickly figured out it was a transliteration problem and sent the editor to Androsthenes—but by then I was down a research rabbit hole.

Androsthenes made his appearance in my life through a book about how awesome plants are because he observed their circadian rhythms: a tree opening its leaves in the morning and closing them in the evening, to repeat the next day. (If you’re wondering why a plant would ever bother, it allows a larger surface area for photosynthesis during the day without losing as much water to the surrounding air at night.)

But my cursory Google searching led me to immediate history nerd frustration. The places that mentioned Androsthenes and his observation didn’t say anything about how we came to know such a thing. The closest anyone came was a footnote: Bretzl, H. (1903). Botanische Forschungen des Alexanderzuges. (Leipzig, Germany: B.G. Teubner).

I do not like statements attributed to 4th century Greeks cited to sources barely a century old. It makes me suspicious. Then it makes me pull out my old classics resources and the ever-handy Google Translate to dig through two languages I have never studied. Here’s the general path I took:

  • Reference the fantastic Perseus Project, find nothing, be further concerned.
  • That Bretzl book has been digitized by Google! Which is nifty, but it turns out there is actually a limit to the amount of time I will spend retyping a German scan into Google Translate and staring quizzically at the result. I got that there was something about Bahrain and a tamarind plant and couldn’t get much farther.
  • On a whim, I jumped to the back of the book and started poking around the text about the text. I found a list broken into regions, found the section for Bahrain and the entry about a tamarind, and figured out enough of what the list was for to grab Theophrastus and a book about plants, plus the book/chapter citation.
  • Return to Perseus, find nothing.
  • Wikipedia Theophrastus and navigate to a digitized Loeb (i.e. bilingual–Theophrastus wrote in Greek, the second language I have never studied) edition. Victory!:

“Now some, referring to the occasion when there was an expedition of those returning from India sent out by Alexander…In the island of Tylos, which is situated in the Arabian gulf, they say that…there is another tree with many leaves like the rose, and that this closes at night, but opens at sunrise, and by noon is completely unfolded; and at evening again it closes by degrees and remains shut at night, and the natives say that it goes to sleep.” (IV.vii)

Which is great, except you may notice something missing: say, a name.

The basic gist of what Theophrastus is doing was pretty common at the time: there are countless classical works that we know about or have fragments of because the next guy figured it was easier and made for a stronger argument to quote or summarize a previous writer. Sometimes the source is cited, sometimes not. Bits of his writing about oyster pearls have also survived through later writers (what people chose to copy, summarize, or contextualize with other earlier writers is absolutely fascinating to me).

In this case, we aren’t actually too poorly off. Theophrastus wrote between 350 and 287 BC. Androsthenes made his observations on a journey instigated by Alexander the Great, who died in 323, so Theophrastus was writing less than 40 years later–a much smaller amount of time for accounts to be muddled in than some cases.

You may have noticed there’s one piece of the puzzle still missing: I haven’t found any classical author that actually ties Androsthenes by name to the “some” of Theophrastus or to any other reports of plant observations–if you track it down, let me know!

Where Androsthenes is clearly mentioned is as an admiral. Arrian writes that Androsthenes was one of three officers from Amphipolis, with a second of them, Nearchus, serving as admiral of fleet (Ana. VIII.18). Strabo tells us Androsthenes sailed with Nearchus but also captained his own journey along the coast of Arabia (16.3).

If the name Amphipolis sounds familiar to you, that’s because a whopping huge tomb is currently being excavated there. That reminded me of a note I’d spotted shared, speculating who might be buried in the tomb (Warning: people speculating about who might be buried in grandiose tombs still being excavated tend to speculate wildly. Take all suggestions with a grain of salt.) including…Androsthenes, Nearchus, and Laomedon (the third officer from Amphipolis)!

This is the sort of bread crumb trail I can’t help but follow–and I’m glad I did! I never would have expected the Amphipolis tomb to play into a quick transliteration question, but what a way to prove how much we have left to learn about ancient history.


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