John M. McMahon, Le Moyne College
"Trees: Living Links to the Classical Past"
Newsletter of the Classical Association of the Empire State 30.2 (1995)
Images courtesy of Chez Marco's Botany and Fieldwork Pages

As readers of Homer, Vergil, Ovid and other Classical authors are well aware, trees play a prominent role in the literature of the ancient Greeks and Romans. From the sturdy epic oaks of The Iliad and The Aeneid, to the Ash Nymphs of Hesiod's Theogony, and to the restful shade of Vergil's spreading beech and Horace's plane, trees appear as bearers of both poetic experience and culturally significant information. Yet while even our most capable students may well know the syntactical function and the dictionary definition of such words as robur, fraxinus, fagus, platanus and the like as they appear in the Latin poets, what is often lacking is an actual knowledge of the trees themselves and of attendant connotations that make the poetry itself such a vehicle for cultural transmission. The result is the loss of that sensible experience that makes literature and especially poetry more than just an exercise in translation. As a response to this deficiency this brief overview endeavors to promote a wider understanding and a deeper appreciation of the role of trees in Classical contexts and to suggest exemplary passages from several major authors illustrating the cultural and literary significance of trees. It also offers a few suggestions for pedagogical activities designed to introduce students to trees as bearers of information about the ancients and their perceptions of the world around them.

Any discussion about trees ought first to consider the climatic, geographical and ecological situation of the ancient Mediterranean which, despite the continuing effects of human activity, is roughly similar to that of modern times. The ecosystem as a whole is marked by scant rainfall in the East and an increasingly wetter climate as one proceeds westward, with corresponding differences in types of vegetation. Variations in altitude too result in zones of vegetation, with the hot, dry lower altitudes inhabited by scrub oak and pine; the upland regions by a mixed deciduous forest of oak, maple, beech and elm; and the highest elevations largely by conifers. In particular the middle altitude areas like the Sila forest in Calabria were known for their rich variety of trees (cf. Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Antiquities 20.15).

Ancient testimony for trees and wood is relatively complete, with archaeological and artistic evidence affording substantial information about the role trees played in the civilization of the Greeks and Romans. The actual material survival of wooden objects depends a great deal on conditions favorable for preservation. For example, the extremely dry conditions of locations like Egypt keep objects intact while the oxygen-poor conditions in the bottom sediment of lakes and rivers often preserve wood without deterioration. Such is seen in pilings salvaged from Roman bridges and remains of riverboats from the Rhine. In Italy the Lake Nemi pleasure boats of the early Imperial era were one of the first major successes of underwater archaeology, and analysis of these vessels revealed the use of various oaks, Corsican pine, and firwood in their construction. Recent dendrochronological techniques (tree-ring studies) have also contributed to current knowledge of ancient climate and ecology and have helped to establish construction dates and to determine the geographical origins of wood building materials.

Beside providing material for building, trees also often figure in representational art where they may appear as supporting elements of a composition or as its main artistic focus. The depictions of trees on Greek vases are numerous and examples abound. A black-figure amphora by Exekias, for example, showing Ajax's prepartion for his suicide has a graceful palm-like tree framing one side of the scene, and a red-figure amphora by Andocides shows Heracles capturing Cerberus as Athena looks on near a thin-leaved tree, presumably an olive. The Etruscan Tomb of the Baron at Tarquinia has small, stiffly branching trees arranged unrealistically among human figures, while those in the Tomb of the Bulls are more varied in type but still decidedly stylized. More realistic portrayals of trees, often as the central organizing image in pastoral scenes, in episodes drawn from epic or tragedy, or in purely decorative panels can be seen in wall paintings (e.g. the villa of Agrippa Postumus at Pompeii; the Odyssey frescoes from the Esquiline; the Garden Room wall painting from the villa of Livia at Primaporta). Mosaics are also frequently rich with tree imagery, and proficient artists of two millennia ago have depicted easily recognizable trees (cf. the compositions from Antioch-on-the Orontes; the mosaics from the fourth century villa at the Piazza Armerina, Sicily; the fourth century "Mosaic of the Lord Julius" at Carthage).

In relief sculptures trees are represented in a wide variety of ways. In those produced for the private sphere, trees are often shown along with religious rites, mythological scenes, and festivals. For example, a gnarled and ancient plane tree, (Platanus orientalis) decorated with festive bands overspreads an altar depicted on a second century votive stone relief now in the Glyptothek in Munich. In a relief from the Lateran Museum, beneath the broad expanse of an oak populated by a family of birds, the infant Dionysus sips from the Horn of Plenty held by the nymph Leucothea. The late fourth century ivory diptych of the Nicomachi and the Symmachi shows a private sacrifice and an oak as its prominent backdrop, its crowning leaves and acorns arching gracefully above the scene. Trees are also well represented on silver plate, and the central scene on the Straze lanx depicts an oath-taking ceremony beneath a tree with a ceremonial cloth draped over one of its branches. As an example of exquisitely produced glasswork, the Portland Vase displays three different kinds of trees, one of them surely an oak, as prominent features of the composition on the vessel's surface.

In the public sphere the images of trees appear in official sculpture and often function symbolically. The most famous tree in Roman history, the ficus Ruminalis (Livy, Ab Urbe Condita 1.4.5), beneath which Romulus and Remus were nursed by the she-wolf, appears on a coin from the Second Century BC and was also represented on the Ara Pacis of Augustus where it figured prominently in his political and artistic program. The tree appears as well on the anaglyphia Traiani relief where it is symbolically associated with the role of the plebs and with the governmental concept of imperium. The oak was also significant in official sculpture. Augustan iconography emphasized this tree as a indicator of old Roman values, often linking it with the tale of Aeneas, with the destiny of Rome, and with traditional divinities like the Penates and Vesta whose associations with old Roman values resonated in Augustan reforms. Simlarly, Trajan's Column also depicts trees, probably oaks, in its pictorial account of the Dacian campaigns.

Written documentation is no less important. Epigraphical evidence in the form of official records of building projects, public accounts, and financial records (like those from Delphi, Delos, and Eleusis) contribute much information about the uses of particular kinds of trees and their timber. Technical works also afford valuable insights into the practical applications for specific kinds of wood. For example, Vitruvius describes the cofferred ceiling of the Temple of Jupiter at Baalbek made from Lebanon Cedar (Cedrus libani), the same material that formed the beams and panelling of Solomon's famous temple; he is also the first to mention the European Larch (Larix decidua) as building material. Scientific, medical, and agricultural treatises, often interwoven with elements of folk knowledge and lore, are especially good sources for contemporary perceptions of trees. Of particular interest are the Greek works of Theophrastus, and Dioscorides and the Latin works of Cato, Varro, Columella, and Pliny. Valuable information may also be found in the historical writings of Herodotus, Thucydides, Livy, and Tacitus. It is, however, the representation of trees in creative literary works that gives us the clearest indication of their cultural significance in the Classical World, and while their exact classification according to Linnaean terminology is at times difficult because of poetic license, a majority of the trees mentioned in Greek and Latin poetry can be identified down to the species level with a considerable degree of certainty.

As might be expected, the Homeric epics provide substantial evidence for understanding both the conceptions of the imagined poetic landscape and the significance tree imagery held in the composition of the works themselves. For instance, in the description of Calypso's cave (Odyssey 5.64) "alders, poplars and sweet-smelling cypress" luxuriantly grow about its entrance and afford a pleasant abode for birds of all kinds. Similarly, Calypso showed to Odysseus trees which would provide appropriate material for his raft, including alders, poplars and "the sky-reaching fir" (Od. 5.239) so old and dry as to float high on the water. In the fantasy landscape of the epic, too, trees are often associated with mountains, reflecting the geographical realities of the Homeric world. In both the Iliad and Odyssey, for example, peaks are referred to as "quivering with foliage" and in a later pseudo-Homeric work they are called "green with trees." Such associations become particularly apt in the Iliad when Homer compares the din and destruction of battle to a windstorm in the wilderness of forested mountain slopes (Il. 16.765-770):

As east wind and south wind fight it out with each other
in the valleys of the mountains to shake the deep forest timber,
oak tree and ash and the cornel with delicate bark; these whip
their wide-reaching branches against one another in inhuman
noise; thus the Trojans and the Achaians . . .

In like fashion warriors in battle take on the character of oaks resisting the wind-driven rain and steadfastly anchored by mighty roots; felled by an enemy's blow, they crash to the ground like an oak, a poplar, or fir cut by the timberman's axe.

Homer's great influence on the epic tradition can also be illustrated by tracing the description of the funeral preparations for Patroclus (Il. 23.114-122):

These then went out and in their hands carried axes to cut wood
and ropes firmly woven, and their mules went ahead of them.
They went many ways, uphill, downhill, sidehill and slantwise;
but when they came to the spurs of Ida with all her well springs,
they set to hewing with the thin edge of bronze and leaning their
weight to the strokes on towering-leafed oak trees that toppled with
huge crashing; then the Achaians splitting the timbers fastened them
to the mules and these with their feet tore up the ground
as they pulled through the dense undergrowth to the flat land.

Ennius (Annales 6.9 [175 Skutsch]) adapts the Homeric passage and specifies the trees felled for Pyrrhus's cremation of the dead after the battle of Heraclea.

Incedunt arbusta per alta, securibus caedunt,
Percellunt magnas quercus, exciditur ilex,
Fraxinus frangitur atque abies consternitur alta,
Pinus proceras pervortunt: omne sonabat
Arbustum fremitu siluai frondosai.

Drawing from Ennius, Vergil has reworked the Ennian passage into his own description of the funeral for Misenus (Aeneid 6.179-182) and that of Pallas (Aeneid 11.134-138), while a passage from the Silver Age poet Statius continues the tradition (Thebaid 6.90-99), enumerating no less than twelve kinds of trees. Here additional cultural concepts play an inportant role. For example the ash, used for spears, is called infandos belli potura cruores fraxinus ("destined to drink the hated blood of war"), the sturdy oak, non expugnabile robur ("unassailable"), the seaworthy fir, audax abies ("adventurous"), and the supportive elm, nec inhospita vitibus ulmus ("hospitable to grapevines") since its light shade was ideal for growing and ripening the grapes trained up its trunk and branches.

Poetry often introduces a mythological dimension which reflects the close connections between the gods and commonly encountered trees. A passage from Vergil's Georgics (2.63-72), in which the poet enumerates grafted trees and miraculous growth, incorporates several such mythological references: myrtles, sacred to Venus (Paphiae myrtus); the poplar, crown of Hercules (Herculeaeque arbos umbrosa coronae); and the acorns of Jupiter's symbolic oak, referring to his grove at Dodona (Chaoniique patris glandis). The pine (pinus) was held sacred to Pan, the Roman Faunus, and in his Eclogues Vergil describes the pastoral god's home on Mt. Maenalus in Arcadia (8.22). Propertius stresses the god's fondness for the tree (1.18.20), and Horace, for his part, dedicates a pine to the goddess Diana in a famous ode (3.22).

Trees often stand at the intersection of the human and the divine in the poetry of mythology. The very word for woodnymph in Greek, dryas, is ultimately derived from the same Indo-European root (dru-) as the English "tree". Though considered a divinity, the life of the nymph is bound to the tree, and when it dies, so does the sprite. This concept is perhaps best described in the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite 269-272:

Yet whenever fated death is near at hand,
first these beautiful trees wither on their ground,
and bark all around them shrivels up, the branches fall away,
and their souls and those of the nymphs leave the light of the sun together.

Although mortal, some of these lesser divinities are of high pedigree indeed, for according to Hesiod (Theogony 187) the Ash Nymphs (Meliai) were born from Gaia herself.

Mythological associations of humans, divinities and trees are especially frequent in the Metamorphoses, Ovid's great compendium of legend and lore. Prominent among the trees of Book One's Golden Age, when Earth brought forth riches to mankind without toil, are cornel-cherries (corna), Jove's acorn-bearing oak (patula Iovis arbore glandes) and the holm oak, freely dripping honey (de viridi stillabant ilice mella). The cornel-cherry (Cornus mas), symbolizing the simple life of the just, reappears in the Metamorphoses as the fare of Baucis and Philemon (Met. 8.665).

Several individual stories highlight trees. Thus the famous tale of Apollo and Daphne (Met. 1.452-567) ends with the powerful description of the maiden transformed into the laurel, ever after held sacred by Apollo. The sisters of Phaethon, the Heliades, are turned into poplars to forever mourn their rash brother by exuding tears of "amber" (Met. 2.344-366). The famous story of Pyramus and Thisbe (Met. 4.55-166), another Ovidian aition, or explanatory tale of origins, relates how the mulberry (morus) was changed from white to red. And in another tale of transfomation (Met. 10.78-142), Ovid tells the story of the upland treeless plain transformed by Orpheus into a verdant grove and recounts a mellifluous litany of trees : oak, poplar, laurel, hazel, ash, fir, and plane, to name just few. The story of Cyparissus, once a boy now changed into a cypress, adds dramatic detail. Still later in the work (Met. 14.622-636) Ovid recounts the story of the wood nymph Pomona whose name derives from the Latin pomum, meaning "fruit, apple."

There are, of course, many other instances where trees play a significant role, and these may be pointed out and discussed as encountered. More structured exercises may be worthwhile for classroom consideration, so here are some suggested activities designed to promote student awareness of trees and student interest in the subject. All may be modified for any level of language or cultural expertise.

A.Have students list the various adjectives associated with a particular genus/species of tree. Included should be the full dictionary form, the English meaning, and a short explanation of what the adjective tells about the tree itself or about its cultural or literary associations.

Example:pinus nautica (Vergil Eclogues 4.38)
Adjective: nauticus, -a, -um, of or belonging to ships
Explanation: Pinewood was the preferred building material for ships, and as and as Vergil uses the term, pine-wood ships represent the commercial shipping interests of his contemporary society which stand in opposed to the ideals of the Golden Age.

B.Have students list the names of specific trees in Latin, their English equivalents or common names taken from a Latin dictionary, finally their modern scientific (Linnaean) counterparts with genus and species names. Then ask students to determine how closely the Latin original names correspond to the modern designations and what features are emphasized by the Linnaean nomenclature.

Example: Latin: larix
English: European larch
Linnaean: Larix decidua (=deciduous [de:"down", cid- "fall"])

Other activities might include assigning the specific tree to its botanical family and to list similar North American species of the same genus. For example, oaks are Quercus, maples, Acer, ash, Fraxinus, etc. Numerous native or introduced specimens are commonly encountered even in cities. (While the North American varieties may not be the exact equivalents, many do resemble their European counterparts quite closely. A very simple guide to common trees is all that is needed to get started. See bibliography.)

C.Have students record from mythology those stories in which trees play a prominent role. Then have them list the patricular kind of tree(s) involved, the Latin word for that tree, and any related kinds of trees that they may know. Next have them retell the story in brief, showing how the tree was essential to the tale and recording any other cultural aspects connected with the appearance of the tree.

Example: Apollo and Daphne (Ovid, Metamorphoses 1.452-567(the laurel)
Latin: laurus ( Gr. daphne)
Related trees: rhodendron, azalea, etc.
Cultural significance: after Daphne was turned into a tree Apollo used the branches and leaves of that tree for his crown and that of victors in triumph.

This exercise could be expanded by having students explore the significance of the tree in stories from other cultures or historical periods or to locate artistic representations of the event.

Some Bibliographical Resources