While I was researching the Persea tree, I often came across the claim that the peach was introduced to Europe by Alexander the Great after he had conquered Persia.
Here is one variation I found when searching Google—the top search result (on 14. July 2016) for “peach tree Alexander the Great”. It’s from the blog Kingsburg Orchards, a peach-grower in California:
“As with many stone fruits, peaches originated in China. It is in the Rosaceae, or Rose, family; genus species Prunus Persica. From China this delectable fruit spread to Persia, where it was widely cultivated. Alexander the Great furthered its spread into Europe - paintings of peaches were even found on the walls of Herculaneum, preserved despite the destruction of Vesuvius.”
Another variation also shows up in Wikipedia’s article about the peach. Wikipedia always needs a source, and the source listed is Marion Eugene Ensminger & Audrey H. Ensminger, Foods & Nutrition Encyclopedia, 2nd Edition, CRC Press, 1993, p.1040. It, too, claims Alexander the Great introduced the peach to Europe after conquering the Persians. No ancient source for the claim is given, and none is given anywhere else in the Ensmingers’ Encyclopedia.
It left me wondering. Let’s say there is a delicious fruit growing in Persia, a place well-known to Greeks before Alexander’s time; and let’s assume the Persians and Greeks almost certainly traded with one another before the time of Alexander. Why wouldn’t the Greeks have known about the peach tree? Were the Persians keeping it from the Greeks out of spite? Did they have border checks to make sure no contraband was smuggled out of the Achaemenid empire? It just made no sense (unless the peach was itself a quite recent import to Persia as well, in which case it might just be a coincidence that Alexander conquered Persia around the same time the peach first shows up in the west).
There is also a pretty plausible explanation for how people might have come up with this story: a confusion of names. In his Inquiry into Plants, Theophrastus discusses a fruit he calls the “Persian apple”, which could easily be confused for a peach if we go only by the name. It seems, however, from his description that it is not a peach, but something more like a citron or lemon (the passage is at Inquiry into Plants 4.4.5). It would not be hard for later writers, however, to confuse the “Persian apple” (again) with the peach, especially if those writers had not seen one or the other of them.
Theophrastus discusses the Persian apple in part of a longer discussion (HP 4.4) about plants native to what he calls “the east and the south”: Persia, India, Arabia, and Africa. In this same discussion, he also talks about Alexander’s “expedition” east, along with many of the plants that were first recorded by Greeks during that expedition.
Someone reading this discussion might think when Theophrastus talks about “the expedition”, he is talking about the whole trip east. But the plants he discusses in relation to the expedition are (as far as I can tell) exclusively plants from India (at 4.4.1, 4.4.5, 4.4.8, 4.4.12, 4.7.8). This makes sense. India was much more remote to fourth-century Greeks than Persia was. Persia, on the other hand, must have been familiar. Persians and Greeks had already fought a few wars by this point, and all the Greek colonies in Anatolia were essentially part of the Persian empire.
It is not surprising that Theophrastus talks about plants from just one part of the expedition, the part to India. They were novel. Persian plants were not.
But if one confuses Theophrastus’ discussion of the Persian apple with what we call the peach, and if the “expedition” is thought to mean any part of Alexander’s expedition east, then the story of Alexander and the peach becomes somewhat understandable.
And in fact I’ve found one place where this confusion shows up explicitly: a paper written by Andrew Dalby called “Alexander’s Culinary Legacy”, published in Cooks and Other People (ed. Walker, Devon: Prospect Books, 1996, pp. 81-93), the proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery held in 1995.
The story is so ubiquitous, however, I keep thinking it must have an earlier source. I looked through more ancient writers: Columella (5.10.19), Pliny (15.13, 44-46), Athenaeus of Naucratis (82F-83A), and Gargilius Martialis (394-403 Mai 1828). But there is no mention of Alexander and the peach. I started to think that maybe it was a modern invention, or even a medieval confusion (I haven't looked at any medieval texts yet).
Then, I came across a history written by a peach grower, Samperi in Italy:
“Peaches arrived in Rome in the first century B.C. as they were brought by the Greeks to the Mediterranean basin. Rutilius Taurus Emiliano Palladio, in the fourth century. A.D. said that Alexander the Great was very impressed by this tree when he saw it in the gardens of King Darius III during his campaign against Persia.”
The first part of this story is right as far as archaeologists can tell. And in the second part, about Alexander, we finally have a source. This Palladius wrote a work on farming, the Opus agriculturae. He probably lived during the late fourth or early fifth century CE, but his precise dates are uncertain. The best evidence for a terminus post quem of c. 370 CE is the honorific title given in the mss. He is called vir inlustris, which first appears in use during the second half of the fourth century (see the Introduction to John Fitch’s Palladius: The Work on Farming and Poem on Grafting, Devon: Prospect Books, 2013, p. 11). He was a knowledgeable farmer, probably a land-owner, and liked fruit-trees. Sounds like a plausible author of such a story.
Except I have not been able to find any mention of Alexander or Darius in the opus agriculturae.
I wrote to the Samperi orchard to ask if they knew the reference. Within an hour they had written back to say they found him named in the Italian peach entry on Wikipedia, and figured it was accurate; but they took a quick look through Palladius, and could not find the reference, either. We are working on tracking it down.
In the mean time, I found this elegy by Palladius on the peach:
Ipsa suos onerat meliori germine ramos
persicus et pruno scit sociare genus
imponitque leues in stipite phyllidis umbras
et tali discit fortior esse gradu.
Palladius, Rutilius Taurus Aemilianus, Opus agriculturae, Book 14, ll. 94-98 Schmitt (Teubner, 1898).
And a reference to the curious practice of writing inscriptions on peach pits before planting them:
“The Greeks assert that the peach will grow with writing on it, if you bury the stones and after seven-days, when they begin to open, you take out the kernels and inscribe whatever you want on them with cinnabar.”
Adfirmantibus Graecis persicus scripta nascetur, si ossa eius obruas et post septem dies, ubi patefieri coeperint, apertis his nucleos tollas et his cinnabari, quod libebit, inscribas.