We like to tell stories about how things get their names, perhaps because we think names can give us insight into something’s essence or history. We also don’t always agree on what a name means, and so sometimes we tell different stories.
Take the avocado. The avocado’s botanical name, Persea americana Mill., comes from the name of a tree that grew in ancient Egypt, the Persea. The name was chosen by the English botanist Philip Miller (1691-1771), whose great achievement was to name many of the New World’s plants without ever having left England. Miller must have noticed some resemblance between the descriptions of the Old World Persea and the New World Avocado, although what it might have been is unclear. I doubt he ever saw an ancient Egyptian Persea in person, and, although he writes as if he tried to grow avocados, I cannot tell if he was ever successful or just had descriptions sent to him. Whatever it was that inspired the association, he left no record. The story is lost.
The story I am interested in, however, is not the one about the avocado. I’m curious about its eponym: the Persea. I have been trying to figure out how a plant from Egypt came to be called Persea in the first place.
It turns people were already wondering about this two-thousand years ago. Galen alludes to it in the middle of a long argument against Aristotle and Athenaeus of Attalia:
“[Aristotle and Athenaeus] say that children who are similar to their mothers are made similar by the nutriment [i.e., the nutriment the mother provides to the fetus]. From there they extend a long string of arguments showing just how many alterations in animals and plants are produced by nutriment. Then, they fail to notice they are unable to prove any of the alterations they mention [involves] a change in its species [brought about by the nutriment]. For to begin with, the Persea plant, when it was transplanted to Egypt, did not change its species; instead, when it got useful nutriment, the fruit it had became edible, which hadn't been edible before. ”
τὰ δ’ ὁμοιούμενα παιδία τῇ μητρὶ διxὰ τὴν τροφὴν ὁμοιοῦσθαί φασιν· κᾄπειτα ἐντεῦθεν ἀποτείνουσι δολιχὸν τοῦ λόγου δεικνύντες, ὅσαι διὰ τροφῆς ἀλλοιώσεις ἐγίγνοντο καὶ ζώοις καὶ φυτοῖς. εἶτ’ οὐκ αἰσθάνονται μηδεμίαν ὧν λέγουσιν ἀλλοιώσεων ἐπιδεῖξαι δυνάμενοι τὸ εἶδος ἐξαλλάττουσαν. αὐτίκα γὰρ <οὔτε> τὸ Περσαῖον φυτὸν εἰς Αἴγυπτον μετακομισθὲν ἐξηλλάγη τὴν ἰδέαν, ἀλλὰ χρηστῆς ἐπιλαβόμενον τροφῆς τὸν καρπὸν ἐδώδιμον ἔσχεν, οὐκ ὂν πρότερον τοιοῦτο.
Galen, De semine 2.1.40–42 (CMG V 3,1 154,9–15 De Lacy = 4.603K)
Galen clearly has in mind some story about how the Persea got to Egypt, but who was his source? I could not find any story like it in Aristotle. So I kept digging to see if the source might have been Athenaeus, the other target of Galen’s attack, and I found an anonymous ancient paradoxographer who says as much. The paradoxographer reports a tall-tale from someone named Athenaeus. The anonymous might have meant Atheaneus of Naucritis, the author of the famous collection of stories, Sophists at Dinner (Deipnosophistae). I haven’t found the story in any of his writings, but this Atheaneus does talk about Kambyses’ expedition (Deipnosophistae 13.10) He also mentions that the source for his inforamtion about Kambyses is Ctesias of Cnidos, as plausible a source as any for a story as silly as the one we are about to hear.
Still, I’d like to think the story comes from Athenaeus of Attalia, the Athenaeus attacked by Galen, if only because I am writing a book on him. It is a tale of hubris, of biological warfare gone wrong, and of botanical etymology. It goes like this:
“Athenaeus says that among the Persians there was a certain tree which bore fatally poisonous fruit. The Persians, at the time when Kambyses waged war against Egypt, imported it to Egypt and planted it in many places so that the Egyptians would be killed when they ate the fruit. Since, however, the tree’s soil had changed, the fruit it produced became harmless. And in fact it was called Persaea because it had been planted by Persians.”
Ἀθήναιός φησιν ἐν Πέρσαις εἶναι δένδρον τι θανάσιμον τὸν καρπὸν φέρον, ὃ τοὺς πέρσας, ὅτε Καμβύσης ἐπ’ Αἴγυπτον ἐστράτευσε, κομίσαι εἰς Αἴγυπτον καὶ ἐν πολλοῖς φυτεῦσαι τόποις, ὅπως οἱ Αἰγύπτιοι τὸν καρπὸν προσφερόμενοι διαφθαρῶσι· τὸ δὲ δένδρον μεταβαλὸν τὴν γῆν ἀπαθῆ τὸν καρπὸν ἐξενεγκεῖν, καὶ περσαίαν τ’ ὀνομάζεσθαι διὰ τὸ ὑπὸ Περσῶν φυτευθῆναι.
Paradoxagraphus Palatinus, Admiranda 18 (Giannini ed. in Paradoxographorum Graecorum Reliquiae, Milan: Istituto Editoriale Italiano, 1965: 354–360.)
So, Athenaeus believed (at least according to the anonymous paradoxographer) that after Darius had conquered most of the Middle East, his son Kambyses II set out to conquer Egypt. On his campaign, he brought along seeds from a certain kind of tree from home which he knew to be extremely poisonous. He believed that if he planted these seeds while marching through Egypt, the people would naively eat the fruit, become poisoned and die, thereby making the land that much easier to conquer. Unfortunately for Kambyses, since the soil in Egypt was so much more fertile than it was in Persia, the fruit from the trees ceased to be poisonous, and Kambyses’ plans were thwarted.
Even by ancient standards, this is a pretty fantastic way of trying to explain why a plant in Egypt is called Persian. Kambyses would have been playing the long game, and it seems unlikely that the Egyptians would not have figured out rather quickly that the fruit was poisonous. Nevertheless, Athenaeus seems to have thought the story plausible was plausible, since he used it to support a claim he knew they would find implausible—that mothers contribute only nutriment, and not semen, to their offspring, and that the nutriment can still determine enough of an offspring’s formal characteristics, even its species, to make sense of why a child often takes after its mother.
Athenaeus, however, was not the only one to tell this story, and as I looked into it, the details started to become more complicated and more interesting. It turns out, it was generally agreed that there was some story about how the Persea somehow got its name from Persia, but there wasn't much agreement about the details. In fact, there seem to have been at least two different versions of the story. Here’s another version, reported by Diodorus:
“There are many kinds of tree [in Egypt], and of them, what are called Persaea have fruit that stand out as being extremely sweet. The plant was introduced from Ethiopia by Persians during the time when Kambyses conquered the place.”
ἔστι δὲ καὶ δένδρων γένη πλείονα, καὶ τούτων αἱ μὲν ὀνομαζόμεναι περσαῖαι καρπὸν διάφορον ἔχουσι τῇ γλυκύτητι, μετενεχθέντος ἐξ Αἰθιοπίας ὑπὸ Περσῶν τοῦ φυτοῦ καθ’ ὃν καιρὸν Καμβύσης ἐκράτησεν ἐκείνων τῶν τόπων.
Diodorus Siculus, Bibliotheca historica 1.34.7 = Agatharchides of Cnidus (~200 BCE?) Jacoby FGrH 2a 86 F, Fr. 19 ll. 89–92. (DNP claims he influenced Posidonius and cite fr. 86)
In the version Diodorus reports, the plant wasn’t brought with Kambyses from Persia. Instead, Kambyses and the Persians bring it to Egypt from Ethiopia. We don’t get an explanation why.
One story, therefore, said the plant was introduced from Persia, the other from Ethiopia, and as I looked at more and more sources, I found that both versions made the rounds in antiquity and no one knew which was the right one.
Some authors were confused enough that they simply told both tales. This was the strategy of an anonymous commentary on Nicander’s Theriac, who attributes one to a certain Sostratos, the other to Bolos the Democritean:
“The kranokolaptes are seen on Perseia, as Sostratos [says] in his book On Things that Sting and Bite. They say the Perseia, which they call Rhodakinea, was transplanted from Ethiopia to Egypt. But Bolos the Democritean says in his book On Sympathies and Antipathies that the Persians had a poisonous plant in their own country and planted it in Egypt, since they had wanted to conquer it for some time. Since [the land in Egypt] was good, [the plant] changed into its opposite and the plant made the sweetest fruit.”
ὁ κρανοκολάπτης ἐν ταῖς περσείας ὁρᾶται, ὡς Σώστρατος ἐν τῷ περὶ βλητῶν καὶ δακέτων. τὴν δὲ περσείαν φασίν, ἣν ῥοδακινέαν καλοῦσιν, ἀπὸ Αἰθιοπίας εἰς Αἴγυπτον μεταφυτευθῆναι. Βῶλος δὲ ὁ Δημοκρίτειος ἐν τῷ περὶ συμπαθειῶν καὶ ἀντιπαθειῶν Πέρσας φησὶν ἔχοντας παρ’ ἑαυτοῖς θανάσιμον φυτὸν φυτεῦσαι ἐν Αἰγύπτῳ, ὡς πολλῶν μελλόντων ἀναιρηθήσεσθαι, τὴν δὲ ἀγαθὴν οὖσαν, εἰς τοὐναντίον μεταβαλεῖν ποιῆσαί τε τὸ φυτὸν καρπὸν γλυκύτατον
Scholia in Nicandrum Theriaca 764A (text above is from Crugnola’s 1971 text; link is to Bussemaker’s 1849 text, which is slightly different)
These details make things even weirder. The second story is familiar. But in the first version, why would an Ethiopian plant in Egypt which is also known as Persea come to be called Rhodakinea? Did it come from Rhodes? And how did it end up in Egypt?
Then, there’s the deadly spiders. Dioscorides also mentions them in his Materia Medica:
“The Persaea is a tree which grows in Egypt. It bears edible fruit, it is good for the stomach, and on it are found the venomous spiders called kranokolaptes, especially in Thebes. The dried leaves when sprinkled as a fine powder are able to stop hemorrhage. Some report that this tree was poisonous in Persia, but that it changed when it was introduced to Egypt and became edible.”
περσαία δένδρον ἐστὶν ἐν Αἰγύπτῳ, καρπὸν φέρον ἐδώδιμον, εὐστόμαχον, ἐφ’ οὗ καὶ τὰ λεγόμενα κρανοκόλαπτα φαλάγγια εὑρίσκεται, μάλιστα δὲ ἐν τῇ Θηβαίδι. δύναμιν δὲ ἔχει τὰ φύλλα λεῖα ἐπιπαττόμενα ξηρὰ αἱμορραγίας ἱστᾶν. τοῦτο δὲ ἱστόρησάν τινες ἐν Περσίδι ἀναιρετικὸν εἶναι, μετατεθὲν δὲ εἰς Αἴγυπτον ἀλλοιωθῆναι καὶ ἐδώδιμον γενέσθαι.
Dioscorides, De Materia Medica 1.129 (120,12–18 Wellmann)
Dioscorides seems remarkably confident about the spiders (maybe the spiders make up for the fact that the tree stopped being poisonous?). Notice, however, his ambivalence about the origin story: on the one hand, he assigns it to people he is not even willing to name; on the other, he still mentions it, even though it adds very little that might be useful for identifying the plant or sorting out how to use it.
Galen, too, seems to share this ambivalence:
“Instead of the seed from the Chaste Tree, plaster the forehead with the fresh leaves of Persaea and an equal amount of myrrh with Egyptian perfume. I know the Persaea tree to exist only in Alexandria, at least not in any other of the Roman provinces. Some call it Persion and say in Persia the fruit of this tree is deadly, while in Egyptian countries it is harmless.”
ἢ ἄγνου σπέρμα, Περσαίας χλωρὰ φύλλα καὶ σμύρνης ἴσα σὺν μύρῳ Αἰγυπτίῳ κατάπλασσε τὸ μέτωπον. ἐν Ἀλεξανδρείᾳ μόνῃ τὸ τῆς Περσαίας δένδρον εἶδον, οὐ μὴν ἐν ἄλλῳ γέ τινι τῶν ὑπὸ Ῥωμαίοις ἐθνῶν. ἔνιοι δὲ Πέρσιον ὀνομάζουσιν αὐτὸ καί φασιν ἐν Πέρσαις ὀλέθριον εἶναι τὸν καρπὸν τοῦ δένδρου τούτου. κατὰ δὲ τὴν τῶν Αἰγυπτίων χώραν ἀβλαβὲς ὑπάρχον.
Galen, De compositione medicamentorum secundum loco 2.2 (12.569–570 K)
I’m not sure why, unlike Dioscorides, Galen doesn’t mention that it grows in Thebes, since it seems to have been well-known that it grew there:
“In fact, a tree in the Theban city of Hermopolis, which is called Persaea, is said to drive off many diseases…”
Καὶ ἐν Ἑρμουπόλει δὲ τῆς Θηβαΐδος δένδρον, ἣ Περσαία καλεῖται, πολλὰς ἀπελᾷν νόσους λέγεται...
Nicephorus Callistus Xanthopolus, Historia ecclesiastica 10.31.20–22
Galen also does not mention the spiders. Maybe he had a different source for the story.
At any rate, it seems we now have a plant in Egypt, called Persea, which is covered in deadly spiders (especially in Thebes), which comes either from Persia or Ethiopia, is good for stomach aches and stops bleeding.
And what about the other name mentioned by Sostratos, Rhodakinea? One might think this is explained by something Theophrastus says:
“The nature of places makes a great difference relative to bearing or not bearing fruit, as in the case of Persea and the date-palm. The first bears fruit in Egypt and in similar places, but in Rhodes it only comes to the point of blooming…”
εγάλη δὲ διαφορὰ πρὸς καρπὸν καὶ ἀκαρπίαν καὶ ἡ τῶν τόπων φύσις, ὥσπερ ἐπί τε τῆς περσέας ἔχει καὶ τῶν φοινίκων· ἡ μὲν ἐν Αἰγύπτῳ καρποφορεῖ καὶ εἴ που τῶν πλησίον τόπων, ἐν Ῥόδῳ δὲ μέχρι τοῦ ἀνθεῖν μόνον ἀφικνεῖται...
Theophrastus, Historia plantarum 3.3.5
It’s clear Theophrastus or his source thought the plant grew in Rhodes, and it might have taken the name Rhodakinea from there. But Theophrastus, at least, thinks that the Persea is a native tree (ἴδια δένδρα) of Egypt, and he only says that some tried to move it—unsuccessfully—to Rhodes.
So it’s anybody’s guess how it got to Rhodes in the first place. It doesn’t bear any fruit up north so it must have been cultivated; and in Theophrastus’ version of the story, the plant was not introduced to Egypt at all, but was native to Egypt.
And contrary to what some people think, Theophrastus never says the Persea is grown in Persia. He speaks of something called a Median or Persian apple (τὸ μῆλον τὸ Μηδικὸν ἢ τὸ Περσικὸν καλούμενον) at Historia plantarum 4.4.2, but he never says it grows in Egypt, and says that people do not eat it, but use it for perfume, for keeping moths away, as an antidote for poison and as a breath-freshener. This was probably something like a citron.
Regarding the Persea, on the other hand, Theophrastus, like Diodorus, mentions it has nice, sweet fruit:
“Some plants are not able to sprout at all in certain places, others sprout but do not bear fruit, like the Egyptian Persaea at Rhodes, but as you proceed south it produces, but only a little, and only there does it produce nice, sweet fruit.”
Τὰ μὲν οὖν ὅλως οὐδὲ βλαστάνειν ἐνιαχοῦ δύναται τὰ δὲ βλαστάνει μὲν ἄκαρπα δὲ γίνεται καθάπερ ἡ περσέα ἡ αἰγυπτία περὶ Ῥόδον, προϊόντι δὲ οὕτω φέρει μὲν ὀλίγον δὲ καὶ καλλικαρπεῖ καὶ γλυκυκαρπεῖ ἐκεῖ μόνον.
Theophrastus, De causis plantarum 2.3.7 (cf. Historia plantarum 4.2.5)
Whatever plant Theophrastus and Diodorus were talking about, assuming they were the same, it does not seem to be the one Athenaeus was talking about. There’s no mention of Persia, no mention of biological warfare, and no explanation why there is a plant growing in Egypt called Persian.
But it also means there are at least two stories, each about a plant called Persea, both growing in Egypt.