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  • Print publication year: 2018
  • Online publication date: November 2018

4 - Animal and Plant Generation in Classical Antiquity

from Part I - Inventing Generation


‘Generation’ was a particular kind of coming-to-be, which required not just qualitative alteration or quantitative growth, but that a new thing be produced; intimately associated with living beings, it could be extended further. Some minerals, for example, were thought to produce children, or at least re-generate, and more metaphorical generation was widespread across many artistic, artisanal and intellectual realms. Does generation require, or even define, male and female; do both contribute equally? Does the concept have its own typology, or follow external divisions between kinds of things? In what ways, if any, is it valid, for instance, to draw analogies between plant and animal generation? These key questions, with major implications for how any society construes and orders the world, were addressed first sporadically, and then increasingly systematically, in classical antiquity. A range of surviving texts record the early, and very influential, efforts to grapple with these issues.

Despite the significance of generation, the existing scholarship is patchy and incomplete; some areas are much debated, others almost untouched. I attempt here both to provide a general outline of the field, and to explore selected themes within it. The focus is first on some of the earliest philosophical discussions: the systematic efforts of Aristotle in the mid-fourth century bc, especially Generation of Animals, and the extensive works on plants by his student and successor as head of the Lyceum, Theophrastus. Together, these texts were conceptually foundational, and though many points, and even principles, were vigorously disputed over the centuries, they also established much shared ground. Most importantly, they developed a theoretical framework around much that was already assumed or taken for granted, and joined many previously disparate pieces into a comprehensive explanatory system, thus setting out a single domain of generation.

This, and much else, can be illustrated by examining the reception, and development, of these discussions in a range of less philosophical textual genres from the Roman world. Particularly important is the tradition of Latin agricultural writing, which begins with Cato in the early second century bc, passes through Varro and Columella in the late first centuries bc and ad respectively, and continues to Palladius in the fourth century ad.