Whose Fault is it Anyway? Plant Infertility in Antiquity

  • Laurence M.V. TotelinEmail author


Historians who study infertility tend to focus – quite naturally – on human females. Studying the same issue in relation to plants, however, can offer new insights into the question and help challenge assumptions, especially since ancient women were often compared to fields awaiting fertilization. In this chapter, I examine the ways in which ancient scholars explained plant infertility; that is, a plant’s inability to bear fruits to maturity (rather than the complete inability to produce seed). Farmers were usually seen as responsible for this infertility; they lacked the knowledge and skill to make their crops fructify. Thus, while the female earth was the (in)fertile principle in plant generation, the ultimate blame fell on the male farmer. I argue that the same principle applied in human generation: men were by nature infertile – they could not carry children to maturity – but they had a crucial role in helping women to become fertile and make their family flourish.


Ancient medicine Botany Metaphors of infertility Plant fertility 

Research Resources

Primary Sources

    Published Primary Sources

    1. Harrison B. Ash, Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella. On Agriculture I-IV (Cambridge, MA, and London: Harvard University Press, 1941).Google Scholar
    2. David M. Balme and Allan Gotthelf, Aristotle. History of Animals. Books VII-X (Cambridge, MA, and London: Harvard University Press, 1991).Google Scholar
    3. Benedict Einarson and George K. K. Link, Theophrastus. De causis plantarum, 3 vols (Cambridge, MA, and London: Harvard University Press, 1976–1990).Google Scholar
    4. William D. Hooper and Harrison B. Ash, Marcus Porcius Cato. On Agriculture (Cambridge, MA, and London: Harvard University Press, 1935).Google Scholar
    5. Arthur F. Hort, Theophrastus. Enquiry into Plants and Minor Works on Odours and Weather Signs, 2 vols (Cambridge, MA, and London: Harvard University Press, 1916–1926).Google Scholar
    6. Paul Potter, Hippocrates. Volume X (Cambridge, MA, and London: Harvard University Press, 2012).Google Scholar
    7. Harris Rackham, Pliny. Natural History. Books XII-XVI (Cambridge, MA, and London: Harvard University Press, 1945).Google Scholar
    8. W.H.D. Rouse, Lucretius. De rerum natura (Cambridge, MA, and London: Harvard University Press, 1937).Google Scholar

Secondary Sources

    On Human Infertility in the Ancient World and its Treatment

    1. Susan Guettel Cole, Landscapes, Gender, and Ritual Space: The Ancient Greek Experience (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2004), 146–77.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
    2. Lesley A. Dean-Jones, ‘Clinical Gynecology and Aristotle’s Biology: The Composition of HA X’, Apeiron, 45.2 (2012), 180–99.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
    3. Rebecca Flemming, ‘The Invention of Infertility in the Classical Greek World: Medicine, Divinity, and Gender’, Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 87 (2013), 565–90.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
    4. Philip van der Eijk, ‘On Sterility (‘HA X’), a Medical Work by Aristotle?’, Classical Quarterly, 49 (1999), 490–502.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
    5. Laurence M.V. Totelin, Hippocratic Recipes: Oral and Written Transmission of Pharmacological Knowledge in Fifth-and Fourth-Century Greece (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 197–224.Google Scholar

    On the Female Body in Antiquity, and its Comparison to a Field

    1. Lesley A. Dean-Jones, Women’s Bodies in Classical Greek Science (Oxford: Clarendon, 1994).Google Scholar
    2. Page DuBois, Sowing the Body: Psychoanalysis and Ancient Representations of Women (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1988).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
    3. Rebecca Flemming, Medicine and the Making of Roman Women: Gender, Nature, and Authority from Celsus to Galen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).Google Scholar
    4. Ann E. Hanson, ‘Conception, Gestation, and the Origin of Female Nature in the Corpus Hippocraticum’, Helios, 19 (1992), 31–71.Google Scholar
    5. Helen King, ‘Sowing the Field: Greek and Roman Sexology’, in Roy Porter and Mikulas Teich (eds), Sexual Knowledge, Sexual Science: The History of Attitudes to Sexuality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 29–46.Google Scholar
    6. Helen King, Hippocrates’ Woman: Reading the Female Body in Ancient Greece (London: Routledge, 1998).Google Scholar
    7. Heinrich von Staden, ‘Women and Dirt’, Helios, 19 (1992), 7–30.Google Scholar

    On Ancient Botany, Fertility and Plants

    1. Suzanne Amigues, Etudes de botanique antique (Paris: Boccard, 2002).Google Scholar
    2. Marine Bretin-Chabrol and Claudine Leduc, ‘La botanique antique et la problématique du genre’, Clio. Histoire, femmes et sociétés, 68.1 (2009), 205–223.Google Scholar
    3. Gavin Hardy and Laurence M.V. Totelin, Ancient Botany (London: Routledge, 2016).Google Scholar
    4. Moshe Negbi, ‘Male and Female in Theophrastus’ Botanical Works’, Journal of the History of Biology, 28 (1995), 317–32.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
    5. Lin Foxhall, ‘Natural Sex: The Attribution of Sex and Gender to Plants in Ancient Greece’, in Lin Foxhall and J. Salmon (eds), Thinking Men: Masculinity and its Self-Representation in the Classical Tradition (London: Psychology Press, 1998), 57–70.Google Scholar
    6. Iain M. Lonie, ‘On the Botanical Excursus in De Natura Pueri 22–27’, Hermes, 97.4 (1969), 391–411.Google Scholar
    7. C.G. Tortzen, ‘Male and Female in Peripatetic Botany’, Classica et mediaevalia, 42 (1991), 81–110.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Cardiff UniversityCardiffUK

Personalised recommendations