Trees: Links to the
Classical Past

John M. McMahon, Le Moyne College

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 both of poetic experience and of culturally significant information. Yet what is often lacking for the modern reader is an actual knowledge of the trees themselves and of attendant connotations that make the literary record 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 paper endeavors to promote a wider understanding and a deeper appreciation of the role of trees in Classical literary contexts and to suggest exemplary passages from several major authors illustrating the cultural and literary significance of trees.

Any discussion about vegetation in the Greek and Roman world should first consider the climatic, geographical, and ecological conditions which, despite the continuing effects of human activity, are roughly similar to that of modern times. The ecosystem as a whole is marked by a dry and wet season. There is scant rainfall in the East and the climate becomes increasingly wetter westward. Mountainous regions receive more precipitation as well, especially on their westward faces as prevailing winds drop moisture during the autumn and winter months. Corresponding differences in types of vegetation result from these conditions. Variations in altitude also 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, 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 in the civilization of the Greeks and Romanis is relatively complete, with archaeological and artistic evidence complementing the literary record and affording substantial information about the material role trees played. The actual 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 the remains of riverboats excavated from the Rhine valley in Germany. 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, often inspired by 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 (e.g., 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 depicted on silver plate, and the central scene on the Str^Çze 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 in that context. 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. The scene is also represented on the Ara Pacis of Augustus where it figured prominently in the emperor's political and artistic program. The same 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 and scientific 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 paneling 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 traditional 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. While their exact classification according to Linnaean terminology is at times difficult because of poetic license and because of the vast gulf that separates the ancient experience of the natural world with the human, 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.

In Homer, at the very dawn of Greek literature, a there appears a wide variety of trees. While the mention of so many kinds approximates the usual variety found throughout Greek literature, the Iliad and Odyssey themselves differ in the kinds and the frequency of trees mentioned. Nevertheless, the Homeric epics provide substantial evidence for understanding both the conceptions of the imagined poetic landscape and the significance that tree imagery held in the composition of the works themselves. Oaks, both phegos and dryshold first place in the poet's admiration , but elsewhere other species, like the pine (pitys, peuke) and the olive (elaia), are also highly regarded. Odysseus's marriage bed, for example, is constructed from a living olive tree (Od. 23. 184-204) and stands as a unique and steadying marker for the theme of fidelity in the poem as a whole. In the description of Calypso's cave (Odyssey 5.64), on the other hand, "alders, poplars and sweet-smelling cypress" grow luxuriantly about its entrance and afford a pleasant abode for birds of all kinds. Such vegetative abundance suggests the sensuality of the nymph herself as she holds Odysseus on her island. Calypso also shows to Odysseus the very trees that would provide appropriate material for his raft, including alders (klethra, ) poplars (achepo^Ős) and "the sky-reaching fir" (Od. 5.239: hypsikomos elate), 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" (Il. 2.263; Od. 9.22: einosiphyllon)and in a later pseudo-Homeric work they are called "green with trees" (Homeric Hymn to Apollo 223: chloros). 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 . . .

The imagery of trees fallen in the violence of the wind appears in early didactic literature and lric poetry as well. In Hesiod's Works and Days, for example, the "lofty-haired oaks" and the "thickly covered fir" are blown down by the rush of the North Wind as it scours the midwinter countryside; indeed, the entire leafy wood groans in the assault (509-11). A line from the poetess Sappho (Fr. 47) also uses the imagery of wind and oak to describe a more personal sensation:

Love shook My mind like a wind falling on oak trees on a mountain.
In like fashion Homeric warriors in battle take on the character of oaks resisting the wind-driven rain and are steadfastly anchored by mighty roots. And yet struck by an enemy's blow, they too crash to the ground just like the oak, the poplar, or the fir felled by the timberman's axe (Il. 5.560; 12131-34; 13.389-91).

Homer's great influence on the epic tradition of describing trees can be illustrated by tracing the persistence of the imagery in his account 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. (trans. Lattimore)

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:

They make their way through the lofty trees, With axes they makes their cuts. They smite the great oaks, The holm oak is cut through. The ash is snapped, And the tall fir is laid low, They turn down the high pines. The entire forest was ringing With the groan of the leafy woods.

Drawing from Ennius, Vergil has reworked the passage into his own description of the funeral for Misenus (Aeneid 6.179-182):

A trek is made into the ancient wood, deep dwelling of beasts. The spruces fall forward, the holm oak echoes, axe-stricken, And ash timber is cleft as is the split-destined oak.

and that of Pallas (Aen. 11.134-138):

Through the wood the Trojans and the Latins wandered together, Safely on the mountain ridges. The lofty ash sounds to the twin-bladed ax. They overturn the starward-driven pines. Nor do they hold off splitting oaks and the aromatic cedar with the wedge. Nor do they refrain from carrying the ash trees on groaning carts.

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 important role. For example the ash, used for spears, is called "destined to drink the hated blood of war", the sturdy oak, unassailable", the seaworthy fir, "adventurous", and the supportive elm "hospitable to grapevines" since its light shade was ideal for growing and ripening the grapes trained up its trunk and branches.

Classical 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 also 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):

Guardian of hill and woodland, Maid, Who to young wives in childbirth's hour Thrice call'd, vouchsafest sovereign aid, O three-form'd power! This pine that shades my cot be thine; Here will I slay, as years come round, A youngling boar, whose tusks design The side-long wound. (trans. Connington)

Trees often stand at the intersection of the human and the divine in the poetry of mythology. The very word for wood nymph in Greek, dryas, is ultimately derived from the same Indo-European root (dru-) as is the English word "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 the Earth goddess 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 poet's account of the Golden Age (Met. 1.89-111), 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). Important, too, is the poet's contention that in that peaceful era there were no pines cut down to be transformed into sea-going ships, taking humans far from their native soil and bent on greedy commerce (Met. 1.94-5):

Not yet had the pine, cut from its mountain fastness, Fallen into the flowing sea waves to reach distant realms.

Several individual stories from the work highlight trees. Thus the famous tale of Apollo and Daphne ends with the powerful description of the nymph transformed into the laurel to escape the god's amorous attentions (Met. 1.549-51):

Her tender breast is bound with a thin bark, Her hair grows into foliage, her arms into branches, Her foot once so swift sticks now with sluggish roots . . .

Apollo embraces her and hears deep within the tree the nymph's heart still beating. Yet even in losing her the god vows to forever hold the tree sacred. In the next book, 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).

In another account of love frustrated, the tale of Pyramus and Thisbe (Met. 4.55-166), an Ovidian aition, or explanatory tale of origins, relates how the mulberry (morus) was changed from white to red. In this tale, the blood from the lovers' self-inflicted wounds mingles and splashes onto the roots of the tree, forever marking the once white fruit with crimson. Further on (Met. 10. 78-142), Ovid tells the story of the upland treeless plain transformed by the musician Orpheus into a verdant grove and poetically 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. Finally, still later in the work (Met. 14. 622-636) the poet tells the story of the wood nymph Pomona, lover of gardens and orchards, whose name derives from the Latin pomum, meaning "fruit, apple."

Trees, then ,form an important part of the literary tradition of the Greeks and Romans. Not limited solely to creative literature, however, trees are extensively incorporated into the culture on many levels. One example of this can be seen in the case of the cornel-cherry cornus, a member of the same genus as the dogwood, which was mentioned above in connection with the Golden Age. The fruit of the tree, in modern taxonomy Cornus mas, is edible and in a number of literary contexts symbolizes the simple life of the just and a return to the lost virtues of an earlier time. For example, it reappears in Ovid's Metamorphoses (8.665), as part of the humble fare of Baucis and Philemon who entertain the gods Jupiter and Mercury in their rustic home. They offer it to their divine visitors pickled in wine lees. It was, in fact, thus used among country folk as a substitute for olives. Horace also mentions the fruit as part of a description of his Sabine farm (Epistles 1.16.7-8), and Homer describes how it is combined with acorns as food for swine in the Circe episode of the Odyssey (10.242-3).

The wood of the cornel-cherry, on the other hand, often has connections with war and weaponry. As a living tree Homer calls it "smooth-barked" and puts it into the company of oaks and ashes (Il. 16.767). Theophrastus (incorrectly) divides the plant into a male and female variety (Historia Plantarum 3.12.1-2), and claims that the former is suited for spears but that the latter is soft and porous. The historian Herodotus claims that the bows of the Lycians were made of the wood, and Pausanias reports that the legendary Trojan Horse was constructed of cornel-cherry wood harvested from from the slopes of Mt. Ida (3.13.5). In Latin literature the same associations hold, with Vergil using the very word for the tree (cornus) to represent the spears used in battle scenes in his Aeneid (12.276-68):

The whirring cornel wood gives out its sound, And sure of its course, cuts through the breezes.

Ovid, too, uses the imagery in his description of the Calydonian boar hunt (Met. 8.408).

In conclusion it is well to point out that the same wide ranging associations can be seen for the other trees mentioned in this paper. The beech tree was seen as both a common source of building material and, in VergilŐs Eclogues, a symbol of political repose. The plane tree served literarily and actually as a shady invitation to philosophical discourse and as to romance. And the sturdy oak had connections to both religion and war. Truly, then, trees are living links to the Classical past.

**** Secondary Bibliographical Resources:

Humanities & Social Sciences OnLine
Humanities &
Social Sciences Online
in cooperation with MSU Department of History
Send comments and questions to H-Nilas Editors
Copyright © 1995-2014
H-Nilas RSS