Life Sciences in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages


The life sciences in late antiquity (ad 300–600) and the early Middle Ages (ad 600–1000) centre around the study of three primary categories of ensouled or animate creatures, namely, plants (botany), animals (zoology) and man (anthropology). Major subdisciplines within these general areas of study include pharmacology, medicine, agriculture and veterinary science. The ancient Greek and Roman life scientists of the classical period (600 bc–ad 300) established much of the data and many of the fundamental concepts concerning the nature of the cosmos and its living inhabitants which scholars of the post‐classical period (ad 300–1000) would inherit. The history of the late ancient and the early medieval life sciences is essentially the story of the preservation, dissemination and partial elaboration of classical Graeco‐Roman learning within several very different political, linguistic and religious contexts following the dissolution of the political and cultural synthesis that had been established under the Roman Empire (27 bc–ad 476).

Key Concepts

  • Life science in the classical (ad 300–600) and post‐classical (ad 600–1000) periods centres around the study of three primary categories of ensouled or animate creatures, plants (botany), animals (zoology) and man (anthropology) and includes the subdisciplines of medicine, pharmacology, agriculture and veterinary science.
  • Soul (Greek psyche; Latin anima) is the life principle of plants, animals and people, of which there are three broad species: the vegetative, sensitive and rational.
  • Classical anatomy, physiology, medicine, botany and zoology are tacitly accepted in the post‐classical period.
  • The interlocking concepts of (1) teleology, (2) the microcosm–macrocosm analogy and (3) the great chain of being provide common conceptual ground for the ancient (classical) and the late ancient/early medieval (post‐classical) world views.
  • Classical life science continues to flourish in diverse religious (Jewish, Christian and Muslim) and linguistic (Latin, Greek, Persian, Syriac and Arabic) cultures following the dissolution of the political and cultural synthesis that had been established under the Roman Empire.
  • Greek, Latin, Syriac and Arabic languages are the primary linguistic vehicles in the diffusion of classical knowledge throughout Europe and the Middle East.
  • Linguistic barriers are overcome by a handful of multilingual scholars who live on the borderland of two or more dominant cultures.
  • Christian and Muslim post‐classical scholars use their pagan classical heritage selectively by (1) choosing organisation, conciseness and practicality over theoretical and experimental elaboration and (2) adapting it to the sacred Scriptures of the Judaeo‐Christian (Old and New Testaments) and Muslim (Koranic) cultures.

Keywords: Graeco‐Roman antiquity; late antiquity; early Middle Ages; religion and science; history; medicine; pharmacology; botany; zoology; veterinary science

Figure 1. The Roman Empire in ad 117. The Roman Empire achieved its greatest extent under the Emperor Trajan (ad 98–117). It consisted of approximately 6 500 000 Km2 of territory around the Mediterranean basin and included Britain, Europe south of the Danube River, North Africa, Egypt, Asia Minor (Turkey), Syria, Palestine, Armenia and Mesopotamia.
Figure 2. The Persian Empire under the Sassanid Dynasty (ad 226–651). The Persian Empire was the only limit to the eastward expansion of the Roman Empire (27 bc–ad 476) and the Byzantine Empire (476–1453) before Persian lands were conquered by Arab‐Islamic forces in 651. Cities such as Resaina, Edessa (Urfa, Turkey), Nisibus (Nusaybin, Turkey) and Jundishapur (Khuzestan province, Iran) were safe‐havens for enclaves of Syrian Christian scholars (Nestorian and Jacobite) who were marginalised by the Orthodox Christian Church in 431 at the Council of Ephesus and in 451 at the Council of Chalcedon for espousing heretical views of Christianity, especially concerning the nature of Christ. A handful of polyglot Syrian Christians were instrumental in the transmission of Greek natural science to the Middle East through their Syrian, Persian and Arabic translations.
Figure 3. The geographic expansion of the early Arab‐Islamic Empire. The rapid expansion of Arab‐Islamic forces under Mohammed (ad 622–632) and the early Caliphate (ad 632–750) captured the entire Persian (Sassanid) Empire, part of the Byzantine Empire (Egypt, Palestine, and Syria) and some of the Germanic Kingdoms (Vandals, Visigoths) in the West (North Africa, Spain).
Figure 4. Zodiac man. This illustration from a Renaissance textbook of medicine (Joahannes de Ketham, Fasiculo de medicina. Venice: Gregoi, 1483) shows the application of the macrocosm/microcosm analogy to medicine. In medical astrology, each of the 12 signs of the Zodiac correlate with 12 specific regions of the body where they exert their influence on the humours, tissues and the organs of that region; for example, Aries governs the head region and Pisces the feet. This guided the physician as to the probable course of the illness and the proper type and timing of treatment. Reproduced from Joahannes de Ketham, Fasiculo de medicina. Venice: Gregoi, 1483.
Figure 5. An illumination from manuscript Digby 23 (c. ad 1100) containing Calcidius' (fl. ad 400) partial Latin translation of Plato's Timaeus with Commentary. (a) The first illumination from manuscript Digby 23, fol. 54r (Bodleian Library, Oxford) illustrates the great chain of being and the hierarchical stratification of the medieval cosmos. Each of the five horizontal strata contained in the spherical cosmos pictured in the top half of the page is dominated by a particular ruling substance (stars, ether, air, water and earth) that not only dictates the events within its own stratum but also influences the events of the inferior strata. Starting at the top is the realm of the stars; second, the ether; third, the air; fourth, the water and fifth, the earth. Earth is the dwelling place of man the microcosm, a rational but corporeal animal who is subject to the vicissitudes of death and the various infirmities of the mortal flesh. (b) The second illumination from manuscript Digby 23, fol. 54v (Bodleian Library, Oxford) illustrates the interlocking correlations of man and nature. Inside the sphere pictured on the lower third of the page is a central hub divided into the four seasons surrounded by the motto ‘the correlations of man with nature’. Four spokes radiate outwardly from the hub, each of which attaches to one of the four semicircles distributed along the inside of the outer rim. The semicircles demarcate four different combinations of three fundamental types of phenomena, i.e. the four elements, the four qualities and the four stages of man, which correlate with the four seasons. Each of the four seasons (spring, summer, fall or winter) was thought to correlate with a particular combination of one of the four quality pairs (wet–hot, hot–dry, dry–cold or cold–wet), one of the four elements (air, fire, water or earth) and one of the four stages of man (infancy, youth, middle age or old age). The season Spring is thus linked to the quality pair Wet−Hot, to the element Air, and to the Infancy stage of man, which produces one cluster of correlate phenomena, that is Spring+WetHot+Air+Infancy. Three additional linkages produce the three remaining clusters of correlate phenomena, that is Summer+HotDry+Fire+Youth, Fall+DryCold+Water+Middle age and Winter+ColdWet+Earth+Old age.


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Frampton, Michael(Jun 2015) Life Sciences in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0022341.pub2]