Bolos of Mendes

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Bolos of Mendes

also known as Bolos the Democritean

(b, Mendes, Egypt; fl. ca. 200 b.c.). biology.

The dates of Bolos of Mendes cannot be established with certainty, and nothing seems to be known of his life. The extent of his influence cannot be estimated easily because of his deliberate policy of passing off his writings under Democritus’ name. Obvious pseudo-Democritean writings, in turn, were later attributed to Bolos. Together these writings, none of which has survived, constitute a complex literary tradition in which the original contributions cannot be disentangled from later additions. Bolos was widely read in antiquity, when his reputation rivaled that of Aristotle as an authority in natural history. Judging from the titles of his lost writings, he wrote on a wide range of subjects. Some evidence exists that he was one of the principal early sources for the later encyclopedic tradition in which natural history and the lore of marvels are indistinguishable. Only a few fragments actually bear his name, thus preeluding a detailed reconstruction of any of his writings. It is doubtful that he was systematic in collecting his data or that he made original contributions. The evidence suggests, rather, that he collected a large and diverse body of information, largely supernatural in nature, that could be put to the various purposes suited to the exploitation of the irrational in Hellenistic times.

Bolos’ best-known and most influential work was entitled Φ??ικά δνναερά (“Natural Properties”). Sometimes known as Περì σνμπαθειών καì άντνπαθειών (“On Sympathies and Antipathies”), it was an attempt to categorize observed biological and ecological relationships and to explain them in terms of the supposed, conscious “loves and hates” existing between the entities in question. Animals, plants, and minerals, each associated with its particular astral god, were believed to be invested with miraculous powers. As a result, magical ritual and religious invocations tended to take the place of causal explanation based on empirical observation and description. Bolos’ influence is seen most clerarly in Aelian, Pliny, and the anonymous Hermetic writers.

Other works ascribed to Bolos include ϰειρóκμητα (“Things Made or Performed by Hand”), Which is usually cited under the name of Democritus. It dealt with medical and magical herbs and various agricultural practices. His Περì λιθών (“On Stones”) was a catalog of precious and semiprecious stones in which their supernatural powers were described in a manner foreshadowing the later lapidaries. Another of his writings, Περì γεωργíας (“On Farming”), was known to Columella and was frequently consulted by the writers of the Geoponica. Two other writings ascribed to him, but whose precise titles and meaning are unclear, are “Concerning Miracles” and an astrological tract, “On the Signs of the Sun and Moon.” Portions of late magical papyri containing alchemical texts and directions for technological processes, some of which have been attributed to Pseudo-Democritus, may derive ultimately from Bolos’ lost Bαφικά (“Things Dyed or Gilded”). He is also credited with separate writings on medicine, magical herbs, military tacties, and ethies, and Περì Iονδαíών (“History of the Jews”), but few identifiable fragments remain.


Further discussion of Bolos or his work can be found in Hermann Diels, Antike Technik, 2nd ed. (Leipzig, 1920), pp. 127–138; Wilhelm Kroll, “Bolos und Demokritos.” in Hermes, 69 (1934), 228–232; E.H.F. Meyer, Geschichte der Botanik, I (Königsberg, 1854), 277–284; Eugen Oder, “Beiträge zur Geschichte der Landwirthschaft bei den Griechen,” in Rheinisches Museum für Philologie, 45 (1890), 58–99; and Max Wellmann, “Bolos aus Mendes,” in Pauly Wissowa, Real-Encyclopädie, III, cols. 676–677; “Die Georgika des Demokritos,” in Abhandlungen der Preusischen Akademie der Wissenschaft, Philosophisch-Historische Klasse, no. 4 (1921), which contains an edition of the eighty-two fragments surviving from Bolos’ writings on agriculture; and “Die Φγ∑IKA des Bolos Demokritos und der Magier Anaxilaos aus Larissa,” ibid., no. 7 (1928), the fundamental study.

Jerry Stannard