Nicolaus of Damascus

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(b. Damascus, 64 b.c.)


Nicolaus was the son of wealthy parents, whose names, Antipater and Stratonice, suggest that they were of Macedonian origin. He received an expensive liberal education, probably from Greek tutors, and became so distinguished a scholar that he attracted the attention of Herod the Great, king of Judaea. He subsequently spent his life in the service of Herod, accompanying him twice to Rome during the last ten years of his rule (14-4 b.c.). Nicolaus served the king as secretary, adviser, and court historian and, in Rome, endeavored to explain Herod’s anti-Nabatacan politics to the Roman Senate. After Herod’s death he sought to retire but was obliged to represent Herod’s son, Archelaus, and to travel again to Rome to undertake the latter’s defense against complaints by the Jews. In spite of Nicolaus’ efforts, Archelaus was banished by Augustus to Vienne and died there. It is not known what happened subsequently to Nicolaus.

Besides dramatic compositions, an autobiography, a panegyrical biography of Augustus’ youth, a Universal History in 144 books from the earliest times to the death of Herod, and a collection of writings on the manners and customs of some fifty nations (Παραδόξων έθω̑ν συναγωγή), Nicolaus wrote commentaries on Aristotle, now largely lost, and also an extant treatise on plants in two books ; the latter were written in Peripatetic style and dealt with the generalities of plant life. Indeed, so Peripatetic in style and structure are these books that they were believed to have been the work of Aristotle himself.

The first book is divided into seven chapters, in which are discussed the nature of plant life; sex in plants; the parts, structure, classification, composition, and products of plants; their methods of propagation and fertilization; and their changes and variations. Book II contains ten chapters, which describe the origins of plant life; the material of plants; the effects of external conditions and climate; water and rock plants; effects of topography upon plants; parasitism; the production of fruits and leaves; the colors and shapes of plants; and fruits and their flavors.

The original Greek text of the De plantis has been lost. It was, however, translated into Syriac in the ninth century; and a few scattered fragments have survived in Cambridge MS. Gg. 2.14 (fifteenth-sixteenth century), together with the translation of Nicolaus’ Παραδόξων έθω̑ν συναγωγή. It has been suggested by Hemmerdinger, but denied by Drossaart Lulofs, that this Syriac translation was made by Hunayn ibn Ishaq, court physician at Baghdad. The fragments of the Syriac translation of the De plantis consist of a series of dislocated sentences from the first book. Bar-Hebraeus possessed a copy of it and preserved a brief but valuable excerpt of book I in Syriac in his Candelabrum Sanctorum. The Syriac version was subsequently translated into Arabic by Ishaq ibn Hunayn about 900.This Arabic translation is badly preserved and four pages toward the end are missing.In 1893 Steinschneider discovered a Hebrew translation made verbatim from the Arabic by the Provencal Kalonymus ben Kalonymus in 1314. The Arabic text was also translated into Latin by Alfred of Sareshel (first half of the thirteenth century), and during the Middle Ages it exercised a wide influence, as is attested by numerous manuscripts and several commentaries. The Latin translation, however, was superseded by the clumsy thirteenth-century translation of the Latin into Greek by Maximus Planudes, which has been printed in Bekker’s edition of Aristotle (815A-830B).

The De plantis, apart from the herbals deriving from Dioscorides and pseudo-Apuleius, became the most important single source for later medieval botany. As has been seen above, its two volumes were long credited to Aristotle himself and were included in his Opera. Scaliger actually devoted a commentary to these books, entitled “In libros duos qui inscribuntur De plantis, Aristotele autore” (Paris, 1556). He subsequently corrected his mistake in the heading of his Preface to “In libros De plantis falso Aristoteli attributos,” but it may be assumed that the majority of Renaissance botanists were ready to accept uncritically Aristotle’s authority upon the basis of these two incorrectly attributed volumes.

It was not only in botany that Nicolaus’ work was influential. So great was his prestige as an Aristotelian commentator that Porphyry and even Simplicius used to appeal to his authority. The following titles of treatises written by him on Aristotelian philosophy have survived: Περαδόξων έθω̑ν Aσυναγωγή. The first of these works, and the sole survivor, is preserved only in the Syriac abridgment described above (Cantab. MS Gg. 2.14). Although Nicolaus was eclipsed by other commentators in Greek, notably Alexander and Simplicius, it is clear from the Islamic bibliographers that his commentaries were read and studied in the East.


For the Latin medieval translation see E. H. F. Meyer, Nicolai Damasceni “De plantis” libri duo Aristoteli vulgo adscripti (Leipzig, 1841). For the Greek text (which is a retranslation from the Latin) see I . Bekker, Aristote is Opera, II (Berlin, 1831), 815A-830B . There is an English translation by E. S. Foster in The Works of Aristotle Translated into English, VI (Oxford, 1913), 815A-830B, and by W. S. Hett in his Loeb volume, Aristotle, Minor Works (London-Cambridge, Mass., 1936).

Secondary literature includes A. J. Arberry, “An Early Arabic Translation from the Greek,” in Bulletin of the Faculty of Arts (Cairo University), 1 (1933), 48 ff., and 2 (1934), 72 ff ; R. P. Bouyges, “Sur le De plantis d’Aristote-Nicolas a propos d’un manuscript arabe de Constantinople,” in Mé’langes de la Faculty orientale, Université St.-Joseph (Beirut), 9 , no. 2 (1932), 71-89 ; H. J. Drossaart Lulofs, “Aristotle’s ΠΕΡΙ ϕ ΥΤΩΝ,” in Journal of Hellenic Studies, 77 , 1 (1957), 75-80 ; and Nicolaus Damascenes on the Philosophy of Aristotle, Philosophia Antiqua, XIII (Leiden, 1965); B. Hemmerdinger, “Le De Plantis, de Nicolas de Damas à Planude,” in Philologus, III (1967), 56-65 ; E. H. F. Meyer, Geschichte der Botanik (Königsberg, 1854) ; and G. Sarton, The Appreciation of Ancient and Medieval Science During the Renaissance (Philadelphia, 1955), 63 ff.

James Longrigg

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Nicolaus of Damascus

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