Old marine biology literature - Classical times

Classical times

There is no doubt that Aristotle was the most important naturalist of classical times. For about 18 ages his books Historia Animalium, De Partibus Animalium and De Generatione Animalium set the zoological stage. As his followers did not take the effort to observe themselves their works are much less accurate.
The works of these ancient authors do not contain illustrations, 'so it is mostly hard to tell which exact species they described.

Analyses of fishes in old Greek works: Thompson, T.P., A Glossary of Greek fishes. Oxford University Press, 1947.
Analyses of marine species in old Latin works: Saint-Denis, E. de, Le vocabulaire des animaux marins en latin classique. Paris, 1947.


Aristotle (384 BC - 322 BC)
Greek philosopher, student of Plato and teacher of Alexander the Great. He wrote on many subjects, including physics, metaphysics, poetry, theatre, music, logic, rhetoric, politics, government, ethics, biology and zoology. If we consider that he started from scratch he was a phenomenal biologist with great skills in dissecting animals. He emphasized the value of direct observation, recognized law and order in biological phenomena, and derived conclusions inductively from observed facts.

Historia Animalium
The work consists of lengthy descriptions (Greek: historiai) of countless species of fish, shellfish, and other animals and their anatomies. Aristotle made advances in the area of marine biology, basing his writings on his own observations as well as conversations with local Lesbos fishermen for a period of two years. It can be derived that he knew 117 or 118 fishes, most of them from the Mediterranean as well as 94 marine invertebrates. Most names were those given the fishes by the fishermen. Aristotle is known to have made behavoural observations on fish in the Kalloni bay of Lebos. In De Generatione Animalium he discusses his observations on the reproduction of marine invertebrates.

No illustrations in this work


Pliny the Elder (23 - 79)
A Roman author, naturalist and naval and military commander. He died during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius that also destroyed the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum.
Historia Naturalis Chapter 9
A nice mixture of accurate information and fantastic hear-say stories. Chapter 9 is about marine animals. Pliny's data are mainly those of Aristotle worked over, he adds little to our knowledge. If we focus on fish, he distinguishes even fewer, about 95, of which number only about 30 were additions to Aristotle´s list. (Gudger, 1934)

No illustrations in this work


Claudius Aelianus (c.175 - c.235)
Roman author who preferred the Greek authors. He wrote about a great number of subjects including stories of natural history.
De Natura animalum
Aelian's anecdotes on animals rarely depend on direct observation: they are almost entirely taken from written sources, often Pliny the Elder, but also other authors and works now lost. On te other hand he often quotes "fishermen". Aelian's work is one of the sources of medieval natural history and of the bestiaries of the Middle Ages; in some ways an allegory of the moral world, an Emblem Book. (Loeb Classical Library)
An English translation by A. F. Scholfield has been published in the Loeb Classical Library, 3 vols. (19xx -59).

No illustrations in this work


Unknown (c.100 - c.300)
Unknown author, believed to be written in Greek in Alexandria in the second or third century.
This collection of animal knowledge is claerly Christian; it briefly describes an animal, and continues with an Christian allegorical interpretation. The Physiologus was a "bestseller" that was translated into most of the major languages of Europe and western Asia; it is said that it was the most widely-distributed book in Europe after the Bible. Many variations on the text appeared over the centuries. The original Physiologus text, describing less than 50 animals, continued to evolve, accumulating more beasts and additional moral interpretations.

The bestiaries (books of beasts) of the Middle ages are based on Physiologus.

No illustrations in this work