Beans, boats and archaeobotany. a new translation of phasolus or why the romans ate neither kidney beans nor cowpeas


  • F.B.J. Heinrich
  • D.A. Wilkins


Among classicists, archaeobotanists and agricultural historians, the meaning of the word phasolus (ϕασηλος in Greek) is ambiguous. While Latin scholars have agreed that the word refers to a type of pulse or bean, there are various interpretations and subsequent identifications as to which botanical species is meant. The current paper aims to address this ambiguity by assessing the validity of the proposed interpretations. This will be done on three levels. First, the a priori feasibility of the interpretations will be ascertained. Second, all classical mentions of phasolus, both in Greek and Latin, will be reviewed and analysed. The aim of this step is to find what biological traits and characteristics were associated with phasolus, which may aid in confirming or rebuking an identification. Thirdly, we will assess the archaeobotanical evidence pertaining to the proposed interpretations for the Roman period. This paper includes the assessment of several classical sources previously absent from the debate as well as a new botanical identification of a key archaeobotanical sample previously used to prove the presence of cowpea (Vigna unguiculata) in the Mediterranean during Antiquity.