CfAR (March 2015)

by G.L. Campbell

OUP (2014) h/b 633pp £95 (ISBN 9780199589425)

Thirty-three chapters by experts in the field on everything from animals in Aesop, art, comedy, epic and tragedy; through domestication, husbandry and economics, fauna, insects, fishing and hunting; to the origin of species, communication (wide ranges of animals were credited with various forms of it, e.g. elephants warning a new wife that her husband had killed his ex-wife by leading her to the grave), pets, warfare (elephants were not keen on pigs, apparently), magic, sacrifice (no coherent theory of it emerges from ancient writings), games, racing, philosophy, fossil evidence, veterinary medicine (and much else)—what more could anyone want? Here is a flavour of what is on offer.

Animals in literature were identified by what were taken to be their most typical and unchanging features—the brave lion, the tricky fox and so on—usually to point up, in simile and metaphor, some degree of comparison with or contrast to humans in a whole range of different situations from the intensely active to the highly emotional, though in comedy animals are often indistinguishable from men. The ancients were keen on breeding subspecies of animal to meet human needs (long wool, racing forelegs etc.) and were well advanced in their understanding of animal needs (pasturing, fodder, astonishingly good veterinary care) while encouraging wide diversification of species. Much expertise went into poultry and the highly profitable game farming. Land-owning elites like to demonstrate their status by owning and trading high-end animals, especially horses and cattle, which cost a great deal to keep.

We learn much about the fauna across the Mediterranean from stray literary references, depictions and zooarchaeology but also dedicated ancient writings, such as Aristotle’s History of Animals (he invented biology), Strabo’s Geography, Pliny the Elder’s massive Natural History and Aelian’s Characteristics of Animals—aurochs, sheep, goats, boar, deer, hare, rabbits, bears, wolves, foxes, wildcats, hedgehogs, badgers, beavers, bats, rats, mole, gerbils, mice, fish, birds, reptiles, whales, dolphins and so on. As for insects, ants, bees, wasps and cicadas dominate literary pages: Martial associates an ageing whore with a cicada’s breast, while St Jerome recommends a young woman should be chaste as a ‘cicada of the night’. Hm. Insect products include honey, silk, dyes, and their use in medicine was widespread (burn centipedes to fumigate against bedbugs: ancients were into pest-control too).

As for the vegetarianism, a practice argued first by Pythagoras (6th C BC), it was a topic of debate down the centuries. Plutarch’s On the Eating of Flesh and Porphyry’s On Abstinence from Animal Flesh are the two key pro-vegetarian texts: one conclusion is that, if sentience is the crucial distinction between the edible and inedible, the case for vegetarianism is made.

There is much of great interest here both to the scholar and the layman.

Peter Jones


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