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Moralizing kinship in the Flavian era: animal families in the Elder Pliny

Neil Bernstein

Reconceiving the relationship between man and animal has been a recent project in cultural studies, involving ethics (Sorabji 1993), critical theory (Agamben 2004), and cultural history. These projects have presented challenges to notions of human exceptionalism, as they focus on aspects of animal sociability that appear to bridge the gap between “nature” and “culture” (Williams 2013). The books of the Elder Pliny’s Natural History that concern human beings (NH 7) and animals (NH 8-11) have long been read in the context of a moralized view of the natural world (Fögen 2007, Beagon 1992). These books present a tension between two characteristic views of animals presented throughout the moralizing tradition. Animals can be viewed as alternately more or less “familial” than human beings. Panelist #1 examines how Pliny’s encyclopedia make animal families negative or aspirational models for human emulation. The Natural History’s accounts of exemplary animal families can be read as a contribution to the ethical project of the Flavian regime, especially in domestic matters (Suetonius, Vesp. 11; Titus, 7, 8; Tacitus, Annales 3.55).

The default perspective on animal behavior is negative. Lack of sociability distinguishes animals from human beings. To act more ferarum indicates a decline from a state of culture into one of nature (Guastella 1985). In Pliny’s animal books, for example, some species engage in behavior that is obviously taboo for human beings, such as filicide and parricide (NH 11.91), adultery and incest (8.42-43, 10.10-11). Other species compete over resources in ways that reflect similar competition among the families of the Roman elite. Stories of fosterage among birds parallel similar anxieties among the Roman elite about a relatively common cultural practice (Bernstein 2009). Examples include the ossifrage, who becomes a competitor with its adult fosterlings, and the cuckoo, who eventually kills its fosterer (NH 10.13-14, 25-27).

By contrast, however, many species of animals are not subject to the vices that threaten sociability in the moralized human family, such as luxuria, ambition, competition, lust, and so forth. Certain species can be viewed as more “familial” than human beings. These animals offer exemplary images of marriage and reciprocity between the generations. Dolphins marry for love (NH 9.21), elephants and doves are monogamous (8.13, 10.104), and mice and storks care for their elders (10.63, 224). Sea-eagles test the legitimacy of their young by forcing them to stare at the sun, and refuse to rear those that fail the test as degenerates (NH 10.10). Extraordinary animals who display fidelity to human beings, such as the dolphin who fell in love with a boy (NH 9.25-28) or the eagle who dies with its human companion (10.18), represent exemplary conduct in both animal and human domains.

The focus in the Natural History on combatting human luxuria offers a place for aspirational views of animal sociability. Pliny’s work contributes both to a long tradition of naturalizing power through appeals to the natural world (Yanagisako 1995). More immediately, though, his work participates in the ideological project of the Flavian imperial family to legimate their power, and its perpetuation via blood succession, by appeals to moral virtue.

Session/Panel Title

Family Values: Fathers and Sons in Flavian Literature

Session/Paper Number


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