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Animal Speech, Sermo, and Imperialism in Pliny the Elder’s Natural History

Wesley J Hanson

University of Pennsylvania

Early in the Natural History, Pliny praises Italy for its ability to unite distant enemies and bring into agreement the discordant dialects of the world through common use of the Latin language (3.39). The phrase that Pliny uses, sermonis commercium, aligns his interest in speech with potential benefits that Roman imperialism could generate by connecting cultures that span the known world – a world that Pliny felt his Natural History had a role in illuminating. At Natural History 5.45, Pliny notes that the Troglodytes, who lack a sermonis commercium, fall outside of these parameters. Animals, however, do demonstrate a capacity for language and so show that, by nature, certain parts of the world are open to a Roman conquest that has at its core a Latin language policy. For Pliny, the natural world can justify Roman conquest (Ash 2011), and animals are especially efficacious for articulating a naturalized argument for conquest because they belong to the natural world and also overlap with humans through their use of language – an overlap that Pliny signals with the word sermo.  

During the early imperial period, the enforcement of a language policy was debated (Dubuisson 1982 and Rochette 2011). In this paper, I argue that Pliny provides a rational for the utility of an imperial language policy with a particular focus on his application of the term sermo to human-animal communication. Studies of animals in literature have increasingly argued for the importance of animal speech (Borgards 2012, Fögen 2014, Borgards 2016, and Fögen and Thomas 2017), an approach that complements well the scholarship on humanity’s relationship to animals in Pliny (Beagon 1992 and Henderson 2011). I draw on such studies in the context of current debates about Pliny’s attitude toward imperialism (Ash 2011, Fear 2011, and Naas 2011) and argue that Pliny advocates for the role his Natural History could play in shaping a language policy. Pliny’s text categorizes different cultures around the world in a way that promotes thinking about how language can be used to adjudicate who should be conquered and how the conquered can be united with Italy.

By understanding imperialism as a function of speech, Pliny articulates an argument for conquest that has at its core the common use of the Latin language, something that had taken place in Italy centuries before (3.39). And, sermo, a polysemantic word that offers monologic or dialogic interpretations (Short 2012/2013), well suits Pliny’s interest in talking animals: animal speech blurs the distinction between humans and animals, establishing a measure for evaluating which regions of the world can join Italy’s sermonis commercium. Pliny notes that language is one of three defining human qualities (7.210), and language is part of why the elephant is “closest to man in intelligence” (proximumque humanis sensibus) because it understands the language of its homeland (intellectus illis sermonis patrii). An animal’s ability to use human speech (especially sermo) can even earn it a position in Rome: the birds of the Augustan household “imitate the speech of humans” (imitantem sermones hominum) and are “responsive to instruction in the Greek and Latin language” (Graeco ac Latino sermone dociles) under the tutelage of Agrippina, Britannicus, and Nero. Birds, like the elephant, take on quasi-human qualities. Thus, when Pliny tells his reader that the Troglodytes lack a sermonis commercium, he not only figuratively relegates them to a sub-human status but also suggests that language is a natural boundary for the empire.

Pliny argues for the necessity of comprehending the world before conquering it, and both comprehension and conquest ought properly to be predicated upon a language policy. By making the world comprehensible through its examination of animal speech, the Natural History sets itself up as playing a role in articulating the rational for this imperial language policy. The question of what constituted a natural limit to Roman conquest required re-evaluation; Pliny proposes language.

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