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Animality, Humanity and the Species Grid in Roman Literature

Colin MacCormack

University of Texas at Austin

A recent turn among scholars of Classical literature has been one away from traditional ‘Humanist’ thinking and towards ‘Posthumanism’, which resists assumptions of mankind’s exceptionalism in favor of opening discourses on non-human entities (Bianchi, Brill & Holmes 2019; Chiesi & Spiegel 2020). Following this movement, this paper explores perceptions of animals in Roman literature, both the differences and similarities understood to exist between human and non-human animals, as well as between animal species. While Roman literature furnishes numerous assertions of mankind’s exceptionality based on various cognitive qualities, authors from the Roman world also regularly presented animals displaying features thought to belong only to humans. However, the degree to which a creature might be ‘animalized’ or ‘humanized’ was also dependent on its species. Some creatures were more readily endowed with virtues like intelligence, compassion and religiosity, whereas others found themselves regularly denied these qualities.

A common claim of Greco-Roman culture is that it held a thoroughly anthropocentric worldview (Renehan 1981; Korhonen & Ruonakoski 2017, 33-9). Following Aristotle’s assertions that man alone possessed speech and reason, logos, Greek and Roman thinkers, especially the Stoics (e.g. Seneca, De Ira 1.3), regularly contrasted communicative, rational humans with ‘dumb’ (ἄλογος, mutus) beasts (Sorabji 1993; Natoli 2017, 17-32). Lucretius and Horace trace mankind’s development from a primitive, animalistic state (mutum pecus, more ferarum) to speaking, organized communities (DRN 5.925-1090, Sat. 1.3.99-106), while Ovid’s account of creation separates man, a being “more capable of lofty thought,” (Met. 1.76, mentisque capacius altae) from other animals.

However, Roman authors, especially during the Imperial period, did not entirely deny animals subjectivity. Prose writers like Pliny the Elder, Plutarch and Aelian, pulling from collections of zoological knowledge, cite examples of animal wisdom and morality. Likewise, poets, drawing from these same pools of knowledge, often presented animals as having similar, if not the same experiences, emotions and even institutions as humans, such as the horses, bulls and bees of Vergils’ Georgics (3.241-9, 4.149-227) or the animals sacrificed in Ovid’s Fasti (1.317-458). The most conspicuous development of this humanizing turn to animals occurs in Pseudo-Oppian’s Cynegetica, which sees complex inner lives in its animal subjects and imagines what they might say if they could speak.

In this negotiation of ‘animality’ or ‘humanity’, two opposed yet interdependent qualities, we can see a realization of what Cary Wolfe dubs a “species grid” (Wolfe & Elmer 2003). These cultural significations range from the fully realized subject of the ‘humanized human’ down to the ‘animalized human’, ‘humanized animal’ and, finally, the objectified and sacrificed ‘animalized animal’. This paper's interests lie in the latter two categories: where and how Romans recognized the ‘humanized animal’ versus the ‘animalized animal’. For some animals, such as elephants (Kachuck 2020), Roman authors easily identified aspects of ‘humanity’ in their behaviour. At the same time, other species, most conspicuously fish, creatures alienated by both their environment and appearance, appear more often than not as commodities to be evaluated and consumed (e.g. Pliny, HN 9.67-8; Juv. 4).

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Natural History and Pliny's Natural History

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