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Debating Parental Love in Oppian’s Halieutica

Sean McGrath

Trinity College Dublin

When reconstructing the intellectual debates of the imperial era, scholars generally turn to the many prose texts from this period. While the presence of philosophical concepts in imperial poetry is acknowledged, the general assumption is that poetry is influenced by philosophy rather than actively contributing to the discussion. This paper instead demonstrates the dialectical role that imperial poetry could play through a specific case study: the debate on the existence of parental love among animals in Oppian’s Halieutica.

The Halieutica is a five-book Greek didactic epic poem composed in hexameters, dedicated to Marcus Aurelius. Its subject matter is the behavior of fish and how to catch them. One of the most characteristic features of the Halieutica is its anthropomorphic representation of marine animals. While some have discussed the Halieutica’s engagement with the poetic tradition (e.g. Rebuffat 2001, Bartley 2003), its position within intellectual history has never been seriously studied.

The universality of parental love (philostorgia) was heavily debated in the imperial period (Roskam 2011, McConnell 2017). Especially for the Stoics, there was much at stake. In Stoicism, the behavior of animals, including humans, is a manifestation of the innate tendency of any organism to pursue its proper activities (Klein 2016). This included loving your offspring, which made philostorgia universal and natural. Philostorgia among humans was seen as a prerequisite for the development of communality and justice. Epicureans on the other hand argued that animals (including humans) did not automatically develop affection for their offspring, but that they evaluated whether loving their young would be beneficial for themselves and acted accordingly.

This paper will show that these debates are the context against which we should read the ending of book 1 of the Halieutica, which introduces the concept of universal parental love only to subsequently present cases that problematize this notion. The latter half of book 1 is dedicated to the reproduction of marine fauna. In this context, the Halieutica first introduces philostorgia as a natural and instinctual drive among all animals in Stoic terms and provides a plethora of examples. This is however juxtaposed with a description of the tuna which eats its own offspring, thereby refuting the previously established principles. This is followed by a description of spontaneously generated animals, drawing on Aristotelian biology. Generation without any form of sexual reproduction presents a further challenge to the alleged universality of parental love, since these species do not even have parents. The Halieutica therefore does not only impart biological information, but also weighs the arguments for two different positions on the underlying principles of animal behavior through comparison with available zoological knowledge.

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Breaking the Paradigm: Greek Poetry in the Roman Empire

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