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From Homeric similes to Roman venationes, mammals dominate ancient thinking about animals. Insects, on the other hand, are inessential. Too minute to scrutinize and too alien to anthropomorphize, insects feature predominantly in ‘technical’ narratives (Davies & Kathirithamby 1986, Jackson 1986). But a few exceptions – including ants, bees, beetles, cicadas, and wasps – have mythic-literary biographies with stimulating counterparts to those of mammals.

This paper focuses on ants, whose industry and social organization are often compared to the polity of the bees. Yet unlike the wholesome bees, which serve humans, ants raid orchards, threshing floors, and pantries. Moreover, ants consume meat and even carrion, resembling vultures and hyenas. From an anthropocentric perspective, their housekeeping and work ethic are admirable but also culpable, even disturbing. Morally ambiguous, formicae/μύρμηκες offer a means of reflecting on the ethics of the empire.

The Roman imperial(ist) configuration of ants is rooted in the Aeneid. Virgil’s simile of the Trojans leaving Carthage (Aen. 4. 397-411 with Katz 2008) merges ants into the two voices of the epic. Combining industrious ants in Horace (Sat. 1.1.30-5) and in the Georgics (V. G. 1.379-382, 4.149-157), the simile is focalized through Dido as she watches the Trojans lugging supplies to their ships. Her prospect from the citadel evokes the philosophic ‘view from above’ (Plat. Phaed. 109b; Lucr. 2.1-19). Meanwhile, the ants’ weightlifting ironizes the ‘great weight’ of founding Rome (Aen. 1.33), foreshadowing the plundering of its eventual subjects. The proto-Roman ants also darken Anchises’ vision of empire in Aen. 6.847-853. Those future people, whose sole virtuosity is conquest, resemble the ruthless μύρμηξ of Aesopic lore, who jeers the hungry cicada for having wasted his summer reposing and singing. Now the cultured cicada ‘must dance’ (Perry 373, Babrius 140). The anti-art, anti-intellectual ants of the Aeneid are primed to triumph over the Greek cicadas of philosophy and music (Plat. Phaedr. 259b-e; Call. Aet. 29-36).

Virgil’s philistine ants become more predatory in Seneca, who regularly adapts the Aeneid (Trinacty 2018). To defend the study of nature as morally elevating, Seneca abbreviates worldly affairs in a Roman panorama of wars and urban bustle. While rehashing the Virgilian simile, his image recasts the imperial project as a scurrying of ants to highlight its vanity (Sen. Nat. 1. Pref. 9-11~ Sen. Dial. 9.12.3). The Senecan ants take another sinister turn in Suetonius, where they presage the demise of bad emperors. Tiberius finds his pet snake devoured by ants, which his advisors interpret as a warning of mob violence (Tib. 72). Nero too dreams of himself coated in ants before the revolt of Vindex (Nero 46). Both scenes conjure images of decay and perhaps even brutalities such as that described by Apuleius: a fugitive slave is smeared with honey and is nibbled to death by ants (Met. 8.22).

In sum, imperial ants are social, political, and literary; their resolute domesticity, efficiency, and savagery ensure their success. Myrmecologies from Virgil to Apuleius explore Roman identity, individual and collective, and those principles and acts essential to preserving the empire.