Brain Pickings

Ancient Romans’ Fanciful and Entertaining Pre-Scientific Beliefs about Animal Behavior

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What the greed of the octopus has to do with the ram’s preferred bedside and the hyena’s gender-bending.

We don’t know much about the Roman writer, collector, and moralist Claudius Aelianus, better-remembered as Aelian, except that he was born sometime between A.D. 165 and 170 some 25 miles outside of Rome, and that he made obsessive almanac-like collections on esoteric and odd topics. Though few of those survive, his magnum opus, De Natura Animalium (On the Nature of Animals), was popular enough in his heyday to survive largely intact, enduring as the only know work of Aelian’s today. The collection features seemingly random stories about animals, selected for no other reason that Aelian found them interesting, and serves as a kind of early encyclopedia of animal behavior rooted partly in mythology, partly in the speculative science of the day, and partly in Aelian’s own liberties as a storyteller.

In Aelian’s On the Nature of Animals, writer and Encyclopedia Britannica contributing editor Gregory McNamee resurrects the best of these stories, full of sketchy science and fanciful facts, to offer unprecedented insight into how ancient Romans thought of animals — a curious precursor to today’s scientific fascination with animal minds, and a fascinating caricature of our tendency to imbue the minds of others, be they animal or human, with the characteristics, qualities, and motives of our own.

Aelian was also a clever publisher with a keen sense of what people would find interesting and of how to get them interested in the obscure and exotic — the hallmark of a great curator. McNamee writes in the introduction:

Aelian knew as much as any person of his time about animals. He knew what this contemporaries knew, and he knew what they would find exotic. On the Nature of Animals is thus both a wonderful window onto the beliefs of ordinary people and a testimonial to the transmission of knowledge in the ancient world. It is also a great entertainment to read, as Aelian ponders the ways of the animals an tries to work them out, sometimes successfully, by our lights, and sometimes not.

A few entertaining, enlightening, scientifically egregious selections:

The OCTOPUS is greedy, sneaky, and voracious, and it will eat anything. It is probably the most omnivorous creature in the sea. Here is the proof: in times of hunger, it will eat one of its own tentacles, thus making up for a lack of prey. When better times come, it grows back the missing limb. Nature thus gives it a ready meal in moments of want.

If you were to see a male HYENA this year, next year you would see female one. The reverse is true. Hyenas share both sexes, and they marry, and having done so, they change sex year by year. This a fact and not a fancy tale, and it makes the stories of Caeneus and Teiresias seem quaint.

The ELEPHANT is frightened of rams and the squaling of pigs, and the Romans put both to use in sending the elephants of Pyrrhus of Epirus in flight, by which the Romans won a resounding victory. The elephant is also easily overcome and mollified by a woman’s beauty. At Alexandria, in Egypt, it is said that an elephant competed with Aristophanes of Byzantium for the love of a garland maker. The elephant loves fragrances and is entranced by the smell of flowers and perfumes.

When a LION grows old, burdened by age, he cannot hunt. He hides himself away in caves or lairs in the jungle, and he does nothing about hunting even the weakest of his former prey, for he is self-conscious about his age and well aware of his incapacity. His young will come get him and take him out while they hunt, but leave him behind whenever they give chase to some animal. When they have successfully hunted, then they invite their old father to the feast. He comes quietly up, step by step, almost at a crawl, and meekly embraces his children, licking them, and then eats with them. No Solon had to deliver this as a law to the lions: nature, which supposedly knows nothing of law, teaches them to do these things. This is a a law that is immutable.

The female DOLPHIN has breasts like a human woman, and she suckles her young with abundant milk. Dolphins swim in a body, ranked by age. The young swim in front, and after them the adults. The dolphin loves her children and protects them: first come the young, then the females, then the males, all alert and on guard, keeping an eye out on the whole school. What, O great Homer, would Nestor say, whom you call the foremost tactician among all the heroes of his time?

During winter the RAM will sleep on its left side, while after the venereal equinox it sleeps on its right side. At each change of the season, it changes its way of sleeping.

When CRANES squawk, they bring on rain showers. So it is said — and also, that cranes have some sort of power which arouses women and causes them to dispense sexual favors. I take this at the word of those who have seen it happen.

In the prologue, Aelian conveys a healthy ethos that many contemporary writers — or creators in any discipline, for that matter — would be wise to take heed, balancing pride in one’s work with realism about the all too common compulsion to please all critics:

For my part, I have gathered everything I could learn on the subject here, and put it all into ordinary speech. It seems to me that the result is noteworthy. If you think so, then I hope these words will be useful to you. If not, give them to your rather to keep and study. Not everything pleases everyone, and not everyone wants to study everything. Plenty of other writers have come before me, but that should not disqualify me from praise, if it really is true that this learned book is far ranging and well written enough to deserve attention.

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