- Man and Animal in Severan Rome: The Literary Imagination of Claudius Aelianus by Steven D. Smith
Steven D. Smith is a professor of classics and comparative literature at Hofstra University. He has earlier published Greek Identity and the Athenian Past in Chariton: The Romance of Empire (Groningen, 2007). In his new book Smith has made Claudius Aelianus’ De natura animalium his main theme. It is well known that De natura animalium is a miscellany of animal lore. It is not equally obvious that it is a sophisticated literary critique of Severan Rome, which is what Smith argues. The book has a picture of the cynocephalic marble statue of Anubis from the Vatican museums on the cover, and it illustrates Smith’s perspective, which is how cultural issues of Aelian’s time are reflected in his stories about animals.
The book includes ten chapters, an introduction and a conclusion, a reconstruction of Aelian’s Katêgoria tou gunnidos, a bibliography, and two appendices. In the first chapter, Smith presents Aelian as an independent intellectual with a countercultural persona partly formed by his “failure and/or unwillingness to conform to the normative notions of Roman masculinity” (27). Aelian took part in the philosophical debate on the capacity of animals to reason, and on the tradition of using animals to throw light on humans and their morality. The second chapter explores the use of animals in Aelian’s Rustic Letters. Smith shows that these letters have much in common with De natura animalium in their interest in the relationship between human and animal. Smith sees Aelian, in chapter 3, as unique in applying to the topic of animals “a thoroughly developed stylistic and structural poikilia” (65). In chapter 4 Smith explores the paradox of this Hellenized Roman: Aelian wrote in Greek and chose to cite no Latin author, but he probably never left Italy. He was applauded for his maintaining of Roman identity while, by means of animals, he distanced himself from that identity. Chapter 5 is about Aelian the philosopher, and his commitment to Stoicism and the Stoic view of animals as irrational at the same time as he obviously questions the superiority of humans in relation to animals. Smith has a separate chapter on animals and divinity and one on Egypt and India (chapters 6 and 7). His long chapter 8 is on the sexual animal. It gives an intricate reading of [End Page 583] erôs, sex, and sexual morality in De natura animalium and shows how Aelian’s stories frequently erode conventional sexual morality. In the ninth chapter Smith discusses Aelian’s treatment of kingship by means of bees, lions, and eagles. The tenth chapter is labeled “After Animals: The Women of the Varia historia.” The first chapters of Varia historia reveal its author’s continuing interest in animals, but then move to women. In this miscellany Aelian, in a way similar to that in De natura animalium, invites the reader to rethink moral criteria. The conclusion of Man and Animal in Severan Rome has a quotation in the heading: “Nature produces animals with many voices and many sounds you might say. . . .” The quotation very well fits the complexity which Smith’s reading of Aelian has revealed. For Aelian, nature is a divine force in the cosmos, and Smith sees his reverence for Helios as intimately connected to the moralizing orientation of De natura animalium.
In this sophisticated book Aelian comes across as a hero with a universalizing literary project who combines an emphatic gaze on animals with a critical gaze on human culture and morality. Smith demonstrates deep insight into the age of this author, who has frequently been underestimated, not least, perhaps, because his topic is animals. Smith makes a convincing case for reading De natura animalium as a critique of Severan Rome, and he opens the reader’s eyes to its ambiguities and anxieties in a fascinating way. The book is recommended for...