- Man and Animal in Severan Rome: The Literary Imagination of Claudius Aelianus by Steven D. Smith
When Otto Keller published his meticulous work Die Antike Tierwelt (1909–13), classical scholars still conceived of ancient zoological knowledge as an astonishingly labyrinthine corpus of tales. One felt the need to separate objective truths and fabulous accounts on the basis of a modern-oriented comparatist approach which was especially suspicious of Aelian’s De Natura Animalium and the so-called paradoxographic tradition. At that time, classicists were also keen to [End Page 532] see Severan literature as a scarcely original (and relatively uninteresting) digest of earlier writings—a faithful mirror of the beginning of the end.
Steven Smith’s book on Aelian’s “literary imagination” and its culturally embedded use of animal figures is paradigmatic of the notable progress of scholarship in both such fields of research—the role of animals as revealing symbolic constructs and the intellectual life of Severan Rome. Throughout his well-structured survey, Smith offers new insights into Aelian’s worldview as a profoundly Hellenized Roman writer creatively combining biological notions and literary mirabilia, socio-political patterns, and sophistic aesthetics. On the one hand, the book clearly situates itself in the flourishing area of cultural and animal studies, making the most of both well-known and newly emerging theoretical frameworks (from Michel Foucault to Donna Haraway, from Derrida and Deleuze to Giorgio Agamben). Of course, the purpose of Smith as well as of other contemporary scholars interested in the ancient representation of animals is no longer to identify reliable “scientific” data as distinct from ancient folklore. Rather, it is the intersection of rhetorical, historical, and anthropological factors which seems to characterize most properly the Graeco-Roman discourse on animal life. On the other hand, however, Smith engages in an ambitious reconfiguration of Aelian’s (admittedly enigmatic) profile as an exponent of the Second Sophistic, at the same time indebted and alien to the milieu of the third century c.e. The multifaceted textual construction of Aelian’s animal narratives is shown to entail a critical (and at times ambiguous) reflection on such different issues as gender, religion, ethnicity, natural philosophy, and kingship.
The book is composed of ten chapters, each one investigating a specific aspect of Aelian’s Weltanschauung on the basis of thematically connected passages. While the main focus is on De Natura Animalium (and thus on animal-related topics), two chapters (2 and 10, respectively) extend the scope of the inquiry to Aelian’s Rustic Letters and Varia Historia (VH). The monograph as a whole is framed by an introductory overview (starting with a fictional first-person speech by Aelian) and a conclusive note which sums up Smith’s most relevant theses. In addition, a more “philological” appendix discusses seventeen short fragments possibly pertaining to Aelian’s lost Katēgoria tou gunnidos (“The Indictment of the Little Woman”), a bitter invective against Elagabalus prudently written after the emperor’s death (cf. Philostr. Vit. Soph. 625).
The question of Aelian’s elusive literary persona figures prominently in the general introduction and is the core subject of chapter 1. By qualifying the author of the De Natura Animalium (NA) as “independent” and “countercultural,” Smith does not mean to remove him from his social and political context. On the contrary, the evidence drawn from the NA itself (especially from the impressionistic self-portrait of the preface and the epilogue), together with the biographical sketches in Philostratus’ Lives of the Sophists and in the Byzantine Souda lexicon, is used to demonstrate that, though “inextricably bound up with and perhaps even unwittingly celebratory of urban Roman culture of the early third century c.e., Aelian nevertheless also fashions a literary persona that is critical of that same [End Page 533] cultural milieu” (16). In Smith’s view, such a fascinatingly ambivalent effect is made possible by the overwhelming stylistic variety (poikilia) of the NA, which appears as an “open” work (in Umberto Eco’s terms) intentionally lacking any large-scale...