Friday, July 22, 2011


Stephen Newmyer, Animals in Greek and Roman Thought: A Sourcebook. Routledge Sourcebooks for the Ancient World. London/New York: Routledge, 2010. Pp. 142. ISBN 9780415773355. $38.95 (pb).

Reviewed by Susan A. Curry, University of New Hampshire (

Version at BMCR home site


Stephen Newmyer's Animals in Greek and Roman Thought: A Sourcebook contains a useful and representative selection of passages from antiquity concerned with non-human animals, human/animal relations, and ethical obligations to animals. Routledge should be commended for including this topic among its series of sourcebooks for the ancient world; and, Newmyer, whose own scholarship on animals in antiquity engages a variety of ancient sources, most notably Plutarch, does a fine job of selecting and contextualizing these "classic" texts on animals. For students and scholars of the ancient world new to the subject of animal studies, Newmyer's sourcebook offers an excellent introduction. Individuals interested in the history of western thought on animals and the origins of the animal rights debate might be surprised to discover just how relevant ancient discourse concerning animal characteristics and what, if anything, human beings owe non-human animals is to contemporary debates.

Newmyer clearly states his purpose in the preface: "The present volume is intended to fill the need for a selection of readings from Greek and Roman authors who discussed topics relating to human-animal interactions and who speculated on the nature of animalkind vis-à-vis humankind" (xii). Classicists are not his only intended audience. It is clear from the preface that Newmyer is also trying to provide a much needed corrective to the many anthologies of "classic" writing on animals in western thought that delve no further into the past than the Enlightenment. By attempting to provide a selection useful to scholars of both the ancient world and modern philosophy or ethics, Newmyer risks compiling a selection insufficient to the needs of both. On the whole, Newmyer manages to achieve a balance in his choices as well as in his introductions to the selected texts that will please both audiences, albeit with some sacrifice from each. Since the selections appear only in translation, classicists may hanker after the passage in its original language (easily traceable thanks to a very helpful "Texts Consulted" section in the back of the book). Contemporary philosophers unfamiliar with the fragmentary state of ancient evidence may wonder at the inclusion of some one-sentence selections. However, by providing a balanced selection, basic (non-literary) translations, and transliterations of technical ancient terms and by relating ancient terms to modern terminology, Newmyer successfully bridges the gap that often separates works intended for his two primary audiences.

The sourcebook is divided into two major sections: "Animals as Beings," which focuses on ancient views of the nature of animals, and "Human-Animal Relations," which includes selections addressing the place of animals within human culture. Each of these sections is subdivided and each subdivision is organized chronologically allowing the reader to observe the influence of earlier writers on later writers and to trace the evolution of a particular way of thinking about animals. "Animals as Beings" addresses the important questions of whether animals have reason and whether and how animals respond to human beings. This first half is divided into the sections: "The Intellect of Animals: Rational or Irrational?," "Human-Animal Kinship," and "Animal Behaviors" (further subdivided into "Introductory," "Rearing of Offspring," "Relation to the Environment: Prey and Predators," "Helping Behaviors," "Skills and Shortcomings," and "The Language of Animals").

In addition to selections concerning the human use of animals, the second half addresses the extremely important issue of whether or not animals are owed ethical consideration and includes selections on: "Animals as Moral Beings" (subdivided into "Justice toward Animals" and "Justice from Animals"), Animals as Offerings: Hunting and Sacrifice," "Animals as Sport: The Arena," "Animals as Food: Vegetarianism and Its Opponents," and "Animals as Friends: Kindness to Animals." With the exception of Philo of Alexandria, whose work is only available through an Armenian translation, all the accurate and functional translations throughout are Newmyer's own. The first half of the book concerning ancient views on the nature of animals leads logically into the second half, which essentially shows the cultural and ethical implications of those views.

For each division or subdivision, Newmyer provides an introduction that situates the author in time and provides basic information helpful to non-classicists. For example, Newmyer introduces the Hesiod passage, which is the first in the section on "Justice from Animals," by providing this basic information about Hesiod's text: "the verses below from the didactic poem Works and Days, a loosely organized treatise on farming with observations on practical morality composed by the Boeotian farmer Hesiod (8th century BCE?), constitute the earliest extant Greek attempt to differentiate human beings from other animals on philosophical grounds, and may be considered to be the first Greek example of the 'man alone of animals' commonplace" (82).

As noted above, one of the great strengths of this sourcebook is the way Newmyer makes connections between earlier and later authors in his introductions, thus providing a history of the development of ideas and traditions relating to animals in ancient texts. For example, in the introduction to a passage from the De finibus bonorum et malorum in the section, "Rearing of Offspring," Newmyer writes of Cicero's contribution to the topic: "He joins writers such as Philo, Pliny the Elder and Plutarch in isolating some animal behaviors that suggest in embryonic form the commendable virtues of industry and sympathy for others of their species, not to mention traces of intellect, but he stops short of agreeing with Plutarch, who argued that the pleasures in which animals indulge, which are free of the excesses of human behavior, may serve as lessons to human beings in modest and praiseworthy conduct" (41).

By situating Cicero's thought in terms of Philo, Pliny, and Plutarch, Newmyer helps his reader form a nuanced understanding of the influence of one thinker on another. These ancient authors are not simply pro- or anti-animal, nor do most of them fit neatly into "schools" of thought. While suggesting the historical development of ideas concerning animals, Newmyer does not oversimplify the relationships among authors. Because of the way Newmyer allows earlier passages to influence his commentary on later passages, and because he only provides these introductions for each section and not for each individual passage, this book is best read in whole parts or sections rather than dipped into one passage at a time.

While Newmyer's sourcebook is a very useful guide to ancient thinking about animals, there are two minor disappointments concerning the selection and inclusion of texts. A handful of passages from imaginative literature are included among the selections, for example, Ovid's entertaining Pythagoras passage (Metamorphoses XV. 75-142, which essentially warns us: don't eat that hamburger, it may be your grandmother!), a couple of selections from Homer (Iliad IX. 314-327, Achilles describing a hungry mother bird sacrificing her own nourishment for her children, and Odyssey XVII. 290-323, alas, poor Argus!), and one from Hesiod (Works and Days 274-280, which claims that animals do not have a sense of justice), but the sourcebook could use a few more. Imaginative literature can provide us with other, "popular" views of non-human animals in ancient thought, and fictional depictions of animals and human/animal relationships deserve a more prominent place beside the work of philosophers and historians engaging directly with questions concerning animals and morality, especially in a sourcebook that has such potential to show non-classicists how much ancient texts have to offer to contemporary debates. The famous crocodile passage from Achilles Tatius (Leucippe and Clitophon IV.19), for example, might make an interesting contribution to the "Animal Behaviors" section and a passage or two from Apuleius' Golden Ass, for example, Lucius describing how kind he is to his horse (I. 2) or the horrible treatment of human slaves and animals alike in the mill scene (XV. 75-142) might really enrich the "Animals as Friends: Kindness to Animals" section. In addition, Newmyer's recurring reference to Aristotle's famous "just war" passage in the Politics makes one wish he had included it among the selections; although it does not relate directly to the question of animals, his incisive allusions to it justify its inclusion.

Finally, in several instances, Newmyer points out contradictory attitudes towards animals in different works from the same author. Especially given Newmyer's expertise on Plutarch, in whose texts these contradictions are most apparent, one wishes Newmyer had speculated a bit in his introductions to those passages about the reason for these contradictions. Could it be that certain authors were more concerned with rhetoric than deeply and personally invested in the ideas expounded in their work; or, do such contradictions indicate a change in the author's own outlook or an evolution in their thinking about animals? Without sacrificing his commendable objectivity and balanced selection, Newmyer might have suggested a few ways of interpreting these contradictions, which, I think, would be especially thought provoking to non-classicists who might incorrectly assume an ancient author believed with the utmost sincerity in the views his texts seem to propound.

Scholars of the ancient world already deeply involved in the study of non-human animals will mostly be familiar with the texts Newmyer has included in this sourcebook. But, aside from the issue of imaginative literature discussed above, this is as it should be. His purpose is not to reveal recently discovered evidence or provide a radical new interpretation of well-known passages describing ancient attitudes towards animals, but to introduce a representative and balanced selection of passages useful to scholars of antiquity and the history of human/animal relationships alike. While not ignoring the profound and continuing influence of Aristotelian and Stoic thought on the contemporary animal rights debate, Newmyer's selections do show us that several other voices contributed to the ancient debate concerning the nature and place of animals in the world. If nothing else, I hope that scholars and students engaged with questions of animal rights will begin to see how false is the notion that Aristotle's writings are the only ancient contribution to discussions concerning animals and will become wary of how often the name "Aristotle" is invoked as the absolute authority in the contemporary animal rights debate.

This sourcebook will be most useful in the classroom. I would eagerly include it among the required texts in an interdisciplinary humanities course focusing on the ancient environment, Greek and Roman attitudes towards nature, or animals in antiquity. As classics departments increasingly forge relationships with environmental studies departments and offices of sustainability, college teachers of both ancient studies and the history of human/animal relationships should find this collection of key texts valuable in a variety of classroom contexts helping students understand the way Greeks and Romans engaged with questions that we continue to grapple with today.

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