Thursday, September 10, 2015


Steven D. Smith, Man and Animal in Severan Rome: The Literary Imagination of Claudius Aelianus. Greek culture in the Roman world. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014. Pp. xii, 308. ISBN 9781107033986. $99.00.

Reviewed by C. W. Marshall, University of British Columbia (

Version at BMCR home site


Man and Animal in Severan Rome is an exciting and imaginative study detailing the literary virtues of Claudius Aelianus—Aelian— with a particular emphasis on De natura animalium (NA). Smith's Aelian emerges, perhaps surprisingly, as both a sophisticated literary stylist and a politically savvy observer of the Severan court. His polished anecdotes (Smith regularly calls them "fragments", which is misleading), strung together with deliberate haphazardness, are shown to reveal an author maintaining his position just outside the periphery of the imperial circle: "Aelian's moralizing should be understood not as an instrument of power, but as an expression of disavowal and longing for a transformation of the world" (273).

Smith clearly likes Aelian, and his unwavering enthusiasm is contagious. The book's structure provides a helpful survey of the richness of Aelian's works: seven of the ten chapters focus on NA (addressing themes of poikilia, Hellenization, Stoicism, theology, Egypt and India, sex, and kingship); the others offer a biographical introduction and address the two other major surviving works, Rustic Letters (Ep.) and Varia historia (VH). An appendix on the fragmentary Katêgoria tou gunnidos (Indictment of the Little Woman), which Smith takes to be a satire on Elagabalus and to include all of the fragments of De mima Syra, is also included. By focusing on poikilia as a literary value (54-60), Smith denies himself any totalizing interpretation. Though it is possible for Smith to sample only a small portion of Aelian's work, the effect is to provide the feeling of a deep and sustained engagement with the entire corpus. Aelian's moral perspective and self- distancing from power pervade all of his work: for example, VH is about the moral position of truphê (luxuria), which is examined through anecdotes concerning Aspasia of Phokaia (VH 12.1) and Atalante (VH 13.1). These virtues afford Aelian the opportunity for "radically indirect" (246) political commentary.

Smith is arguing for a much more encompassing critical aesthetic when approaching an author such as this: "We fail to understand Aelian fully if we think of him as a mere compiler…" (128). Such a self-evident claim is in its way revolutionary, and should underpin many future studies of the author. At its core, NA demonstrates the manipulability of nature for an author's ideology. As a result, we need "to seek out, if possible, those very phases of transformation where we might witness the narrative voice shifting … as it seeks an alternative reading" (182). Because animals "elicit wonder rather than disgust" (194) for humans, they are an ideal medium by which to reveal "Aelian's countercultural literary persona" (197). Aelian challenges his reader to re-think Roman superiority, and animals are regularly shown to be morally superior to humans. In one of the richest analyses of the book (233-38), Smith demonstrates how a lion encountered by Juba I (NA 7.20) articulates "the recurring theme of man's ethical relationship to power" (236), and stresses the importance of such an understanding in Severan Rome. Along the way, the reader is offered a brief history of Roman Mauretania. By treating Aelian's counter-example of Androkles and the lion (229-33; NA 7.44) first, however, he reverses the order in which a reader of Aelian would experience the stories.

Aelian's stylistic poikilia means that "Aelian's writing … is bound to frustrate the reader who seeks only positivist certainty" (159). Occasionally, such positivism emerges in Smith's analyses. He expects Aelian to know the Praeneste Nile mosaic (160) and the image of Caracalla on a particular coin series (164-65), which is possible but not certain. An anonymous interlocutor "is obviously a dilettante" (115), when he may equally be a fictional straw man. When caution is expressed (as at NA 2.11, when Aelian actually claims to have seen elephants writing though he is likely drawing on Pliny the Elder), the explanation offered feels inadequate (85). This leads to a clear anxiety for Smith when writing about Aelian's use of myth, which is awkwardly distanced from the ancient perspective (131: "Myth, understood as fictitious storytelling…"; and see 129-32). I also doubt whether Aelian's reordering of a particular narrative's events is meant to be mimetic of a lion's memory (230). When Aelian stresses the tragic associations of the Tereus story (NA 2.3, discussed 192-94), Sophocles' Tereus, perhaps mediated through Aristophanes' Birds (a play Aelian mentions at NA 4.42, 12.4, and 16.5), is surely relevant. I was not convinced that the tale of Pindos and the snake (NA 10.48, discussed at 137-44) is about the imperial cult, where reference to Lucian's Alexander the false prophet would be more productive. Similarly, I missed reference to Plutarch's Gryllus, another liminal figure straddling the border between human and animal. An uncertain manuscript reading in Ep. 10 that confuses "son" with "boar" is unlikely to be significant for understanding Aelian's intention for the passage (40).

The anecdotes themselves are of course lots of fun. Hyenas change sex annually (194-96; NA 1.24); Perseus prayed for the frogs of Seriphos to be silent (123; NA 3.37); the hybrid monster martichoras (i.e. the manticore) was seen in the court of the Persian king (NA 4.22; 165-66); the dog-headed kunokephaloi in India do not speak, but howl their language (169-70; NA 4.47); a stork gives a glowing magical stone to a widow of Tarentum (133-37; NA 8.21); a pious child is metamorphosed into the hoopoe in India (110; NA 16.5); Socrates occasionally wore sandals (252; VH 4.11). Smith's footnotes regularly collect multiple references to a given animal or theme, and each of these can lead to a happy side-trek through disparate sections of Aelian's work (see especially the various references to particular gods gathered helpfully at 125 n. 17).

Smith's Aelian is an appealing, humane figure who uses animals to understand the vicissitudes of human behaviour. He is philosophically interested but never doctrinal, a Stoic who had some public obligations as a high priest (a biographical detail from the Souda that is perhaps over-invested with meaning by Smith) but who remained apart from imperial power by choice. Aelian's collections of anecdotes are charming and inoffensive and, if Smith is right, they cut to the heart of the pretense of Severan Rome.

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