Sonntag, 21. September 2014

PhD project of Dominik Berrens: "Colonial insects in antiquity. A contribution to concepts of nature in the Greco-Roman culture"

Ein Beitrag von Valeria Zubieta Lupo.

Social animals

In modern biological terminology, colonial insects are also referred to as (eu)social insects. In his famous definition of ζῷα πολιτικά (zōa politika; which can be translated in this context as "social animals") the philosopher Aristotle states that these animals take care collectively of a common good (Historia animalium 1,1 488a 7-10). This small group of animals consists of man, bee, wasp, ant, and crane.
Modern biologists like E. O. Wilson establish slightly different criteria for the so-called eusociality: eusocial animals feature cooperative parental care, division of labour with sterile and fertile castes as well as overlapping generations. This phenomenon is widespread in the animal world and though most eusocial animals are insects it also occurs in some mammalian species like the naked mole rat. Well known examples of eusocial insects are termites (order Isoptera), bees, wasps, and ants (all order Hymenoptera).

Problem of classification

Modern biology often refers to the so-called biological species concept which defines a species as members of populations that are able to interbreed and are reproductively isolated from others. Such a specific definition did not exist in the Greco-Roman antiquity. On the contrary, mostly morphologic criteria were applied to define a species. Furthermore, terms like the Greek γένος or the Latin genus do not share meaning with the term "genus" in our modern taxonomical system, but it can be applied at various levels of it, like the technical term "taxon" or simply "kind". Very often morphological and behavioural characteristics of two or more modern species were conflated, especially in the description of smaller animals like insects. Literary texts did not often provide an exact denomination e.g. in Aristophanes Wasps (Σφῆκες; Sphēkes), a comedy featuring a chorus of wasps, the chorus refers to its houses not as σφηκιαί (spēkiai), but as ἀνθρήνια (anthrēnia) which literally means "nests of the anthrēnas", a more hornet-like species. Therefore, an exact identification of an ancient species with a modern species is in most cases not only impossible but also inadequate to the ancient concept of species.
Because modern names don’t cover all the characteristics, symbols or topoi related to these animals in ancient times, it is more sensible to use more vague terms like "wasp" and "ant" or the ancient names when dealing with ancient zoology.


In his PhD project Dominik Berrens analyses the description of bees, wasps, and ants in ancient Greek and Latin texts within the period between the 8th century B.C.E. and late antiquity. A great amount of bees' descriptions are found in ancient "scientific" (e.g. the works of Aristotle and Pliny the Elder) and agronomic prose literature (e.g. Varro, Columella, Palladius, the Geoponics). Wasps and ants, on the other side, are dealt in a smaller number of texts. Further sources are didactic poems like Virgil's Georgics or Nicander's Theriaka and Alexipharmaka.

Besides the afore mentioned texts, which deal with social insects in a more obvious way, Dominik Berrens examines metaphorical depictions like similes and metaphors as well as fables and Greek Old comedies e.g. the Wasps of Aristophanes. Metaphoric depictions can illustrate the supposed relation between man and animal and thereby show the underlying concept of nature. Furthermore, metaphoric depictions shape the cultural image of certain animal and can also influence "scientific" texts.

In his thesis, Dominik Berrens wants to present his results divided into different topics, like "Reproduction, Sex and Gender", "Social animals and Poetics", "Politics", etc. This way of division suits his purpose to show the differences in the characterisation of these animals and the variation of concepts within different times and cultures.

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