Lead book review

The sacred chickens that ruled the roost in ancient Rome

26 May 2018

9:00 AM

26 May 2018

9:00 AM

Even the most cursory glance at the classical period reveals the central place that birds played in the religious and political lives of the two key Mediterranean civilisations. Their gods, for example, were often represented in avian form, so that the Athenian currency bore an owl image, which was intended as a portrait of the city’s patron, Athene. ‘Owls to Athens’ was a proverbial expression, much like ‘coals to Newcastle’. From North Africa to the shores of the Black Sea there are still Greek temples dedicated to Zeus that are topped by weathering stone eagles as symbols of their supreme deity, while the imperial legions of Rome fought under an eagle standard for much the same symbolic reasons.

As the author of this new book explains, one of the most telling, if weirdest, expressions of their bird-mindedness is the significance that Romans accorded their sacred chickens. It involved a form of augury — a word that meant ‘watching birds’ — that required an official, known as a pullarius, to note the manner in which the fowl foraged, and also the sound and force of the grain as it spilt it on the ground. In his History of Rome, Livy wrote that ‘no action was ever undertaken, in the field or at home, unless the auspices had been consulted: assemblies of the people, war levies, great affairs of state — all would be put off if the birds withheld their approval’.

These ancient fixations have been the subject of more than a century of modern British scholarship; but unfortunately the books have often been deficient, primarily because the subject demands a deep knowledge of two radically separate disciplines — the cultural lives and literature of Greece and Rome and modern ornithological science.

Birds as a resource, as pets, or for sport: pheasant and waterfowl in mosaics from Carthage and RomeBirds as a resource, as pets, or for sport: pheasant and waterfowl in mosaics from Carthage and Rome

At last, here comes an author with the requisite dual scholarship. Jeremy Mynott, fresh from an acclaimed translation of Thucydides for Cambridge University Press, at which he was the former chief executive, has also been a lifelong birdwatcher. In 2009 he published a detailed anatomy of his pastime in a book called Birdscapes. This new work is thus a consummation of all his accomplishments. It is also thought-provoking, highly readable and exhaustive.

Mynott has made an enormous effort to trawl the whole of the classics for bird references. The materials unearthed are far greater than anything previously considered, and an appendix supplying potted biographies of the Greek and Roman authors discussed in the book includes more than 100 names. Some of their original passages have never been translated before, but Mynott has converted them all into highly idiomatic English. At the same time, he has been careful not to load them with modern ideas or prejudices, so that they are both faithful translations and highly readable.

To give a single example of how the author’s expertise sheds new light on old problems, there is a famous passage in Virgil’s Georgics translated by C. Day Lewis (now used for the Oxford World’s Classics edition) that includes material assumed to be about rooks as they ‘visit again their baby broods, their darling nests’. Mynott points out that there is deep ambiguity not only about the word corvus, which could be used for any of several species of crow. And the word cubiles, that Day Lewis renders as ‘cradle’, can in fact be any kind of resting place, including those used by dogs and even elk.

Birds as a resource, as pets, or for sport: pheasant and waterfowl in mosaics from Carthage and RomeBirds as a resource, as pets, or for sport: pheasant and waterfowl in mosaics from Carthage and Rome

Choosing to describe it as a rook’s nest begs questions that were probably of no matter to a poet. Yet rooks don’t breed at all in Italy now, so taking Day Lewis’s version on trust generates an intriguing ornithological problem. Why are the birds extinct in Italy today? It requires someone of Mynott’s hybridised scholarship to identify and analyse the issues at stake when we place such precise interpretations on the original texts.

Mynott divides his own analysis into broad categories: birds as a resource; birds as pets and familiars or sporting elements; and birds as symbols and vehicles of religious and magical practices. Finally he tackles birds as objects of study, especially for the Greek philosopher who is central to the book, and described as a ‘one-man university’: Aristotle. In his massive oeuvre this genius named 140 birds and initiated much of the intellectual groundwork that led to modern biological science.

Perhaps the pre-eminent achievement of the book is not its fastidious examination of classical birds, but the way it pans backwards from the avian minutiae to give us a much broader vision of two great civilisations. Birds and nature may remain centre stage, but ultimately we are asked to consider how Greek and Roman attitudes towards these other parts of life say so much about human nature, both in the past and also today.

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