CANI’s 2017/18 talks programme finished out with Dr Pamela Zinn (Texas Tech University) speaking on ‘Animals and Vegetarianism in Antiquity.’ While the heat outside (and inside) might have acted as a deterrent, such was the interest in the Classics and Dr Zinn’s subject that extra chairs needed to be brought in to the Old Staff Common Room, not to mention a bolstering of the summer drinks table!
Dr Zinn began by demonstrating how integral to the ancient life animals were and not just because the world of antiquity was an agrarian one, with there prominence in art, myths and even history: geese reputedly saved Rome from the Gauls by warning of the approach of an army.
Some animals were seen as divine or capable of revealing divine wishes through omens – cats in Egypt and the original auguries coming from the flight of birds. Dr Zinn then provided some more specific examples such as how because Romulus saw more birds than Remus, the city they built was called Roma not Remora and how Claudius Pulcher famously through the sacred chickens overboard prior to the Roman disaster at Drepanum because they would not give him favourable omens.
While an affront to modern sensibilities, animal sacrifice was not only an important aspect of the religion of ancient societies but also to its diet and community life.
Meat-eating was not as widespread in the ancient world, not due to any real aversion to it, but as many of the animals were less numerous, harder to farm and required for other activities, as beasts of burden, supply of resources, providers of entertainment and instruments of war.
Such community sacrifices were therefore the main source of meat for large sections of the population, with Dr Zinn referring to the prevalence of feasting in ancient epics as suggesting that “only heroes eat meat.”
The ancients were also prominent pet-keepers. They are written about in books and on inscriptions, commemorated on tombstones and depicted on icons and other art. Numerous examples were given including Pompeii’s archaeology famously preserving mosaics and volcanic casts of dogs; how the philosopher Porphyry had a talking partridge and how Tiberius granted a state funeral to a raven who always saluted him as he entered the forum.
With the closeness between the ancients and their animals and meat-eating somewhat uncommon, it might be expected that vegetarianism was more widespread than the evidence seems to suggest it was.
Some philosophers certainly showed sympathy of animals. Pythagoras thought that eating animals was tantamount to cannibalism due to reincarnation, while Lucretius felt that animals had free will and reason and that sacrifice was a violation of the public trust placed in animals. Virgil intimated that animals were key to civilisation.
Of course, these were very much in the minority with the likes of Cato, Aristotle and the Stoics viewing animals as having limited or lesser souls, therefore worthy of being only possessions and food.
To such men and much of the population, vegetarianism and its concomitant abhorrence of sacrifice was a rejection of the gods and/or the community which were so important to ancient societies. Dr Zinn provided the example of Seneca, who gave up vegetarianism for the sake of his political career as it was seen as foreign and anti-social.
After a thoroughly engrossing and colourful talk, Dr Zinn took numerous questions from the audience about various aspects of her work and the subjects covered, striking up further conversations over the summer drinks served throughout.
CANI would like to thank Dr Zinn for taking the time to return to these shores and for her presentation and willingness to interact with so many of the attendees afterwards.
And thank you to all who attended on the night and to all other talks in the 2017/18 programme.
Have a great summer and look for our new programme of events for 2018/19, which should be largely finalised in the coming weeks…
If you cannot wait until the autumn for our next public talks then perhaps you would be interested in our upcoming Latin and Greek Summer School or the Classical Association of Ireland’s annual conference being hosted by CANI at Queens University, Belfast this August.
And our blog will continue to delve into the weird, wonderful and not so well-known corners of the Classics and Ancient History.