Dr. Dominik Berrens

Project title: Social insects in antiquity. A contribution to concepts of nature in the Greco-Roman culture.

Prof. Dr. Jochen Althoff, Prof. Dr. Marion Gindhart

Dissertation project:

At the beginning of his most extensive zoological work, the so-called Historia animalium, the philosopher Aristotle lists several criteria for classifying animals. One of these criteria is the way of living together with other members of the same species. According to his classification, the so-called ζῷα πολιτικά  (zōa politiká = "social animals") reach the highest level in this category and work together for one goal (Arist HA I 1 488a 8). Apart from man, especially the social insects bee, wasp, and ant belong to this very small group of species. (Aristotle also adds the crane).

Because of this assumed close relationship between man and social insects, it is no surprise that there is a rich literary analysis of bees, wasps, and ants in the Greek and Roman literature. This applies not only for biological or agricultural works, but also – primarily in form of metaphors and similes – for poetic genres like epic, didactic poetry, drama, elegy as well as for philosophical literature. The dissertation project seeks to examine descriptions of bees, wasps, and ants in classical text within the period of the 8th century B.C.E. (epics of Homer) and late antiquity. It is based on scientific descriptions (mainly Aristotle, Varro, Columella, Pliny, and Aelianus) as well as similes, metaphors and miracle stories in other literary genres. In this context, the intentions and the specific conditions of each genre should carefully be taken into account. The research will focus on the relationship between human being and animal, but also on the relationship between these groups of animals among themselves. The human society is always visible in the classical texts about social insects, not only in similes and metaphors but also in scientific descriptions. Therefore, on the one hand human values and conditions are quite naturally assigned to these animals, whereas on the other hand observations of conditions in animal societies can become a standard for human activity. A certain understanding of nature seems to be a reason for this. This understanding implies that everything is arranged on all levels of live in a similar or even in the same way. This makes analogies possible. Based on the texts, the dissertation project seeks to define this understanding of nature more accurately. In this way it is meant to contribute its share to the research of concepts of nature in the Greco-Roman culture.

The dissertation project was completed in May 2016.

The dissertation was published as: Berrens, D., Soziale Insekten in der Antike. Ein Beitrag zu Naturkonzepten in der griechisch-römischen Kultur (Hypomnemata; 205), Göttingen 2018.