Aelian's On the Nature of AnimalsAn entertaining, fanciful, and sometimes suspect Roman-era encyclopedia of off-color animal behaviors
Not much can be said with certainty about the life of Claudius Aelianus, known to us as Aelian. He was born sometime between A.D. 165 and 170 in the hill town of Praeneste, what is now Palestrina, about twenty-five miles from Rome, Italy. He grew up speaking that town’s version ...
His De Natura Animalium (On the Nature of Animals) has a similar patchwork quality, but it was esteemed enough in his time to survive more or less whole, and it is about all that we know of Aelian’s work today. A mostly randomly ordered collection of stories that he found interesting enough to relate about animalswhether or not he believed themAelian’s book constitutes an early encyclopedia of animal behavior, affording unparalleled insight into what ancient Romans knew about and thought about animalsand, of particular interest to modern scholars, about animal minds.
If the science is sometimes sketchy, the facts often fanciful, and the history sometimes suspect, it is clear enough that Aelian had a fine time assembling the material, which can be said, in the most general terms, to support the notion of a kind of intelligence in nature and that extends human qualities, for good and bad, to animals. His stories, which extend across the known world of Aelian’s time, tend to be brief and to the point, and many return to a trenchant question: If animals can respect their elders and live honorably within their own tribes, why must humans be so appallingly awful?
Aelian is as brisk, as entertaining, and as scholarly a writer as Pliny, the much better known Roman natural historian. That he is not better known is simply an accident: he has not been widely translated into English, or indeed any European language. This selection from his work will introduce readers to a lively mind and a witty writer who has much to tell us.
“A fascinating caricature of our tendency to imbue the minds of others, be they animal or human, with the characteristics, qualities, and motives of our own.”— Brain Pickings
“'If Aelian’s science is sometimes sketchy, the facts often fanciful, and the history sometimes suspect,' McNamee writes, 'it is clear enough that he had a grand time assembling the material.' And so does McNamee. As he points out, 'The Nature of Animals' is 'mostly randomly ordered,' but its often comic trifles make pleasant bedside reading.” — Washington Post
“With more obscure tales than you can shake a paw at, this is the book for anyone who has ever wondered about the weird world of wildlife.”— New Scientist
“If you know even a little bit about the natural world, you’ll find Aelian's On the Nature of Animals quite ridiculous.” — Utne Reader
“Aelian’s tales are delectable, satisfying reads because of their larger perspective, the encompassing vision of humans and animals and science and nature as part and parcel of the same character.”— The Believer Magazine
- Independent Publisher's Gold Award (classics & philosophy)