A World Closer to Nature

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Issue 310
September/October 2018
Inspired to Action

Reviews

A World Closer to Nature
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Cover: Milano Garden by Beppe Giacobbe www.beppegiacobbe.com/en

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Michael McCarthy is enthused by a study in Classics. Birds in the Ancient World: Winged Words by Jeremy Mynott. Oxford University Press, 2018. ISBN: 9780198713654

Our modern ignorance of the natural world seems to increase with every year that passes. It’s not just young children no longer knowing what acorns are. In a recent survey of first-year biology students at Oxford University, for instance, researchers made the startling discovery that 42% of the sample could not name even five species of British bird. Let that sink in. Biology students? Not even five?

Contrast this with the sort of easy familiarity with Nature in general, and with birds in particular, enjoyed by the ordinary citizens of ancient Greece and Rome, as evidenced by their literature and the way they decorated their houses. Twenty-eight species of bird figure in Aesop’s Fables, 75 figure in the plays of Aristophanes, and 75 different types of bird featured on the wall paintings of Pompeii before its destruction by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE.

Jeremy Mynott, who makes this comparison in his stunning new book, Birds in the Ancient World, says this is only to be expected. Birds, he points out, have always been among the most prominent features of the natural world for humankind (in contrast with wild mammals, say), readily visible and audible almost anywhere humans happen to be; but in classical times the contact was even more robust and vivid, because in Mediterranean societies, which were basically agrarian, people lived out of doors and there were many more birds to be seen and heard. Nightingales sang and hoopoes flashed cinnamon-pink within the city boundaries of Athens; eagles were a regular feature of the skies; farmers watched out in the autumn for flocks of migrating cranes, which signalled the time to start ploughing.

This more direct contact meant that birds were simply more significant in the lives of Greek and Roman citizens, and Mynott details this intense relationship in a work that is a marvellous combination of classical scholarship, ornithological expertise and lightness of touch. A former publisher – he was head of Cambridge University Press – he is a noted classical scholar, and he translated Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War in 2013; but he is also a highly skilled birder, and in 2009 he published Birdscapes, a lauded personal account of the human responses to feathered creatures, and why we watch them.

This double proficiency enables him to paint a picture of the avian connection in the ancient world that is endlessly fascinating, often amusing and sometimes surprising. The people of Greece and Rome looked at birds closely and sometimes rejoiced in them and sometimes feared them, and they not only ate them and used them in medicine, but they also kept them as pets and employed them in sport and put them in their stories and sometimes saw them as messengers from heaven.

They eagerly watched for the arrival of migrants such as the cuckoo and the swallow as indicators of season change, much as we do today, but they also used bird behaviour in weather forecasting. Most significantly of all, the ancient world used birds for formal divination and foretelling the future: they were central to augury, which was itself central to public life – without it no major public enterprise would be undertaken.

In Greece, augury consisted in interpreting un­solicited omens – what does that eagle mean, suddenly appearing on our right? – but the Romans institutionalised it, with a college and a set of rules, and sought out omens themselves by, for example, observing how their sacred chickens fed.

But birds figured widely in less portentous aspects of life. Among pets, the most famous was Lesbia’s sparrow, whose elegy Catullus so movingly wrote, but sometimes there were others that now seem rather rarefied, such as the big, dark-blue Mediterranean moorhen relative that used to be known as the purple gallinule but is now labelled the western swamphen. It was a favourite pet of the Romans. In classical Greece, Alcibiades, Mynott informs us, had a pet quail.

The ancients (as used to be said) were also enthusiastic about birds that could be taught to talk, and Mynott retells an amusing anecdote about a man hedging his bets at the end of the Roman civil war between Augustus Caesar and Mark Antony by training two ravens to speak on the victor’s return, one saying, “Hail Caesar, victorious commander!” and the other, “Hail Antony, victorious commander!” (Augustus, the victor, ended up buying them both.) In sport, cockfights were very popular, but surprisingly falconry seems not to have existed at all in the classical world, a puzzle Mynott explores without finding an answer.

His remarkable erudition – he draws on 120 Greek and Latin authors, extracts from all of whom he translates himself – continuously throws up titbits that are absorbing for anyone interested in the classical world. I did not know, for example, that the chicken/cock/rooster does not appear in Homer (nor for that matter, in the Old Testament) because it was not introduced to the Mediterranean world – from Persia – till the 7th century BCE. I did not know that our lovely spring flower, the celandine, is named after the swallow (chelidon in Greek) because it appears at about the same time. I certainly did not know that the partridge is named from the Greek verb meaning ‘to fart’ because of the noise of its wingbeats!

Five hundred years ago, in the Renaissance, the humanists, as the early classical scholars were called, thrilled to the rebirth of classical literature and the ancient texts that were being rediscovered. We pay much less attention now to Greece and Rome, but reading this splendid study I experienced some of the excitement the humanists must have felt at entering into a lost world so incompar­ably rich in its life and in its letters. Beautifully produced, informed by wonderful scholarship, Birds in the Ancient World embodies the Renaissance spirit, as a model of humane and civilised learning.

Michael McCarthy, a former environment editor of the Independent, is the author of The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy.

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