BMCR 2019.03.24

Soziale Insekten in der Antike: Ein Beitrag zu Naturkonzepten in der griechisch-römischen Kultur. Hypomnemata, Band 205​

, Soziale Insekten in der Antike: Ein Beitrag zu Naturkonzepten in der griechisch-römischen Kultur. Hypomnemata, Band 205​. Göttingen​: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht Verlag, 2018. 459. ISBN 9783525310533. ebook.


Dominik Berrens provides a sensible, down-to-earth exposition of ancient ideas about and presentations of those insects that correspond, more or less, to what we call bees, wasps, and ants. The genus term “social insects” derives from Aristotle’s definition of “political” animals at the beginning of the Historia animalium (p. 38). He covers the Greek and Latin textual tradition from the beginnings to late antiquity, including the Septuagint and the New Testament, but does not discuss art, material culture, or epigraphic and papyrological evidence. The merits of this monograph are its comprehensiveness and its thematic organization. In my view, whenever critical decisions are made, Berrens shows good judgment. His translations are reliable and, as far as I could judge, he is generally well informed as much as one might expect with such an overarching and interdisciplinary subject.1

Berrens introduces his work as a contribution to our understanding of ancient “concepts” ( Konzepte), in the sense in which this term is used in the disciplines of linguistics and cognitive science (1.1.1, pp. 11-14), but himself realizes the limitations of such terminology (p. 13) given that, e.g., it is not clear who the human bearers of those concepts might be or to what degree a highly sophisticated literary or rhetorical artifice can be treated as testimony for concepts shared across a society or social class. Sometimes Berrens observes systematic differences between Greek and Roman authors and the corresponding cultures, e.g., that only Roman authors use military vocabulary to describe the beehive (p. 268), but apart from distinguishing sources, he does not systematically address the importance of the wide chronological and geographic range of his material.

What he gives his readers is a thorough and detailed overview of the facts mentioned in the ancient texts, the origin of such ideas, terms, topoi, and images, as well as their use and tradition in different contexts, genres, and key authors. He compares the assumptions of ancient authors with the understanding of modern biology (an overview is given in section 1.4), often suggests explanations for mistaken beliefs, and shows how ignorance in one area, e.g., procreation, could reinforce or lead to false beliefs in another area, e.g., gender or species. As two further sources of greater or lesser accuracy Berrens identifies anthropomorphism and the degree of practical interest in these animals. Insects were perceived as human-like and exemplary in their sociability and cooperation and thus often interpreted in human terms. Thus, when Aristotle associates the sting of bees with a weapon and thus masculinity, this prevents him from identifying stingless drones as male and worker bees as female (p. 218). In addition to such epistemic anthropomorphism, as it were, Berrens also describes deliberate anthropomorphism as a literary or ideological choice.

The structure of the book is thematic. After the introduction (chapter 1), Berrens discusses ancient concepts of Art (“species” or “kind”) and clarifies how far removed ancient terminology is from our modern understanding of genetically defined species. Distinctions could be made by a variety of criteria. Bees were regarded as three different ‘kinds’: the queen, the workers, and the drones, which should be identified with the so-called thieves and were sometimes treated as different species, an alien intruder the bees had to ward off. Accordingly, conceptions of bees and drones differed significantly. In contrast to the proverbially lazy and useless drones, characteristic of bees were highly organized, monarchic societies, some degree of intelligence, active food production and storage, hard and shared labor, and both physical and mental purity. Berrens recommends that we refrain from trying to identify modern species with ancient kinds, e.g., when trying to find counterparts for the animals referred to with different words for ‘wasps’ in Greek and Latin. Because of their appearance, wasps were more closely associated with bees to which they were regarded as inferior (less organized, e.g, and more aggressive). As concerns ants, the ancients counted a number of animals, some of them fabulous, under the names murmex and formica respectively, probably including spiders and even Pantherinae. The paradigmatic type, however, corresponds to the small black Mediterranean ant of the genus Messor that builds its colonies in the ground and is a grain-gathering herbivore. In contrast to that of bees, ant society was regarded as leaderless ( anarchos), but highly cooperative and structured. Another key difference was the fact that ants collect and store but do not produce food, a difference explored, e.g., by Vergil for the contrasting bee and ant similes for the Carthaginians in the first and the Trojans in the fourth book of the Aeneid (pp. 247-250). The third and fourth chapters cover ancient theories about the procreation and ontogenesis of social insects and bougonia, the spontaneous generation of bees from the carcasses of oxen. Berrens rejects the theses that The Greeks encountered bougonia as a common occurrence in Egypt and North-Africa or that there was a confusion with larvae of Eristalis tenax. Instead of venturing an explanation of his own, he points to assumptions of ancient natural science that would have made such a process seem much more plausible than it appears to us nowadays. The findings in chapter 3 form the basis for chapter 5 on the gender of social insects. Here Berrens recommends distinguishing between assumptions about biological sex and social gender based on characteristic roles, such as defense (masculine) or care for the young (feminine). Among the various sources, he finds only one author (Arrian in the Discourses of Epictetus, p. 235) who clearly identifies the queen bee as female. The social femininity or masculinity of that animal varies, and its masculinity is most pronounced when it is described as leading the swarm (e.g., pp. 243, 272f.). The chapter also concerns remarks about gendered attributions of insect features to women (the name Melitta, for example; purity and virginity in Christian texts, section 5.2) and men (in the case of the name Murmex, p. 231). Chapter 6 on society discusses imagery pertaining to all social insects (their appearance as a mass or swarm of individuals and military imagery), much of which amounts to tracing the reception of similes in the epic tradition, and then the three types (bees, wasps, and ants) separately. Anthropomorphism appears as a ubiquitous feature in most of the texts and is particularly pronounced in the Roman and later imperial authors. The authors stress the bees’ devotion and subordination to their king, but in ants their devotion to each other. The last two chapters address the role of social insects in religion and divination and their role as “providers of imagery for the production and reception of literature” (chapter 8).

A fine-grained table of contents facilitates quick access to relevant passages. Nevertheless, an index rerum in addition to the index of cited passages would have been helpful because sometimes topics pop up in places where one would not necessarily expect them even though their position makes sense within the flow of the argument. For example, mourning bees are discussed in a section on their purity and cleanliness (2.3.4) and the topical reference to bee-rich Hybla in the section on poetic bee imagery (chapter 8, p. 375). The summaries at the end of each chapter remedy this lack to a degree since they follow the sequence of presentation and mention at least all the major topics covered.

Probably in order to keep chapters reasonably self-contained and to mention all facts relevant to a theme, the account sometimes becomes a bit repetitive for those who read the whole book from cover to cover. Another disadvantage of the thematic structure aimed at displaying generally shared concepts is that it downplays Berrens’s achievements in addressing generic conventions and matters of source criticism, tracing traditions, and explaining variations with reference to the particular aesthetic or ideological agenda of individual authors. A chapter summarizing his findings in this respect would have been useful in its own right but also with a view to the question of concepts. Berrens discusses how seminal literary texts can generate ideas and impact even technical writing, e.g., when Columella’s assertions about swarming are shaped by Virgil’s fictions about a civil war among bees (p. 262), while careful neutrality in Aristotle’s scientific account may be distorted through anthropomorphic attributions of male kingship roles by authors such as Pliny the Elder (p. 270). One of my favorites of this type is Berrens’s plausible explanation for the variations on the theme of gold-digging giant ants in Northern India (section 2.10). He rejects attempts to find a factual basis by identifying those mysterious ants with some kind of rodent or scaly anteater. Instead, he shows how the Greek tradition originates with Herodotus (3.102-5), who may have heard a version of a local story and to whom the idea of ants the size of a fox or a dog would not have seemed so implausible, given that everything in India appeared larger than life (pp. 130f.). He shows further how the original account was transformed in Hellenistic traditions, when Greek authors had learned about a feline predator “ant” ( murmex); how it served as inspiration to the Attic comic poet Euboulos for dreaming up “Gold-digging ants on Hymettos” (2.10.3); and how this, in turn, gave a Second Sophistic lexicographer (Harpocration) explaining Pl. Resp. 450b3f. the idea to invent an Attic tale about the matter.

In sum, this is a useful book for whoever is interested in social insects or in texts featuring these animals. It conveniently brings together disparate sources and literature and may show many avenues for further research. Berrens definitely succeeds in demonstrating a central thesis of his work, that researching ancient discourse about social insects “always reveals something about ancient ideas concerning human beings and their society too.”


1. Berrens has read widely on the subject, but I believe that I observe a certain underrepresentation of French secondary literature, such as (to name just two book-length studies): Gilles Tétart. Le sang des fleurs: Une anthropologie de l‘abeille et du miel. (Paris: Odile Jacob, 2004), or the classic by Raymond Billiard. Notes sur l‘abeille et sur l‘apiculture dans l‘antiquité. (Lille: Le Bigot, 1900). ​