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Durham University

Department of Classics and Ancient History

Staff

Publication details for Dr Edmund Thomas

Thomas, Edmund (2017). Urban Geographies of Human-Animal Relations in Classical Antiquity. In Interactions between Animals and Humans in Graeco-Roman Antiquity. Foegen, Thorsten & Thomas, Edmund Berlin: De Gruyter. 339-368.

Author(s) from Durham

Abstract

Understanding of the urban space of ancient cities has been subject to an anthropocentric bias with public and private space considered almost exclusively in terms of interactions between its human inhabitants. Yet, for example, even the grandiose House of the Faun at Pompeii, universally interpreted by modern archaeologists as an opulent residence designed for the comforts and social entertainments of its human residents, had the bones of two cows in it close to its principal peristyle. Ancient cities were, in fact, inhabited by a wide assortment of species, even wider than modern cities, which were vital for the utility, sustenance and entertainment of ancient communities and had a major impact on the perception of urban spaces. This complex urban ecology produced similar conflicts to those today regarding the competition for urban spaces and raised fundamental questions about which animals were allowed where and under what conditions. Urban animals in antiquity, as today, were difficult to discipline, frequently transgressed legal and cultural ordering systems, and roamed the city, sometimes uncontrollably. Just as modern geographers consider human beings too as “animals”, and part of the urban “zoo” that comprises the modern city, so in the ancient world the boundaries between human and non-human animals were sometimes transgressed. It has been said that ‘hunter-gatherer’ cultures generally view the distinction between human and animal as permeable and easily crossed, part of a cosmology in which humans and animals are supposed to co-exist in a relation of trust, so that, if humans behave well towards animals, animals can be trusted to provide for humans, to give their lives for human sustenance. Other kinds of society, by contrast, are characterised by a relation of enmity, distrust and domination, which creates rigid orthodoxies about the distinctions drawn between humans and animals and presupposes a need to live a life of ‘being against’ animals, rather than being ‘with’ them. This paper considers the transgressions in urban space in Rome and other cities in the Roman world and assesses the emergence of positive and negative attitudes towards animals through the street experiences of antiquity.