It’s a nice time for a light-hearted piece, and I’ve been dying to write this article for a while. It’s about pet weasels in antiquity. A surprising amount of respectable scholarship all the way from 1718 to 1997 has claimed that the Greeks and Romans kept tame weasels as household pets. At the very least, there is good evidence that weasels lived and nested in the houses of ancient Greeks and Romans. But to claim that weasels were kept as tame, domesticated pets requires more evidence from the sources than simply evidence that they wandered around in human houses. This article will examine the evidence for the taming of various members of the weasel family. Remarkably, the marten seems to have been tamed at least once before Aristotle. There is also evidence that the polecat, the ancestor of our ferret, was tamed for hunting purposes by at least the first century AD. But what of the little red creatures we know and love as “weasels”? Were they pets or pests in the eyes of the Greeks and Romans?
Tag Archives: Greek
A while ago, I tallied up the Latin words for kill. Today I’m doing something different: I’ll be studying the Greek words for love. Can I hear an “aww” from the audience? Or… was that a sigh of impatience?
Because to be honest with you, I’m tired of people talking about the Greek words for love. It’s a staple of church sermons, and I think in the course of time a lot of misconceptions have developed around the Greek words. Etymology (or often folk-etymology) is one of the oldest rhetorical devices for moving into a meditative discussion of the “real”, “true” or “original” concepts behind words. Talking about the concepts is good, but I’d like it if people made less fudgey mistakes about the language in the process. And whether you actually know Greek or not, talking on and on about a Greek word is a perfect way to pad your sermon while looking like you know what you’re talking about. Now, I don’t mean to disparage the use of Greek in itself – discussion how something goes in the original text is pretty much the backbone of good exegesis. What I take issue with is the unwary and unthinking focus on the exact meanings of individual words outside of their context. And the endless talk of two Greek verbs for love, agapaō and phileō, is possibly the most meticulously bungled case of them all.
Because no matter what language you speak, love makes more sense in context than on a vocab list. Let’s explore.
We all know what an ancient scroll should look like. Most of us haven’t actually seen a scroll from the first century AD, but we know what they look like in movies and stage productions. They should look something like a rolled up cylinder of paper with attractive wooden knobs poking out at either end.
There, like that. These were the prop scrolls used in the movies “Alexander” and “Agora”. Nothing screams ancient and legitimate like wooden handle thingies. Nothing could be more genuinely scroll-like. It’s beautiful, it’s antiquated. You can just imagine Julius Caesar casually picking one of these up and reading it with a British accent.
But I’ve recently been surprised by the lack of wooden knobs in artistic evidence from the Roman Empire.
Where are all the handle thingies?
Could we have been overestimating the prevalence of cool-looking-rolling-pin-shaped-sticks this whole time?
We take atheism for granted today; the ancients took theism for granted.
Of course, that’s a sweeping generalisation. But the first part holds true for most university students today, and it has often led students to assume that the greatest ancient philosophers, politicians and authors were atheists at heart too. That is, until they find evidence to the contrary. The assumption – and I may be treading on some toes here – even pervades scholarship, particularly in studies on Roman religion, where well-respected scholars have treated Roman religion as little more than a convenient charade for the elite, a tool they cynically used to manipulate the masses.
But how prominent was atheism in Greek and Roman thought?