Art Reflects Reality: the treatment of non-human animals in Ancient Greece, Rome, and Egypt (by Yousef Koura)

Yousef Mohab Koura, the author of this essay, is a computer engineering graduate from AUC. His main interest lies in the field of game design and he is working towards working in that field as a programmer and designer. Some of his hobbies include reading books (mainly fantasy, mystery, and mythology),  listening to music (with a love for many game soundtracks; shoutout to NiER Automata’s), and, naturally, playing video games.

This was Yousef’s final essay for the AUC course “Classics of the Ancient World”. You can write to Yousef at yomozx@aucegypt.edu.

Non-human animals have been part of our lives since the beginning of time. Sometimes
as sources of food, sometimes as subjects of research, and sometimes even as lifetime
companions. Examining ancient literature gives us an idea of how some ancient cultures viewed and treated these non-human animals. In this paper I mainly take a look at Aristophanes’ The Birds, Apuleius’ The Golden Ass, and The Stories of Setne Khamwas; these stories give some insight into how the Ancient Greek, Ancient Roman, and Ancient Egyptian societies, respectively, regarded non-human animals and how, in turn, they treated them. In addition to those stories, a variety of secondary sources from the fields of literature, law, and philosophy are also examined in an attempt to gain a deeper understanding of the reasoning behind each culture’s actions and ethical considerations.

First come the Greeks. The Greeks were interesting because they held many varying
points of view with regards to the treatment of non-human animals. The first, and likely more popular, viewpoint is that animals were created for the purpose of serving humans. This is expressed in literary, philosophical, and even legal records. In both the Iliad and the Odyssey Homer seemingly treated oxen “as a unit of currency” (Wise), implying that, in the minds of the Ancient Greek reader, the idea of non-human animals being treated as “things” to be used and abused would come very readily. This indicated that most people would either hold this viewpoint or at least be familiar enough with it to easily comprehend such a concept being naturally present within the text. Aristotle seems to have held a similar point of view, as one can see in a passage from his book Politics (Harden 50-51). In this passage, he states that “…nature does not make anything without an end in mind or in vain, nature must have made [nonhuman animals] all for the sake of mankind.”

It is clear that Aristotle considered the whole purpose of non-human animals’ existence to have been for them to be used by humans. This was actually reflected by Ancient Greek law. While the Greeks did not seem to have a specific body of laws nor did they rely on legal reasoning, they did have a sort of legal system that was geared towards practically settling disputes (Wise). Through looking at surviving records of trials and lawsuits, we discover that non-human animals were in fact treated as “legal things” and were considered very similar to slaves—being the property of their masters. This naturally reinforces the idea that these animals should be treated as mere things rather than living breathing creatures.

Further supporting this point is the Greek’s tendency to sharply differentiate between
animals and humans. One can observe this phenomenon in a passage from Aristotle’s Parts of Animals. In this passage, he proclaims that “In men the lips are soft and fleshy and can be separated, and they are for guarding the teeth, as in other animals, yet they also have a noble function: for they, and other things, are for the use of logos” (Harden 129). Echoing the sentiment of nature itself marking the difference between animals and humans; here, the make of a human’s lips is crafted to allow for the ability of thoughtful speech, which Aristotle considers to be a main differentiator between humans and non-human animals.

This ideology also appears in Aristotle’s History of Animals and Politics (Payne 84-88). In his works, Aristotle argues that while animals may possess the ability to make sounds with their bodies or even have a voice, they do not possess the ability to articulate their utterances. He then argues that this ability to articulate is what sets humans above other animals in terms of being political; it is what allows humans to “realize their distinctive form of political society” (Payne 87).

Another philosophical ideology that differentiates between humans and other animals is that of the Stoics. Their teachings contained what was known as the “Stoic Theory of ‘Kinship’”, which states that nature made it so that creatures are only attracted to their own selves and thus flee from what is alien and pursue what is similar to themselves. This led them to conclude that there exists no kinship between humans and non-human animals as they are inherently different from one another. This lack of kinship meant that, to the Greeks, there was no “debt of justice” owed to those nonhuman animals and thus they could be treated however humans saw fit (Mewmyer 28).

The results of this sharp differentiation appear within Aristophanes’ comedy The Birds.
In this play, the protagonist Peisetairus goes on a sort of quest towards dominating the heavens (the gods) and the earth (his fellow humans). He achieves this by conning a group of birds into thinking that they were the rightful rulers of the universe and gets them to establish their own country that separates heaven and earth. Throughout the play, we can see that despite having been taught to speak Greek, the birds are clearly shown to possess a lesser form of speech that differentiates them from the humans (following the Aristotelian notion for differentiation).

Peisetairus utilizes this ability he has over the non-human animals to bend them to his will. He puppeteers the whole situation and places himself as the ruler of this newfound land the birds established. Clearly, Peisetairus is just using these birds as mere tools to pave a road towards his goals. This fact is accentuated by the event in the play where he acquires a magical root that lets him sprout wings of his own (Aristophanes 40). With wings on his back, the birds no longer possess anything that he does not. Following this physical metamorphosis, a transformation to Peisetairus’ attitude comes about; he no longer feels the need to mask his true feelings behind cunning words and begins to show his disdain towards these “lesser animals”. The birds’ role as tools for Peisetairus is reinforced once more in a later sequence in the play where a messenger delivers an account of the birds’ work in fortifying the city. Through the messenger’s word Aristophanes compares the birds to construction equipment, and workers that carried mortar and made bricks for the creation of walls around the city (Aristophanes 58).

Aristophanes’ instrumentalization of the birds clearly portrays them as tools that are to be operated to accomplish tasks and aid in accomplishing their owners’ goals. This was reflective of Greek society, where, as mentioned before, non-human animals were essentially treated as slaves that were mere tools for their masters to employ for their own gains.

Not all Ancient Greeks supported the mistreatment of animals; in fact, many fought for
the rights of animals and attempted to sow empathy for animals in the hearts of the people. In his book The Animal Part, Payne argues that Aristophanes’ The Birds can be interpreted as being pro-animal rights and its depiction of them as tools was a means to showcase the harshness of the act. Payne focuses on the play’s ending, claiming that it is much more ominous than it may seem at initial inspection. He claims that Peisetairus at the end of the play is presented as a cannibal. Having acquired wings and kingship over the birds, Peisetairus had essentially become a bird himself; this meant that the times where he was shown to feast on the flesh of rebellious birds were not merely for comedic effect but were also there to paint him as an eater of his own kin.

Having painted Peisetairus as such an unholy creature, it might have been Aristophanes’
intention to give his play a cautionary undertone in an attempt to get the people to shy away from mistreating and abusing animals. Looking towards philosophy, we have a staunch supporter of vegetarianism in Pythagoras. Pythagoras believed in the “transmigrations of souls”, or reincarnation. Based on this concept, he argues that since a once human soul may reside within the body of a non-human animal it should naturally follow that humans treat these animals with compassion and respect. Clearly, there existed people in Ancient Greece who did oppose the mistreatment of animals, even if their ideology does not seem to have been the most popular.

A piece of literature that expresses non-human animal sympathetic thoughts is the final
book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Metamorphoses XV. In this book, Ovid presents a speech that he attributes to Pythagoras; this speech is split into two main parts that expresses different reasons as to why humans should abstain from eating animals (Mewmyer 98-100). The first part argues that since non-human animals are living, breathing creatures, they are deserving of human kindness and thus should not be killed, eaten, sacrificed, or otherwise mistreated. Through Pythagoras, Ovid implores humans to abstain from eating meat and adopt a vegetarian lifestyle so as to avoid having a hand in the suffering of these innocent creatures. He even seems to believe in the existence of a kinship between humans and other animals—as opposed to the Stoics—, telling humans that “When [they] place the limbs of that slain creature in [their] mouth, [they should] take thought of the fact that [they] chew upon [their] own field-mate”.

The second half of the speech takes a more cosmological approach and bases the argument of treating animals well within the previously discussed Pythagorean concept of the transmigration of souls. It seems that Ovid used Pythagoras may have been using Pythagoras to express his own ideas towards the treatment of non-human animals; this phenomenon showcases the influence of Greek philosophy on the Romans and proves that they as well had their thoughts opinions on this age-old matter. Thus, a discussion of the Roman points of view is in order.

Much like their Greek counterparts, the Romans held varying views when it came to the
treatment of non-human animals; this similarity to the Greeks is likely due to how Greek
philosophy—as with Pythagoras and Ovid—and literature influenced Roman law and
philosophy. Unlike the Greeks, the Romans had a proper legal system; it did, however, borrow a bit from Greek Stoicism. The “legal thinghood” of non-human animals—which was inferred as to have been part of Greek law—was an axiom within the body of Roman law (Wise). In Roman law, a being who had rights was formally defined as a “person”, while those who did not were denoted by “thing”; a “person” could then own a “thing” and it would be considered their property under the eye of the law. In this legal system, women, children, slaves, insane people, and non-human animals all fell under the “thing” category as they were all believed to lack free will; this meant that to Romans, non-human animals were considered and treated as property—similar to how it was under Greek law. It should also be noted that the ideas found in Greek philosophy and literature—which were described earlier—surely influenced the ancient Romans as well; in turn, it safe to assume that they held similar opinions to their Greek neighbors.

However, it is also necessary to examine some works that were a bit closer to the Roman
civilization itself to gain a deeper understanding of the situation. One such work would be Apuleius’ The Golden Ass. In this novel, the protagonist Lucius finds himself metamorphosed into a donkey. Throughout his journey seeking a return to his true
form, he experiences and hears of many situations where animals were harshly mistreated. Book 7 of The Golden Ass contains many instances where Lucius himself was abused. Around the middle of the book, Lucius finds himself in a farm where the herdsman’s wife forces him to yoke a mill all day with little to no respite. To add insult to injury, she constantly beat him with a branch and only fed him meager husks after a full day of work. Later on in the same book, Lucius is given a new task, to carry wood down the river; overseeing him on this task was a devilish boy whom Lucius described as being “without question the most objectionable specimen of boyhood there ever was”. The boy proved that he was worthy of that description time and time again as he constantly beat Lucius, gave him loads many times more than he could carry, and even attached thorns to his tail so that they would wound him. This seemed to reflect common Roman ways of dealing with working animals as proven by Columella’s agricultural treatise De re rustica (Fögen 124).

Unfortunately, this cruelty was not limited to Lucius, as in Book 4, we are introduced to a character known as Demochares. This man was very wealthy and enjoyed providing entertainment that matched his riches. To that end, he was in the business of acquiring wild animals and putting them into gladiatorial shows. In particular, he procured a very large number of bears. While he did feed them and assign them caretakers, he did not think of how the bears were hoisted out of their habitats and kept captive against their nature. This unnatural imprisonment led them to become severely drained of their energy due to the prolonged captivity, scorching summer heat, and their lack of exercise (which they would naturally get had they been roaming free). Due to the weakened state of the group, a sudden infection was enough to nearly decimate them. Clearly, Demochares’ lack of care for the bears’ needs was the cause of their untimely demise. The Golden Ass is filled with many more tales that showcase the mistreatment of animals; this reflects a sad reality, as it is likely that many people treated the non-human animals that were part of their property in a similar manner.

Just as with the Greeks, it seems that some Romans opposed this mistreatment of
animals. I would argue that Apuleius himself was one of those people. The sheer permeance of examples of animal abuse and the detailed first-hand accounts we receive from Lucius surely serve the purpose of sowing empathy within the hearts of the readers. The audience would be able to witness how much suffering this evil and cruel treatment inflicts upon the non-human animals. Apuleius delivers this message expertly by making the protagonist and the narrator the abused animal himself; this, in my opinion, makes it easier for the reader to sympathize with the animal and potentially realize how much pain is inflicted in those animals. It would be my hope that after witnessing such events, “persons” who owned non-human animals would have changed their treatment of the animals as they were clearly suffering.

At the beginning of The Golden Ass Apuleius establishes a relationship to the philosopher Plutarch, who expressed his support for the vegetarian lifestyle (Mewmyer 105-108). Plutarch had many reasons for wishing to avoid the consumption of meat. One such reason is one he took from Pythagoras: the transmigration of souls; while Plutarch did not fully acknowledge this as fact, he thought that the mere possibility that it might be true should drive people away from attempting consuming the flesh of animals. However, Plutarch relied very little on the Pythagorean reasoning and had his own set of arguments that, interestingly, seem to align with the modern thoughts regarding the subject. In
his treatise On Eating Flesh, Plutarch argues that it is unnatural for humans to eat other animals as man is not naturally carnivorous; he even describes meat-eating as a “second nature contrary to nature” and calls for humans to embrace the bountiful products of nature (fruits, vegetables, etc.) as nature created them for human nourishment and enjoyment (Mewmyer 106). Another of his arguments is that in eating non-human animals, people are eating tame animals that cause no harm—people do not eat lions, after all (Gilhus 66-67). Here he is arguing that since these animals do humans no harm, it is immoral for humans to do them harm.

Building upon this argument, Plutarch proclaims that it is an unfair trade for these animals to give the life they are entitled to so that humans can enjoy some meat. These ideas in combination with Apuleius’ mention of Plutarch at the beginning of The Golden Ass seem to support the notion that it was indeed Apuleius’ intention to use his novel—at least partially—to express his thoughts against the abuse of animals. In spite of the customs and laws that made it natural to treat animals very poorly, there seems to have been a large faction that wished for the better treatment of animals.

Finally, we examine the ancient Egyptians. When looking towards the surviving art,
literature, and historical records it seems like non-human animals played an important role within ancient Egyptian society and held a great religious significance. They were so important, in fact, that in one-fifth to one-fourth of all hieroglyphs were in some way related to animals. Animals were ever-present in ancient Egyptian art which accurately showcases said animals’ characteristics (Te Velde 76). Furthermore, ancient Egyptians depicted their deities as having animal heads. Unlike the Greeks and the Romans, the Egyptians seemed to have treated animals as living beings (like humans and gods) and proclaimed that they are partners to humans rather subordinates or property. Citing the “Shabak Text”, Te Velde mentions that the ancient Egyptians believed that “the creative forces of the heart and tongue of Ptah are active ‘in all gods, all people, all cattle, all crawling creatures, (in short) in all that lives’” It is clear that ancient Egyptians viewed animals, to a great extent, as equals. They even considered necessary to proclaim the glory of the creator god to animals as well as was done in many ancient Egyptian hymns, e.g., “Tell it to son and daughter, to great and small. Tell it from generation to generation not yet born. Tell it to the fish in the river and the birds in the sky” (Te Velde 78).

The ancient Egyptians even mummified and buried animals in tombs along with humans. Upon analyzing dog remains found in a tomb in Amenhotep II’s temple of a million years, researchers surmised that the remains most likely belonged to “pet animals” that were buried with their owners so that they would accompany them forever in the afterlife (Bona, Consonni and Quirino). The nonhuman animals’ religious significance also included their role as sacrifices, i.e., they were hunted, killed, and sacrificed in the name of the gods. However, this role was also occupied by humans, so it does not seem to have been a cruelty targeted towards non-human animals.

These sentiments towards animals are reflected in The Stories of Setne Khamwas, more
specifically in Setne I also referred to as Setne Khamwas and Naneferkaptah. In this tale animals are depicted have a prominent role in two aspects. The first is in the serpents that guarded the coveted Book of Thoth. These guardian animals stood in the way of those who sought the book’s power and thus need to be sacrificed in the pursuit of power. The book brings ruin upon those who claim it, which implies that the killing of the animals—who are held in high regard by the ancient Egyptians—for a selfish reason such as gaining power is frowned upon and punished by the gods. The second noteworthy role they take is in the contents of the Book of Thoth; this book contains two spells: one which allowed the user to communicate with animals and one that allowed the user to perceive the gods in some way. The content of the book implied that communicating with animals was comparable to perceiving the gods, which indicates how highly the ancient Egyptians thought of non-human animals; this echoes the thought expressed before where the animals are treated like living things just like humans and gods.

All in all, it is clear that the ancient Egyptians’ views on non-human animals differed greatly to those of the Greeks and Romans. While these creatures were the property of humans in the Graeco-Roman world, in ancient Egypt they were their partners in service to the gods.

To conclude, it is clear that different societies generally held varying positions regarding
the issue of non-human animal treatment, so much so that there was a variety of opinions found within each society by itself. It is interesting to see how just as it is a topic of debate in our day and age, it was a controversial and nuanced topic in classical times as well. It is also interesting to note how literature was utilized as a medium for expressing thoughts about this subject. The fact that the arguments presented in these works are accessible to modern humans as well just goes to show that thoughts opposing the mistreatment of animals have existed for thousands of years and are not a mere fad of the modern era. It is clear that many humans have believed and will always believe that living creatures, be they human or otherwise, deserve kindness and should be spared from the brutal, unnecessary suffering they are so often subjected to.


Works Cited


Apuleius. The Golden Ass. Trans. E.J. Kenney. London: Penguin Books, 2004. Digital.

Aristophanes. The Birds. Aristophanes. Birds and Other Plays. Trans. Stephen Halliwell. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. 3-78. Digital.

Bona, Fabio, et al. “Interpreting the Faunal Remains from the Tombs at the Temple of Millions of Years of Amenhotep II in Western Thebes.” Porcier, Stephanie, Salima Ikram and Stephanie Pasquali. Creatures of Earth, Water, and Sky. Leiden: Sidestone Press, 2019. 99-107. Digital.

Fögen, Thorsten. “Lives in Interaction: Animal ‘Biographies’ in Graeco-Roman Literature?” Fögen, Thorsten and Edmund Thomas. Interactions Between Animals and Humans in Graeco-Roman Antiquity. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter GmbH, 2017. 118-130. Digital.

Gilhus, Igvild Sælid. Animals, gods, and Humans Changing Attitudes to Animals in Greek, Roman, and Early Christian Ideas. New York City: Routledge , 2006. Digital.

Harden, Alistair. Animals in the Classical World Ethical Perspectives from Greek and Roman Texts. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. Digital.

Mewmyer, Stephen T. Animals in Greek and Roman Thought. New York City: Routledge, 2011. Digital.

Ovid. Metamorphoses. Trans. David Raeburn. London: Penguin Books, 2004. Digital.

Payne, Mark. The Animal Part Human & Other Animals in Poetic Imagination. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2010. Digital.

Te Velde, H. “A Few Remarks upon the Religious Significance of Animals in Ancient Egypt.” Numen (1980): 76-82. Digital.

“The Stories of Setne Khamwas.” Lichtheim, Miriam. Ancient Egyptian Literature Volume III: The Late Period. n.d. 125-150. Digital.

Wise, Steven M. “The Legal Thinghood of Nonhuman Animals.” Boston College Environmental Affairs Law Review (1996): 471-477. Digital.

Published by drsamuelc

Assistant Professor of English and Comparative Literature at The American University in Cairo

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