THE PERFECT KING BEE VISIONS OF KINGSHIP IN CLASSICAL ANTIQUITY

S. Van Overmeire
2012 Akroterion  
S Van Overmeire (Vrije Universiteit Brussel) This article investigates the portrayal of the king bee by Greek and Roman writers. Their depiction of these creatures was not a scientific one: many aspects of their description were influenced by widespread Greek and Roman ideas on government, while others show even more specific influences from contemporary thinking. At the same time, the hive was used as a model for human society, since bees presented a society that succeeded in living together
more » ... n living together without stasis (civil strife), in harmony. Nam ut a minimis ordiamur, apes, quae natura duce coetum et societatem colunt mirumque inter se ordinem servant, uni regi obtemperant, quem non ipsae de turba temere delegerunt, sed ab ipsa natura insignem forma et diademate praeditum acceperunt. 1 To begin with the smallest things, the bees, which at nature's command practice common life and society and observe a marvelous order among themselves, obey a single king, whom they do not choose rashly from the mob; they take from Nature herself one who is remarkable in form and supplied with a diadem (trans. J Hankins). VAN OVERMEIRE kings. In their order and harmony, they gave humanity an example of social perfection. 2 The literary depiction of bees in Classical Antiquity has received modest attention in modern scholarly literature. Several authors investigated Virgil's depiction and the way these insects served as a model for Roman society. Griffin (1979:68) showed that this poet's allusions were complex, because bees not only showed the virtues of ancient Rome, but also its faults: 'The bees presented him with a powerful image for the traditional Roman state, in its impersonal and collective character '. Nadeau (1984:77-80) investigated Virgil, bees and the underlying references to human society, while Polleichtner (2005:115-160) looked at the use of the bee simile in Homer, Apollonius of Rhodos and Virgil, and how the latter used these insects to look at the future of Rome. Johnson (1984:1-22) described how the beehive served as a natural metaphor for the republic. Mayhew dedicated a brief article to the difference between the king of the bees and mother of the wasps and argued against older scholarly literature that saw ideological motives behind the choice of a male ruler. 3 Morley (2007:462-470) focused on Roman thought, the description of the hive in general and the effects on 'apicultural practice'. He studied the influence of contemporary politics on the Roman (especially Seneca and Pliny) authors' vision of bees. He noticed that these writers liked to compare the hive with a military camp, and investigated the civil wars that they discerned among these insects. Politics and the king bee (most ancient authors believed the ruler was male 4 ) also make their appearance. However, apart from this one article, these kings have received little attention. We will concentrate our attention on king bees, their portrayal in ancient literature, and the link of these descriptions with ancient political thinking. Greeks and Romans had their own, in some ways unique, vision on government, on 'legitimate' rulers and their primary virtues. Several of these ideas were widespread within the Mediterranean world, and here it is essential to note that some vision of a perfect king, an autocrat fit to rule by his virtues, can be found among Greek and Roman authors of all periods. 5 Many other ideas and concepts depended on the specific historical situation. Greek authors from the fifth century BC wrote much on the polis (city-state) and democracy, while treatises on ideal kingship became ubiquitous in the Hellenistic age. Roman republican thinkers
doi:10.7445/56-0-3 fatcat:z6pcupimbncklddf4s5bxz6k2m