Ancient poetry and evolution

We don’t often think of art and poetry as historical evidence – but they often give us a view into the ideas held at the time. In this article, Dr Emma Greensmith discusses three poems which describe different creation myths.

When one thinks of ancient evidence for ideas about evolution, what examples come to mind? Perhaps ancient scientists like Galen, travel narratives like Pausanias, or historians like Herodotus and Thucydides? The disciplines of science, geography and world-history – in antiquity as today – are usually hailed as the bastions of knowledge, truth and enquiry.

However, whilst all of these sources certainly do have important things to tell us, they are not the only chapters in this story. In light of my own work as a researcher, I want to look at a different corpus of material: ancient poetry. Poems are too often seen as ‘light’ entertainment – feats of language, beautifully written, pieces of art rather than cultural artefacts. But in fact, a number of verse works from the ancient world provide amazing illustrations of the different ways in which creation, succession and evolutionary change could be conceptualised: ideas which are given extra force through their poetic form.

Let’s take a look at three ancient poems which tackle this theme.

  1. Hesiod, Works and Days

In c. 700 B.C.E., Hesiod describes the Myth of the Ages: the five ages of mankind: the Golden Age, Silver Age, Bronze Age, Heroic Age, and his own present age, that of Iron. These ages get worse as they evolve: the men in the race of gold lived in the time of abundance and peace, whereas now the Iron age is characterized by toil and hardship. Hesiod predicts that Zeus will destroy his race, too, when all moral and religious standards are ignored. 

A tragedy performed in classical Athens some two hundred years after Hesiod, the Ion unveils a very different ‘creation’ myth. The Athenians, this story goes, are not evolved from a previous age of men. Instead they are autochthones: literally αὐτός ‘self,’ and χθών ‘soil’; i.e. “people sprung from earth itself”. This idea – that people are the original inhabitants of a country as opposed to settlers, their descendants kept themselves free from a mixture of foreign peoples – is mentioned elsewhere in ancient literature (it first crops up in Herodotus). But Euripides puts it into a poem, into a dramatic show. He takes his Athenian audience back to the original myth surrounding this geo-political idea, and stages the myth for all to see. 

Finally, we move from ancient Greece to Rome, and the famous ‘science poet’ Lucretius. The De Rerum Natura famously makes Epicurean philosophy (which argued the greatest good was living a simple life of modest pleasure) more attractive by turning it into verse. Lucretius is supremely interested in ‘evolution’: he shifts our gaze from the primordia rerum, the imperishable first beginnings of things, to the origins of our mortal cosmos and the organisms which inhabit it. In book 5, Lucretius tries to explain the spontaneous generation of life, speculates about human prehistory, and traces the development of cities and civilisation.

This whistle stop tour aims to open up some of the crucial evolutionary questions that ancient poetry raises.  But the story doesn’t end there. If you delve further into each of these works, you’ll come to consider how successful, how subversive and how sustainable each of their models of evolution is.

Classics teaches us never to patronise the past. As evidence for this past, we should never patronise poetry, either.

Dr Emma Greensmith, Tutor and Fellow in Classics

Further material

Interested in reading more about autochthony? Check out this summary of the legends of Attica:

Consider the political motivations and implications of the idea of autochthony. Are there any modern political parallels? Discuss this with your class and create a large spider diagram.

Lucretius is often called ‘the first Darwinist’. De Rerum Natura Book 5 is a key passage. How persuasive do you find Lucretius here? Can he be considered the first Darwinist? Discuss this with your class and take a vote.