Classical buzz: bees in the Roman world

Lucy Shackleton lifts the lid on bee-keeping in the ancient world and sees how Virgil’s presentation of bees symbolises the role of the collective over the individual in Augustan Rome


For the ancients, the bee was a by-word for industry and collective activity, an idea introduced by Aristotle in the 4th century BC. In his Historia Animalium he refers to bees as civic (politikai) – an idea that was later developed by Roman apiarian writers, Varro, Virgil, Pliny the Elder and Columella.

Bee by-products, such as honey and wax, were two essential commodities for everyday life in Roman society. Their usages ranged from the honey cheese bun (libum) which was offered to the household spirits (lares), to the waxen ancestral death masks (imagines maiorum) worn by actors at funerals to fill in the gaps in a family’s genealogy.

There is a certain level of practical, didactic advice for the beekeeper in the fourth book of Virgil’s agricultural poem, the Georgics on matters such as where to site your hive and potential pests and diseases.

Hiving the bees, 1654, by Wenceslaus Hollar (1607–77), one of a series of copperplate engravings made for Virgil’s Georgics IV. Woven wicker was one material used by Romans to make beehives.

But bees also transcend the everyday world of the apiarist through mythological allusions, and are presented as having a share in the divine world – they are liminal creatures that cross over between the living and the dead, producing ‘the heaven-born gifts of honey of the air’.

Bees are central, too, to the idea of renewal through violence, a theme that resonates strongly in both the Georgics and Virgil’s epic, the Aeneid, with its political backdrop of the dawn of the golden age of Augustus.

Virgil’s depiction of bees as part of the divine mind is their close association and reciprocity with Jupiter, which builds on the well-known mythology of his birth:

Now come and heed.
The Natural Gifts that Jupiter himself
apportioned to the bees
I will set forth.

(Georgics IV, 149–50, translated by Kristina Chew)

Keen to spare her sixth child from the fate of her other five offspring who were eaten alive by their father Saturn, his quick-witted wife Ops substituted the infant Jupiter for a stone wrapped in a swaddling blanket, which Saturn unsuspectingly swallowed. Jupiter was then whisked away and raised in a cave on Mount Dicte on Crete, where two nymphs, Amalthea, who supplied the goat for his milk, and Melissa the bees for his honey, nurtured him. Guarding him were the Curetes, the mythical first inhabitants of Crete, who banged their shields together to drown out his crying, so that Saturn would not be able to find him.

Line drawing of a terracotta relief by Wilhelm Heinrich Roscher (1845–1923). It shows the Curetes, the first mythical inhabitants of Crete, who banged their shields together to make a raucuous noise so that the crying of the infant Jupiter would not be heard by his murderous father Saturn. Loud discordant noise was later believed to be a way to attract a swarm of bees.

This association between bees and loud, discordant noise was carried down in advice that Virgil gives to beekeepers, recommending ‘the noise of Rings and Jingles and Striking the Great Mother’s cymbals’ (Georgics IV, 64–65, as before) as a means of attracting a swarm and getting it to settle in a particular place.

In another myth, depicted on an Attic amphora dated to 540 BC, four men dressed in armour and lured by the honey within the cave, staged a raid. But on seeing the omnipotent baby’s cradle, the joints of their armour burst and it fell off, leaving them naked and defenceless against the nearby swarms of bees.

If bees were believed to have some connection with the divine spirit then it is not surprising that the Romans believed that a product that tasted as exquisite as honey had divine origins. Georgics IV opens with the line ‘aerii mellis caelestia dona’ (‘the heavenly gifts of honey of the air’) – the belief that honey fell from the air as dew found support in the writings of both Virgil and Pliny the Elder.

The Death of Eurydice, circa 1552–71, Niccolò dell’Abate (circa 1509/12–71). The National Gallery. Orpheus (seated in the middle distance) charms wild animals with his lyre-playing, oblivious to the tragic events unfolding in the foreground (from left to right): three nymphs watch as his wife, Eurydice, is chased by Aristaeus, bitten by a snake and dies; the nymphs punish Aristaeus by causing the death of his bees; he asks Cyrene, his mother, how to regenerate his swarm and is told to visit the sea-god Proteus, shown with a water-jar (far right), for advice. (Virgil, Georgics IV, 315–558).

In the section of his Natural History on the qualities of honey, Pliny the Elder writes: ‘At early dawn the leaves of the trees are found covered with a kind of honey-like dew… Whether it is that this liquid is the sweat of the heavens, or whether a saliva emanating from the stars, or a juice exuding from the air while purifying itself…’ (Natural History, Book 11, Chapter 12, translated by HT Riley).

The ancient bee-writers perpetuated misconceptions about the insects, too, one of them being that the ruler of the bees was a male; this went undisputed until the Dutch naturalist Jan Swammerdam looked at these insects under a microscope in the 1660s. Another belief held by all ancient writers, except Aristotle, was that a swarm of bees could be spontaneously regenerated from the carcase of an ox, known as the bugonia – from the Greek bous (ox) and gonos (offspring).

Originating in Egypt, as described in Georgics IV, this process involves taking a bullock, sealing it in a dark and airless shed, beating it so that its entrails are loosened but its hide left intact and, finally, leaving it to putrefy on a bed of thyme. The bees were then meant to be born from the warm liquid. But how did this belief of the rebirth of the bees come about? There are two possible explanations: first, in hot countries like Egypt, bees may have lived in dessicated animal carcases; secondly and more likely, the ancients confused the bee with a drone fly, which often does breed in rotting flesh.

This idea is explored in Rudyard Kipling’s poem The Bees and the Flies, where an Augustan farmer, on reading Georgics IV, follows the advice on how to carry out the bugonia, but ends up with a rotting corpse seething with blow-flies.

Virgil and the Muses Melpomene and Clio, 3rd century AD, mosaic found in Sousse, Tunisia. The Bardo Museum, Tunis.

Straddling the description of the lives of bees and the Orpheus and Eurydice episode in Georgics IV is the epyllion, about Aristaeus and how he discovered the method of obtaining a new swarm of bees from the carcase of a bull. Aristaeus was the son of Apollo and the nymph Cyrene who, through his upbringing by the Horae, the goddesses of the seasons, learned how to construct beehives and make cheese, arts that he passed on through his teaching while travelling. Aristaeus came to Thrace where, in Virgil’s version of the myth, he fell in love with Eurydice who, while being pursued by him, was fatally bitten by a snake.

As a punishment for this, Orpheus and the mountain nymphs brought about the death of Aristaeus’ swarm of bees and he was instructed by his mother, Cyrene, to visit the old god of the sea, Proteus, and to bind him in chains to gain advice on how to put things right. What Proteus tells him to do is, however, a slightly different ritual to that of the Egyptian bugonia. Aristaeus is advised to carry out a traditional Graeco-Roman sacrifice of four bulls and four heifers at the sanctuaries of the nymphs on Mount Lycaeus in Arcadia. From the oxen’s liquefied innards comes the miracle of bees buzzing and bursting forth.

While Egyptian bees were reborn through the mystical and impossible marvel of the bugonia, civilised (ie Greek) society represented by Aristaeus must continually restore itself by maintaining the relationship between gods, humans and animals through a sacrifice: in other words, constructive and purposeful violence.

This concept of constructive violence leading to renewal for the benefit of the community is a theme that resonates throughout the Georgics and the Aeneid, and is one where bees represent the idea of rebirth and the collective over the individual.

In Aeneid I, Dido, having suffered the brutal and impious murder of her husband, Sychaeus, at the hands of her brother Pygmalion, is overseeing the construction of a new city for her exiled people in Carthage. It is the very violence of her past that leads to new beginnings and it is bees that represent this idea of positive renewal and collective productivity and to whom the workers building Carthage are compared: ‘They were like bees at the beginning of summer, busy in the sunshine all through the flowery meadows’ (Aeneid, translated by David West).

A sherd of a Late Roman, cylindrical bee-jar, AD 200–410, terracotta, showing the interior with five widely spaced finger impressions arranged in two rows. Found in Surrey. On Malta the practice of keeping bees in terracotta jars lasted until the 1950s.

Similarly, rebirth and renewal are the ultimate goals for the souls of the dead in Aeneid VI, flocking to drink from Lethe, the river of forgetfulness, before they gain a second body. Prior to this, they have undergone the violence of the purification process, by the ravages of either fire, wind or water, to rid the body of ingrained ills. As the souls swarm along the banks of the River Lethe they are compared to bees in a meadow on ‘a clear summer day, settling on all the many-coloured flowers and crowding round the gleaming white lilies’ (Aeneid, as beforee).

This comparison is appropriate because bees were believed to be capable of traversing the worlds of both the living and the dead. But, as well as representing souls, bees were also the symbols of fertility and productivity, hence the florid and busy imagery of the simile.

The violence of Aeneas’ attack on the city of Latinium in Aeneid XII could be viewed as a necessary, constructive act to expedite the final duel between him and Turnus and subsequently allow the union with Lavinia and the rise of future Rome. Once again, bees are at the heart of the imagery as the Latins trapped in their city and under attack from the Trojans are compared to bees being smoked out of a rock by a shepherd.

Embedded in these examples of renewal through violence is the wider message of Augustus’ regeneration of Rome after the turbulence of the civil wars of the 40s BC. This one man presiding over Rome and its citizens (Quirites) mirrors the community of bees in the Georgics with its one ruler; an homogeneous mass devoted to performing tasks through industry and toil for the benefit of the collective.

This collective of bees, while efficient and admirable with its thriftiness and good order could be viewed as impersonal, dispassionate and lacking individuality: as Virgil writes, the bees neither yield themselves to love nor experience the langours of passion. This is brought starkly to life through the juxtaposition of the work of the bees and the tragic love story of Orpheus, whom we know loses Eurydice, the love of his life, goes to the underworld to fetch her back but, because he does not follow instructions, fails to do so. Aristaeus, who follows the instructions of Proteus, however, successfully renews his bees from the oxen, a miracle that could serve as a symbol for Rome’s renewal under Augustus. In both transformations the collective is prioritised over the individual, the few are sacrificed for the many. So could Virgil be saying that the suffering in the story of Orpheus and Eurydice emphasises that individual desires come second to that of the state community?

Perhaps so, when read alongside the final lines of Georgics IV, where the work of Augustus, safeguarding the boundaries of the Roman Empire through his Eastern campaign for the benefit of the collective, with the conquered people willing to accept Rome’s government, is set against the ignoble leisure of the poet Virgil, the individual, who plays around with pastoral verse. This, in turn, translates into a darker and more unsettling view of that industrious collective of bees.

All images: Wikimedia Commons.