Of Eggs, Chickens, and the Fall of Rome
Macrobius (or Macrobius Ambrosius Theodosius) was a writer of the early fifth century ce, about whom little is known, save that he may have been a Romanized Greek from Egypt. He wrote, in Latin, the Saturnalia (available in three volumes from the Loeb Classical Library), which is part of a genre popular in late antiquity, descended from the dialogues of Plato but devolved into light reading. The Saturnalia is in the form of a lengthy imaginary dinner conversation between (mostly) real people, who were not necessarily acquainted or even alive when the book was written. It is a vast compendium of curious lore somewhat akin to the Attic Nights of Aulus Gellius or The Learned Banqueters of Athenaeus, filled with discourses on the divinity of the Sun, the universal wisdom of Vergil, arcane points of grammar, and even speculations on the workings of the human digestive system.
Toward the end of all this, as the characters and perhaps the author have become a little punch-drunk over such an avalanche of erudition, we find the following:
Evangelus ... in a trifling mood, said, “Away with these subjects, which you ventilate only to parade your chatter: instead, if your wisdom has the skill, I want to learn from you whether the egg or the chicken existed first.” (Vol III, 295)
There follow three pages of explication in the finest style of ancient philosophy, presenting both sides of the matter without drawing any conclusion. In favor of the egg, we are told that “the first stage of anything is still incomplete and unformed and is shaped and perfected as time passes and skill grows.” Thus the bird forms from the originally shapeless matter inside the egg. The egg is even worshipped by devotees of Father Liber as “a likeness of the universe, which by general agreement is held to be the first beginning of all that is.”
In opposition to this: “an egg is neither the beginning nor the end to that which it belongs: the beginning is the seed, the end is the fully formed bird, while the egg is the processing of the seed.” An egg could no more exist before a chicken than a womb could exist before a woman. But where did the first chicken then come from? “A considerable number of living things that arise completely formed from the earth and rain, like mice in Egypt, like frogs, snakes, and similar creatures elsewhere....” Birds were therefore formed perfectly by nature and given the power to reproduce themselves. (Such a notion—spontaneous generation—dates back well before Aristotle and was not fully refuted until Pasteur did it in 1859. It would have sounded quite plausible to fifth-century readers.)
One suspects that Macrobius himself was a chicken partisan, but it does not matter. How time-binding to realize that this eternal question vexed the best minds of the educated elite sixteen centuries ago. There is also a note of warning here as we imagine them at their leisure, obliviously debating such things against the backdrop of the steady tread of the Visigothic hordes on their way to Rome.