The Mediterranean Monk Seal (Monachus monachus)
in Ancient History and Literature

William M. Johnson & David M. Lavigne

International Marine Mammal Association
1474 Gordon Street, Guelph, Ontario, Canada N1L 1C8



The role of the Mediterranean monk seal (Monachus monachus) in the history and culture of ancient Greece and Rome is poorly documented in contemporary literature and generally misunderstood by many modern scholars. A comprehensive search was initiated therefore to locate all surviving references to the species in the classical literature of the Mediterranean region. The search yielded over 200 references authored by some 60 writers from the Greek, Roman and Byzantine periods. Examination of these texts, together with information derived from numerous secondary sources, provides new insights into the monk seal’s distribution and abundance in antiquity. It also reveals ancient human attitudes toward the monk seal that resulted in its exploitation for fur, oil and meat, its use in medicines and entertainment, and its role in mythology and superstition. The accumulated evidence now suggests that many of the large monk seal herds that existed in early antiquity were either dramatically reduced or extirpated by intensive exploitation during the Roman era. Throughout much of its historical range, human persecution and progressive habitat deterioration also appear largely responsible for changing a naturally gregarious beach dweller into a less social and reclusive inhabiter of caves.


FROM: Johnson, William M. & David M. Lavigne. 1999. Monk Seals in Antiquity. The Mediterranean Monk Seal (Monachus monachus) in Ancient History and Literature. Mededelingen. No. 35. The Netherlands Commission for International Nature Protection. In Press.

For further information on acquiring this publication, please contact:

Dr. H.P. Nooteboom, Honorary Secretary, The Netherlands Commission for International Nature Protection, c/o Rijksherbarium, Rijksuniversiteit Leiden, Einsteinweg 2, P.O. Box 9514, NL-2300 RA Leiden.
Fax. +31 71 527 35 11.



Copyright © 1999 William M. Johnson & David M. Lavigne, The Monachus Guardian. All Rights Reserved