Amberley Publishing - Transport, Military, Local and General History

Cave Canem: Animals and Roman Society by Iain Ferris

The Nile Mosaic, Praeneste/Palestrina. First quarter of the second century AD. Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Palestrina. (Author's phote, Cave Canem: Animals and Roman Society, Amberley Publishing)

My newly-published Amberley book presents a broad analysis of the place and role of animals in ancient Roman society and their meaning and significance is interpreted in cultural terms. Animals were highly significant and important in the Roman world and in the Roman imagination. Most obviously, there would have been working animals on the majority of Roman farms and animals were often kept as household pets. Meat and fish were highly important ingredients in Roman cookery and supplies had to be located and maintained. Animals were also commonly employed in warfare in the Roman period. The story of the extraordinary slaughter of animals in the Roman arena for entertainment and by organised hunting inevitably hangs heavily over this study. Animal sacrifice was considered as central to the practice and rites of Roman religion according to many authorities. Less obvious, but no less important, was the widespread appearance of images of animals as attributes of various Roman gods and goddesses, the creation and acceptance of the idea of mythological animals and beasts, and the meaning of the symbolism of animals in the ancient world. Finally, consideration has been given in the book to the concept of Nature and the natural world as filtered through the Roman cultural gaze and how this may have impacted on various manifestations of apparent cruelty to animals in Roman society. Along the way readers will also learn about some more esoteric topics. Did the Romans keep domesticated weasels in their homes to combat mice, rats, and snakes, for instance? And did they really eat dormice?

Dolphin grave marker. First half of first century AD. Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Aquileia. (Author's photo, Cave Canem: Animals and Roman Society, Amberley Publishing)

As has been the case with all my previous books there is a great deal of reliance here on visual evidence, that is representations of animals in Roman art and particularly in the form of sculptures, and as images on coins, mosaics, wall paintings, and decorated everyday items. The book is also a story of how art depicting animals became as much a part of Roman culture as real animals played in Roman society. There can be no doubt that image and imagination together helped shape the Romans' understanding of Nature.

This study is not in any way a natural history of any particular species of animal, but rather of humans at a certain point in time and of the way they behaved towards animals, as far as we can gauge and understand such a set of relationships. Readers of books on so-called Celtic religion will often have come across the thesis that Celtic people were somehow more attuned to Nature than their Roman and Romanised counterparts and that their religious beliefs and practices reflected a symbiotic link between Nature and Celtic culture that simply did not exist in the Roman world or was not as well developed. However, this would appear to be somewhat of an academic straw man, and it is difficult to see that this was in fact true when it can be demonstrated without doubt that Roman culture and religion were equally in touch with the natural world, as readers will see throughout the course of my book.

Of course, there were animals in the Roman countryside, both wild and farmed. But one might deduce from many modern studies of the Roman world that there was a complete split between town and country and that city life was antipathetic if not exactly opposite to Nature and to most extents free of animal life in general. From nits in their hair and intestinal worms, from mosquitoes in the marshes in and around Rome, from thrips in their milled grain to mice in their kitchens, from passerine birds in their gardens to scavenging, opportunistic foxes in the back alleys of houses and on the fringes of the cities animals were indeed ever present, providing a kind of murmuring undercurrent and susurration to Roman urban life. Throw consideration of guard dogs and other working animals and pets into the mix and then suddenly the Roman city seems to have been a natural host to animal life.

Guard dog with Cave Canem (Beware of the Dog) inscription. House of the Tragic Poet, Pompeii. 63-79 BC. (c. Eufrosine, Wikimedia Commons, Cave Canem: Animals and Roman Society, Amberley Publishing)

The most disturbing and distressing aspect of this study is undoubtedly consideration of the astonishing cruelty of animal spectacles in the arena that appear to have begun in Rome in the third century B.C., and perhaps whose origins lay in the triumphal displays of captured African elephants staged by Marius Curius Dentatus in 275 B.C. and Lucius Caecilius Metellus in 250. Many early arena shows were simply displays of exotic animals for the general public, allowing them access to the sight of creatures that otherwise at the time might have been only seen by their elite contemporaries and those Roman aristocrats who had used their wealth and connections to stock their own vivaria or animal enclosures in Rome and its environs. Exotic animals like elephants were sometimes trained to dance, walk on a tightrope, or pick up items, according to Pliny the Elder and other ancient writers. Animal shows involving violence and combat, known to the Romans as venationes or hunts, possibly began in 186 B.C. when lions and leopards featured in a show sponsored by Marcus Fulvus Nobilior. Whether the animals fought each other on this occasion or fought against human performers is unknown. Certainly, it would appear that bloody venatio shows developed out of the culture of gladiatorial spectacles. The last recorded venationes in Rome took place as late as A.D. 523. While acknowledging the cruelty and human suffering associated with the gladiatorial shows, discussion in the book is restricted to the animal games and the arena executions involving animals.

A captured elephant in transit. Detail of the Great Hunt Mosaic. Piazza Armerina, Sicily. After AD 320. (Photo c. Professor R.J.A. Wilson (Vancouver), Cave Canem: Animals and Roman Society, Amberley Publishing)

The sponsorship of public gladiatorial and animal shows became a way for the rich and powerful of Rome to display their wealth and enhance their status, influence and power. Sponsorship itself became a locus of political competition in the late Republic and was to become a facet of Roman imperial largesse. In his Res Gestae, a quantified justification of his reign and achievements, the first emperor Augustus proudly claimed that at twenty six venationes held during his reign a total of three thousand five hundred African animals had been slain, setting a high bar for those emperors that followed. When the Roman poet Juvenal complained about the political apathy of his fellow citizens of the late first and early second century A.D. and their failing to react against the unreasonable or eccentric behaviour of autocratic emperors he coined a famous phrase that would resonate down the years. These citizens craved and were satisfied with panem et circenses, that is bread and circuses, he wrote. Many emperors too found that the provision of mass entertainment and the occasional public distribution of free grain easily diverted critical attention away from the more negative aspects of their reigns. The provision of such spectacles was a necessary strategy for making imperial power visible in Rome.

Once the Romans started to think of exotic animals as commodities for their use and amusement it validated and indeed institutionalised the ill treatment that certain kinds of animals experienced in public spectacles. There had never been such a marked instance of this circumstance before: violence towards animals was part of a wider progression towards greater violence of human towards human. The market for exotic animals thankfully collapsed after the end of the Roman Empire in the west and this must have allowed damaged ecosystems to start recovering and depleted animal populations to start to grow again. Irreversible regional extinctions though had taken place.

A history of animals in Roman times such as that presented in my book is not parallel to the history of Roman imperialism or of Roman culture; rather, it is part of the same study, and certainly should be. The book proposes a way to understand ancient Roman culture through analysing the society's relationship with animals. If negative Roman and animal relationships resulted in some form of psychic damage, at least my account hopefully takes something from the discussion of its once living subjects, almost their very flesh, skin, and breath, and looks at how they were woven into the complex tissue of historical memory that constituted Roman culture, so that these animals may live again conceptually for us through consideration of their existence.

Iain Ferris' new book Cave Canem: Animals and Roman Society is available for purchase now.