Animals held a fundamental role in Roman society since the earliest days of the city’s foundation where a she-wolf was said to have tended to the twin brothers Romulus and Remus. Animals were associated with wealth – in fact the word for money “pecus” is the word for sheep. They fulfilled many roles such as work-power in mills, farming, transport, warfare as well as an important element of trade and religion. Their value made them a significant sacrifice as well as opportunity for fortune telling through the shapes of their entrails. Different animals were associated with the different divinities also: Eagle with Jupiter, Owl with Minerva, Peacock with Juno, horses with Apollo, Cockerel with Mars etc.
As with any early pastoral society the value of farm animals was great. The first Romans were primarily shepherds who set up camp on top of Rome’s 7 hills. As the city developed they began to devote their energies to arable farming and war. The value of ancient Roman animals also made them an essential element of Religious sacrifices and augury (divining the future). As Roman society developed the relationship between Roman civilisation and animals broadened into areas such as personal pets, and an entire industry in exotic animals for public “Venationes” shows, animals for capital punishments, manufacturing processes, as well as military use.
In fact the war season was generally well matched to the farming season so that farmers could get back in time for harvest, although from time to time the unending wars meant great hardship for the plebeian farmers who didn’t have the resources to jump the farming season.
One of the earliest forums was the Forum Boarium near the Tiber river. This forum was devoted to meat and live stock trading and eventually included financial trading and lending. This is hardly surprising as meat would have been a leading commodity for an extremely long time, at least until money lending and large scale farming tipped the scales.
A good example of the strong link between meat trading and money is to be found in the Argentari Arch near the forum Boarium. Rather than an arch this is a gate dedicated to the emperor Septimius Severus and his family by the money lenders and merchants. A popular saying says that a treasure is to be found “between the cow and bull” which led to numerous holes being drilled into it through the ages.
The Wolf and Sheep
The first animals in ancient Roman history and legend are the wolf and sheep.
The She Wolf, or lupa, was reputedly the animal which took in the baby twins Romulus and Remus as her own and fed them her milk. The image left shows the wolf looking after the twins by the Tiber river bank. The deity with the oar and cornucopia is a representation of the Tiber.
It is generally believed that in line with Roman slang the word Lupa actually referred to a prostitute rather than the actual animal. However the myth remained and the symbol of the wolf and suckling babes is as linked to Rome as the Colosseum itself.
Whatever the case, the wolf always held a great significance for the ancient Romans and being a society which was, at least initially, based on sheep farming it is hardly surprising.
This may in part help us understand one of the earliest traditional religious feasts of Rome: the Lupercalia, feasts in honor of the god Pan, who himself was half man and half goat! These were held in the month of february and involved boys running out of a cave on the Palatine thrashing bloody leather hides (called “februa”, hence the name of the month) over those who might be near them. To be touched by these whips was meant to bring fertility and was particularly auspicial to barren women.
As well as farming, the Romans were also devoted to war and lo and behold, the wolf was regarded to be the animal sacred to the god Mars – god of war.
Given all this background it is not surprising that the wolf came to be the subject of a great many popular sayings and mottos such as…
“lupus in fabula”. Literally meaning “the wolf in the story” used to mean a situation when a person you might be speaking about actually appears on the scene by surprise.
“auribus teneo lupum”. Meaning “holding the wolf by the ears” ie an uncomfortable and embarrassing situation.
“hac urget lupus hac canis” meaning to be stuck in a cross fire: “on the one side threatened by a wolf and on the other by a dog”.
The Use of Animals in Ancient Rome
Given the lack of many of the forms of energy we are used to nowadays, animals were widely used for a variety of tasks which may be easily imagined.
At a domestic level the value and presence of animals was largely governed by their value as food or as workers:
Horses would be clearly used as transport or for military uses although Emperor Caligula reportedly had his own horse raised to the rank of Senator and housed in a five star stable.
Oxen and donkeys would be used both for ploughing the land as well as for running machinery such as was employed in the construction industry. The animals could either be made to push a mill round and round or actually trample inside a wheel rather like a Hamster in a cage. This type of application was generally linked to lifting work.
There are reports and sculpted images of simple mechanical harvesting devices drawn by donkeys.
Elephants and Oxen might be used tied up in a train to carry very large and heavy loads such as Obelisks or more famously Nero’s titanic statue, also known as the Colossus.
Elephants might also be used in war. This was famously used against the Romans by Hannibal the Carthaginian general and the Romans, never having seen Elephants before were, in that occasion, routed.
Dogs would perform the very common tasks of home pet, hunting companion or even guard dog. In fact there’s a sign in ancient Pompeii which actually says “cave canem”: beware of the dog!
As a fitting footnote to this section it is worth adding a tender note: there is more than one instance where children are shown cheerfully playing with their dogs or puppies. One such example I have seen was on a child’s tombstone, obviously commissioned by the child’s parents, who wished to remember their daughter as she playfully rolled about with her beloved pet.
Animals in Roman Religion
Different animals of different value would be appropriate for different types of propitiatory sacrifice to the gods. In fact there was a specific word for the special instances where a pig (sus), a ram or sheep (ovis) and a bull (taurus) were sacrificed to the god Mars: a Suovetaurilia. This sort of sacrifice might be used to purify an army which was about to enter into war: “exercitum suovetaurilibus lustrare”.
Likewise there were particular instances where particular animals had to be sacrificed to appease the gods. For example the site where someone had been struck by lightning was regarded as sacred. Those killed by lightning could not be simply cremated but had to be buried after extensive ceremony involving the sacrifice of a sheep.
In the image above (which can be enlarged) the animals involved in the suovetaurilia are shown in the top left whilst the various stages of a bull being sacrificed are shown down the right hand side.
Augurs and predicting the future:
In line with Etruscan tradition before them, the Romans made extensive use of animals in the reading of the future and of the will of the gods. For example the entrails of various animals would be read once the beast had been killed in sacrifice. The meat would be eaten as part of the feast following the sacrifice.
The animals involved in this kind of fortune telling were wide and varied. Birds were often employed and in fact formed part of the founding myth of Rome which involved the twins seeing flights of vultures over the Alban hills.
Birds were in fact subdivided into classes, such as birds which fly together in a given direction and birds which fly about randomly or those with a fancy flight like eagles and vultures versus those which sound nasty and chatter all the time. The sector of sky in which the bird might be observed was also significant.
In one such event, Julius Caesar is said to have sacrificed some cows which when dissected proved to have no heart: he was assassinated soon after (aparently).
Well we can’t forget eagles. Jupiter was generally associated with an eagle, Romulus was said to rise to the heavens as an eagle and the Pantheon was built over the precise spot where this apparently happened. The “apotheosis” of emperors after they had died was often represented as them riding a giant eagle towards the heavens to join the gods.
The sacrifice of a sheep or lamb, in symbol of purity was also part of the more traditional marriage ceremony known as “confarreatio” used by the Patrician (noble) class. It involved a sacrifice of the animal during the early morning and its skin being utilised to cover the couple’s legs as they sat during the ceremony.
Ancient Roman Animals at the Public Feasts
Ancient Roman animals were clearly of great variety: the Romans had a love for the exotic and new and as such the strange beasts which might be brought for their conquests were always welcome as part of public feasts.
The matinee shows at amphitheatres such as the Coliseum were generally centred around the Venationes: shows where human fighters known as “bestiarii” would fight against wild animals of all sorts.
Julius Caesar is famed for the number of Lions he had brought over and killed as part of the public feasts. In fact these sorts of public show marked the end of a number of species of animals.
Then there were the shows at the Circus, such as the Circus Maximus where “colourful” emperors such as Nero or Helagabalus reputedly had the horses substituted by other animals, for example Elephants. Horses were obviously more common at the circus although the number of horses drawing the racing carriages might varying. Horse racing could drive the public crazy to the point of hooliganism and there are many accounts of the prowess and racing achievements of specific horses.
Animals as part of Capital Punishment
There was no shortage of other shows which nowadays we would clearly regard as horrific: wild beasts of different types tied together to maul each other to death or a single animal of one type eg a Lion versus a pack of dogs.
The Roman love for naturalistic sadism didn’t stop here and it was also employed as part of capital punishments during public shows. For example the myth of Prometheus would be portrayed by some hapless criminal tied up for animals to have a go at feeding on his liver.
The death of many Christians has been handed down through time although doubtless many non-Christians also dies of similarly atrocious deaths: convicted persons might be tied up to a stake so that enraged hungry beasts might have a go at them.
A particularly gruelling account is given by Roman historians who report the horror of parts of the Roman population when Nero had the Christians rounded up as culprits for the great fire in Rome. He had them sown up in animal skins and thrown to the dogs to be mauled apart.
I think we have shown that in ancient Rome animals fulfilled a very wide range of functions in all aspects of life. The attitude of the Romans towards animals was very much that of a society which views beasts as a resource to be made use of even to the extent of mindlessly killing them for public shows. At its opposite extreme, Romans, as individuals, also had animals as pets and in many instances viewed and portrayed their pets, particularly dogs and birds, as something they personally loved and cared for.