Roaming in Rome

By Madeline Pong, Yeo Li Ling and Yeo Siew May

Orpheus surrounded by animals is depictd in an ancient Roman floor mosaic from Palermo, Italy. Similar to the one from Turkey, this mosaic is in a Palermo museum. Copyrighted Image by Giovanni Dall’Orto, sourced through Wikimedia Commons.

When people think of history, they often think of people, events and artifacts. Many often forget about the four-legged friends that roamed the earth alongside humans. Yes, keeping pets were a thing way longer than we think! Animals were domesticated as early as 30000 years ago. No one knows for sure when humans started keeping dogs as pets, but it is estimated to be about 11000 to 30000 years ago. Hunter-gatherers and village laborers kept pets. Hence they were aware of how to take care of animals. The animals were raised as a source of food and labor, which led to the domestication of animals. The roles of animals were especially diverse in Ancient Rome, other than for the purpose of keeping pets and agriculture. The more unconventional roles included entertainment, honorary parades, and even aiding political campaigns. This led to our decision to focus on the animals of Ancient Rome. Here’s a glimpse into the lives of the animals of Ancient Rome.

ANIMALS AND THEIR SIGNIFICANCE IN ANCIENT ROME

ANIMALS IN WARFARE

1. PIGS

By Jesse Lenz via Mental Floss

What may come as a surprise to many is that pigs actually played a significant role in warfare, mainly as a countermeasure against elephants. Pigs were released during war and their squeals were meant to startle war elephants. Apart from warfare, pigs served as a form of sacrifice to the deities by presenting them in the form of intricately prepared pork-based dishes.

2. Trained DOGS

Dogs were also trained and used in combat. Canes pugnaces were the original Roman fighting dogs, similar to the present day Rottweiler.  They were large and muscular animals and their fights in the Colosseum were the origins of bull-baiting. Dog-fighting was also a popular means of entertainment in Ancient Rome.

Claudia Bensimoun Canine and Wildlife Freelance © Copyright 2012

Claudia Bensimoun Canine and Wildlife Freelance © Copyright 2012

Mastiff type dogs were used in attack formations by the Roman army. Also, there is proof that each Roman legion consisted of one fighting dog company dressed in spiked coats and were trained to run under the bellies of enemy horses to disembowel them.

16th century armoured dogs: from ‘The New Dog Encyclopedia’

16th century armoured dogs: from ‘The New Dog Encyclopedia’

3. Elephants

Carthaginian war elephants engage Roman infantry at the Battle of Zama (202 BC). Author: Henri-Paul Motte via Wikimedia Commons

Carthaginian war elephants engage Roman infantry at the Battle of Zama (202 BC). Author: Henri-Paul Motte via Wikimedia Commons

Above all other ancient Roman animals, elephants were a symbol of Roman power and the success of its Emperors. In fact, they were even found on the currency at a point of time! Out of the arena, the elephant was a prized status symbol due to its role in the transportation of wealthy men and women to dinner. Elephants also carried out an important role in the building trade by carrying weights. During warfare, elephants were utilized as machines of war. One of the ways how they served as a form of a “secret weapon” of the ancient Roman military to intimidate enemies who had never come across as large and strange-looking creatures as the elephants.

Elephants were one of the most popular species of animals used for show in Ancient Rome. Like other wild species, such as lions and bears, elephants were active in the arena and were part of killing in spectacles which demonstrated the Romans’ ability to dominate nature.

Elephants can be both friend and foe, dependent on the varying circumstances that determine its role. The ability for elephants to be trained helped in assisting human efforts to gain security and prosperity. As animals that can be easily tamed, elephants were able to foster close bonds with their respective human handlers, although rarely kept for domestication.

Denarius Julius Caesar: Elephant © Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions

Denarius Julius Caesar: Elephant © Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions

ANIMALS TIED TO WORSHIP/SACRIFICE/DIVINE SIGNIFICANCE

1. BIRDS

Divination By Bryce Ross

Divination By Bryce Ross

The art of augury is the interpretation of signs from nature in order to determine the will of the gods through the flight of birds.The Roman augurs and magistrates performed this form of divination to determine whether a proposed action had divine approval from the gods.

2. DOGS

In the Greco-Roman world, the practice of dog sacrifices aims at securing a fertile year, good crops and other material possessions. Also, dogs were often connected with the Underworld and were assumed to belong to both the land of the living and the land of the dead.

DOMESTICATED ANIMALS

1. Dogs

Dogs were considered faithful companions and guardians of precious possessions. There has been a multitude of tomb findings in which the remains of a dog were found next to or near a buried individual, suggesting that the dog was killed in order to be buried alongside its owner.

Funerary Inscription for Helena, CIL 6.19190

Funerary Inscription for Helena, CIL 6.19190

Villa Romana del Casale- Small Game Hunt Mosaic © José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro / CC BY-SA 4.0

Villa Romana del Casale- Small Game Hunt Mosaic

© José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro / CC BY-SA 4.0

Since the Roman Empire was largely an agrarian society, the role of dogs in guarding and herding other ancient Roman animals was critical. Below are specific descriptions for various dogs according to their roles in society.

Guard Dogs: They should be all black, large and loud so as to intimidate intruders.

Dog Mosaic at the Olearie Exhibit - Rome, Italy. By Christieann Ray

Dog Mosaic at the Olearie Exhibit - Rome, Italy. By Christieann Ray

Shepherd Dogs: Shepherd dogs should also be all white so that it would not be mistaken for a wolf in half-light of dawn or dusk.

Journey of the Magi to Bethlehem by Benozzo Gozzoli

Journey of the Magi to Bethlehem by Benozzo Gozzoli

Farm Dogs: The farm-yard dog should be heavily built, with a large head, drooping ears, bright eyes, a broad and shaggy chest, wide shoulders, thick legs, and short tail.

2. ANIMALS IN THE COLOSSEUM (Horses/Bulls/Tigers)

The so-called Zliten mosaic, now in Tripoli, Libya via Wikimedia Commons

The so-called Zliten mosaic, now in Tripoli, Libya via Wikimedia Commons

The Oldest Roman games were the Chariot Races, which required the strength of four horses. Such events categorized as “Ludi”, also known as “spectacula”, were meant for the benefit and entertainment of the Romans. These games were significant and highly regarded in the ancient Roman society. Romans typically perceived animals as tools for entertainment by engaging them in battles meant for Romans’ viewing pleasure.

Quadriga atop the Brandenburg Gate. By young shanahan via Flickr

Quadriga atop the Brandenburg Gate. By young shanahan via Flickr

One of such forms of entertainment involved staged hunts, which was driven by the culture of subsistence and Romans’ mentality of being “forever hunters”. Games involving animals are known by the term “venationes”. Animals, including exotic wild ones, would often be put on display, trained to perform tricks, and at times killed during the games. Another form of entertainment included intended animal fights, often involving combat between different species. Combat between humans and animals also existed. Animals were also used during parades held in honor of the dead.

FUN FACTS!

Exotic animal transportation scene from the Big Game Hunt Mosaic, Villa del Casale, Piazza Armerina, Sicily via Wikimedia Commons

Exotic animal transportation scene from the Big Game Hunt Mosaic, Villa del Casale, Piazza Armerina, Sicily via Wikimedia Commons

The animals of Ancient Rome were used in numerous other interesting and unusual ways as well! Pet dogs were used as accessories, flea repellents and even bed warmers for the owners. Malteses were common choices as they were small and could be carried around easily. Pets can also indicate one’s status as it was a symbol of wealth. Animals were even used for beauty, where beauty masks were made of things such as sheep’s sweat, placenta, excrement such as urine and even bile. Swan fat was actually a bestseller to get rid of wrinkles!

Animals were also used for political purposes. One of the most significant example was when Marcus Caelius Rufus ordered for the trafficking of rare and exotic animals into his country such as black panthers to win over voters.

CONCLUSION

As Mahatma Gandhi once said,

"The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated."

The large role that animals played in entertainment, warfare and households reflects the importance of such factors in the Ancient Romans’ lives. It appears that the animals that had more roles to play were more highly regarded and prized. Dogs, especially seem to have prominence in the different aspects of lives and hence might be valued more than the others in society. Many of the ways in which the animals were treated in Ancient Rome are deemed as unethical today, which portrays how society and the relationship that people have with animals have evolved and progressed. The difference in which animals were treated or viewed as is reflective of the beliefs and culture that the ancient Romans had. The human-animal relationship was formed many years ago, and it will be one that transcends time.