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Animals and hunting in world of Romans

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Animals played many different roles in the life of the Romans. At the outset, attention should be paid to the importance of animals in the Roman religion.

Roman mosaic showing a dog on a leash.

Etruscan influences meant that the initially simple religious rites of the Romans became more and more complicated. They began to try to guess the intentions of the gods by reading them from natural phenomena, from the entrails of animals sacrificed, and especially from the liver, the colour and shape of which varied from one individual to another. Attempts were made to read the future from the flight and behaviour of birds (e.g. auspices). The flight of vultures or ravens and the manner in which sacrificed hens collected grain were observed.

During the First Punic War (264-261 BCE), the commander of the Roman fleet, Claudius Pulcher, took a few chickens to the sea to “ask” them how to to keep his army. Due to the inconvenience of the sea voyage, however, the birds did not want to collect the seeds that were thrown to them. An angry Claudius Pulcher had them thrown overboard. He was supposed to say: “If they don’t want to eat, let them drink!”. The Carthaginians defeated Claudius, so the Romans explained their defeat with this ill-considered gesture of the commander.

Dogs and hunting

In Rome, little importance was attached to hunting as an educational element. The youth treated it as a sport, dogs and horses were also kept for this purpose, and the number proved the host’s wealth. Undoubtedly, the desire to have these animals was a sign of snobbery. Having a large number of horses and dogs was evidence of wealth.

Hunting enthusiasts appreciated dogs for their loyalty and help during hunting.

In daily life we have discovered many other valuable qualities in this animal; but its intelligence and sagacity are more especially shown in the chase. It discovers and traces out the tracks of the animal, leading by the leash the sportsman who accompanies it straight up to the prey; and as soon as ever it has perceived it, how silent it is, and how secret but significant is the indication which it gives, first by the tail and afterwards by the nose! Hence it is, that even when worn out with old age, blind, and feeble, they are carried by the huntsman in his arms, being still able to point out the coverts where the game is concealed, by snuffing with their muzzles at the wind. The Indians raise a breed between the dog and the tiger, and for this purpose tie up the females in the forests when in heat. The first two litters they look upon as too savage to be reared, but they bring up the third.

Pliny the Elder, Natural History, VIII.61

Dogs guarding the house and the farmstead played an equally important role in the life of the Romans. Dogs were also kept in houses in the city, as evidenced by the floors in front of the entrance with the words CAVE CANEM, meaning “Beware of the dog”. Naturally, there were also “mascot” dogs that were used to play and amuse their owners. Martial devotes his epigram to such a dog, imitating Catullus’s poem (II) about a sparrow:

Issa is more mischevious than Catullus’ sparrow:
Issa is purer than the kiss of a dove;
Issa is more flattering than all girls;
Issa is more dear than India’s gems;
Issa is Publius’ darling little dog.

You will think that this dog is speaking if she whimpers.
She feels sadness and joyfullness.

In order that death not seize all of this
Publius portrays in a painting
in which you will see an Issa so similar to the real Issa
that not even she herself would be so similar to herself.
Finally place Issa together with the painting:
either you will think that both are real
or you will think that both are painted

The tomb inscriptions also testify to the attachment of people to “four-legged friends”:

Passer-by, if you happen to see this monument while walking down the road
Please don’t laugh, this is the dog’s grave.
Tears were shed because of him, and his master erected a grave with his own hands
And he engraved these words on the tombstone.

Hunting

When it comes to hunting, the Romans, like the Greeks, chose to hunt in order to gain sacrifices for the gods and to organize feasts.

It should be noted that the Romans were not as passionate about hunting as the Greeks. They viewed it more as a sport and entertainment that was provided by exercise. Usually, they were hunted on non-working days (otium). They hunted mainly hares, wild boars and birds using the most effective and the simplest methods, including traps and various types of traps. A great example of such an approach is the account of Pliny the Younger from his hunt. In “Letters”, Pliny talks about his hunting trophies and the calm with which he watched the hunt from the viewer’s point of view. As he himself says, “there was neither a javelin nor a spear next to me, but… a stylus and a writing board.” In addition, he advises the addressee to take food, a bottle and something to write on for a similar trip.

The animal that was often hunted was the wild boar, which, according to Pliny the Elder, appeared on the tables of the Romans quite early. It is worth mentioning, however, that the introduction of a new, wild dish to the salons was badly received by various circles, including the extremely conservative Cato the Elder (known as the Censor). During feasts, only the middle part of the wild boar – “wild boar tenderloin” (lumbus aprinus) was served.

With time, the demand for wild boars increased to such an extent that boar and other wild animals were raised. The first to breed venison was Fulwius Lippinus in the vicinity of Tarkwinów. Other Romans followed in his footsteps, for example: Lucius Lucullus (most likely the winner of Mithridates from 73 BCE) or Quintus Hortnesius (son of a Roman speaker, an opponent of Cicero).

Sometimes wild animals lived in defiance of the Romans. This is mentioned, for example, by Cassius Octavius from Arretium in a letter to Lucius’s friend, who had to contend with the plague of rabbits.

Naturally, various kinds of birds were also hunted, and they were lured with a whistle and lured into snares or nets. Also used were sticks smeared with glue. The Romans gradually diversified their menu with new species of birds and fish and their methods of preparation. The most favourite fish were sturgeons, sea bass, carcasses, and wrasse. The last species of fish was brought to the Italian coast, between Ostia and Campania, in order to have easier access to my favourite meat. Pliny the Elder also mentions red beards and moray eels, where the latter were delivered salted in tanks. In the time of Octavian Augustus, a Wedius Pollio, whose father was once a slave, had established a moray farm on his estate and fed them with the bodies of his slaves, which caused general outrage in Rome.

Roman mosaic showing fishermen while fishing.

Fish farming in ponds or pools was very common in Rome. The owner of the property in his spare time devoted himself to fishing, for which he used nets, fishing rods, poems and harpoons. The fishing rods used small pieces of meat as bait. In addition, the form of bait was cheese, bread or plants with a strong smell, which was to attract fish to a given place. Artificial flies were also used. The nets were loaded with weights, and the caught fish were pulled out with the help of hooked lines, taking large amounts of the catch. The poems, in turn, were cages made of wicker, the entrance opening of which narrowed towards the inside. The fish that got inside could no longer get out due to the special rods blocking the exit. The harpoon was made of a long rod, mostly olive wood, and ended with an arrowhead or a trident. This tool was used to catch octopuses and larger fish, mainly at night. Fish that were intended for a longer delivery were cleaned and salted in special tanks. An interesting fact is that if a fisherman during the empire managed to catch an unusual art by the coast, he was obliged to give it to the imperial table. This was due to the fact that the coastal waters were “holy”, ie imperial, and belonged to the imperial family. Marcjalis and Juwenalis mention this issue in their works.

Catching of wild animals

Dolphins

Among Roman coins, many have the image of a dolphin on the reverse. This animal, which is very numerous throughout the Mediterranean Sea, has attracted people’s attention from the earliest times by its behaviour towards sailors. An encounter with a herd of dolphins has always been read as good omen. Only the Thracians hunted dolphins, which exposed themselves to hostility from the Greeks and Romans.

This widely respected mammal is closely associated with all the legends and gods of the sea. One of them tells how Neptune in love with Amphitrite sends a dolphin to her. In exchange for the favours rendered, he hangs a constellation of ten stars on the celestial symbol, naming it the name Dolphin. Various more or less credible stories were told about dolphins rescuing sailors and being tamed by children. It was repeated by Pliny in his “Natural History”. The ancient Romans, and indeed the Greeks as well, knew the habits and behaviour of these animals very well. To summon a dolphin you had to call “simon, simon” and he would respond immediately to the call. The word simon in Greek meant “flat nose” and was a nickname given to dolphins by the Greeks.

Pigeons

The use of pigeons in war as well as in peacetime is not an invention of our time, as many suppose. Already Assyrians and Medes used pigeons in wars, and the Greeks released them during the Olympics to spread the names of the victors throughout the country.
The Romans bred these birds in huge numbers, setting up lofts on the roofs of their houses. Like today, pigeon meat was eagerly eaten, and turtle doves of that time were simply adored by gourmets.

In many parts of the Empire, pigeons were used to convey important information. In the 3rd century CE, Emperor Diocletian even created the first “airmail”. Much earlier, however, pigeons played an important historical role. In 43 BCE Brutus besieged Modena by Mark Antony contacted his allies through them.

Sources
  • Pliny the Elder, Natural history
  • Winniczuk Lidia, Ludzie, zwyczaje i obyczaje starożytnej Grecji i Rzymu, PWN, Warszawa 1983

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