This page cannot be viewed in frames

Go to page

If you have found a spelling error, please, notify us by selecting that text and pressing Ctrl+Enter.

Wolf. Animal of ancient Rome

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

The Wolf was an animal of great cult status and was well established in the memory of the ancient Romans. It often influenced the history of Rome, was a respected animal, associated with religious rites, and his motif was often used by Roman writers.

The famous myth of the foundation of Rome, in which the wolf found a basket of twins Romulus and Remus abandoned on the shore, taking them to her hiding place, feeding them like her own puppies and enabling them to survive, makes this animal the de facto symbol of the city. At the turn of the 6th and 5th centuries BCE a famous statue of a wolf primeval mother was created, later called the Capitoline Wolf. The wolf and the woodpecker were animals dedicated to one of the most important Roman gods, Mars. However, the first of them played a special role, and the Romans ascribed strength and bravery to it. Because of the rank of Mars, the wolf was one of the most worshiped creatures, next to the eagle dedicated to Jupiter, and his image was often placed on legionary’s signs.
The famous celebrations in honor of Mars, Quirinus and Lubercus, known as the Lupercalia, were associated with the wolf. They originated from the ancient shepherding ceremonies, which were intended to ensure the protection of herds against wolves. A figure with the wolf’s name of Lubercus, represented as a half-human, half-goat, was to be responsible for the herd’s defender before them. The priests of Lubercus, dressed only in goatskins – used to worship the Lupercalia. The goats and dogs themselves sacrificed the gods.

According to tradition, when animals were sacrificed to deities centuries ago, wolves pulled a piece of animal meat from the holy furnace and hid from the pursuit in the cave, from which fatal fumes began to emerge, spreading the sea around the area. At that time, an oracle question was asked as to how to propitiate the gods and relieve their anger for failing to see the sacrifice made to them. The oracle ruled that the people must become like wolves, and then they will receive the forgiveness of the gods. This was the legend that explained the beginnings of the ancient rite.

Image of a she-wolf on the Roman coin from around 77 BCE.
Na licencji Creative Commons Uznanie autorstwa - Na tych samych warunkach 3.0.

The ancient site of the Lupercalia was the Lupercal cave in Palatine. This place was identified as a bed of a wolf primeval mother who fed Romulus and Remus. Lupercal enjoyed great reverence among the Romans. In 296 BCE, the Ogulnius family founded a statue of a wolf with twins, who stood in a sacred cave. According to a legend, the wolf in the history of ancient Rome played his part in the victorious Battle of Sentinum by the Romans against the Samnitians and the Celtic Senons, which influenced the results of the Third Samnitian War. The Roman army was commanded by the consuls Quintus Fabius Maximus Rullianus and Publius Decius Mus, who died during the battle, devoting their lives to the gods in a suicidal act devotio in exchange for victory. Roman tradition says that the victory at the Sentinum was secured by Mars and the wolf that he sent. When both sides stood against each other, stags fell between them and the wolf chasing him. The deer went to the Celts, who immediately killed him, while the wolf went to the Roman ranks, where a place was given to him between the soldiers as an animal dedicated to Mars and belonging to their great-grandfather’s family. According to Livy, one of the legionaries was to shout then: “Wherever you see an animal dedicated to Diana, slaughtered and lying, there will be an escape and slaughter. On this side, the wolf dedicated to Mars, whole and healthy, reminded us of the race of Mars and of our founder, Romulus.” The Romans won the battle and behaved with deep respect towards the wolf.

The Wolf also occupied a place in Roman literature, where the authors, in combination with the Greek world and the mythology of this world, often presented it in the form of a werewolf. Gaius Petronius (to whom their authors are attributed) tells the story of the slave Niceros, who meets on his way an extremely strong soldier, who is a werewolf. Ovid, in his famous work “Metamorphoses”, shows own image of Likaon, who is punished by the Roman equivalent of Zeus-Jupiter by burning his house down and turning it into a wolf. In “Natural History” Pliny the Elder describes the phenomenon of changes in wolves that were to take place in Lykajon and mentions specific werewolves: representatives of the Anthos family (Anteules) and Demenetos.

Author: Piotr Pietrych
  • Ross Cowan, Wojny, bitwy i wojownicy rzymscy
  • Bartłomiej Grzegorz Sala, Wycie w ciemności. Wilki i wilkołaki Europy

IMPERIUM ROMANUM needs your support!

If you like the content that I collect on the website and that I share on social media channels I will be grateful for the support. Even the smallest amounts will allow me to pay for further corrections, improvements on the site and pay the server.



Find out more!

Check your curiosity and learn something new about the ancient world of the Romans. By clicking on the link below, you will be redirected to a random entry.

Random curiosity

Random curiosity

Discover secrets of ancient Rome!

If you want to be up to date with newest articles on website and discoveries from the world of ancient Rome, subscribe to the newsletter, which is sent each Saturday.

Subscribe to newsletter!

Subscribe to newsletter

Spelling error report

The following text will be sent to our editors: