From captured panthers and battle elephants to pet cats and stuffed dormice, animals were a key ingredient in the vibrant, imaginative and spectacle-hungry atmosphere of Ancient Rome. Horses and elephants met in history-defining conflicts far from home. Mules carried the luggage on the way to them. Candidates for political office courted votes by organising wild animal fights in the arena. Clothes were made from leather or wool and decorated with animal motifs. Birds were used to tell the future, and the eagle was the symbol of Roman military might. Dogs guarded both Roman family homes… and the entrance to their underworld.
Animals in Roman Life and Art by J.M.C. Toynbee is a guide to this endlessly interesting topic. Engagingly written and with each chapter dedicated to a particular species, the book is easy to dip into or to read from start to finish. It is also encyclopaedic in terms of primary sources, delving deep into poetry, archaeology and political records to describe the wealth of Roman stories with animals at their centre. Images of many of these sources are included in the central pages - including a bronze eagle brooch and an engraved onyx mouse nibbling on an ear of wheat from 2nd century Roman Oxfordshire.
It is the personal detail in the book's stories that really brings them to life. I was particularly hooked by the description of crocodiles as a tourist attraction. As symbols of the exotic and fashionable Nile Delta (think Cleopatra), many rich Romans painted them all over their villas and took great pains to see one in real life. Indeed, Lucius Mummius, a rich senator on a sightseeing tour in 112 BC, sent ahead to Arsinoe ordering titbits to be ready for the crocodiles, so that he could watch them being fed.
The book also addresses the central paradox concerning the Roman attitude toward animals. How could a nation that displayed such devotion to their household pets, and enjoyment in artistic depictions of animals, have got such enjoyment out of watching wild animals be slaughtered on a huge scale in the arena? There is no answer, but this book goes beyond more two dimensional descriptions of the Roman circuses by telling the story of the last day of Pompey’s shows, when the onlookers actually began to sympathise with the captured elephants in the arena and protested against the hunt.
Animals in Roman Life and Art is a fascinating read, and a wonderful way to bring the Roman world to life through its engagement with the animal kingdom. It does not shy away from presenting all forms of this engagement - whether they be endearing, artistic or cruel - and this comprehensiveness goes so far as to include a guide to Roman veterinary medicine and notes on cavalry horses in the appendices. Certainly the most thorough and entertaining literary treatment that Roman animals have ever had.