The Ancient Romans and their Beasts

Ancient Origins Store

Wednesday January 25, 2023 12:15pm EST
Caroline Freeman-Cuerden
The Ancient Romans and their Beasts

Why did Emperor Augustus always have a seal skin nearby? What was the most dangerous part of a chariot race? How could a wolf help with toothache?

It is animals who take a starring role in the story of Rome’s birth with Romulus the legendary first king of Rome raised by a she-wolf and fed by a woodpecker. In the ancient world a bear could be weaponized, venomous snakes could change the course of a battle at sea and chickens were consulted on whether the time was right to go to war. If you want to know exactly how to boil a crane (and who doesn’t?) or how to use eels to commit a murder, the Romans have the answer. They wove animals into poetry, sacrificed them and slaughtered thousands in their arenas, while animal skins protected shields and ivory inlays decorated the hilts of Roman swords.

Roman history takes us into a world of celebrity lions, beloved dogs, healing snakes and burning fox tails. In the high-adrenalin sport of chariot racing horses could become famous, proudly immortalized in inscriptions which declared their fame or cruelly cursed on tablets buried at gravesites. The ancient equivalent of Formula One, this no-rules, crash-bang entertainment saw rival teams of superstar charioteers and horses destroy the opposition to an audience of thousands of roaring fans. Animals could be loved: the emperor Hadrian loved his dogs and wrote a poem to his favourite horse - or they could become a symbol for the power of men: the emperor Domitian decapitated ostriches in a grand display of his hunting skills.

From much-loved dogs to talking ravens, Caroline Freeman-Cuerden, author of “Battle Elephants and Flaming Foxes” informs us who the Romans were through the fascinating relationship they had with the creatures that lived and died alongside them.

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