Cave Canem: Animals and Roman Society by Iain Ferris

Cave Canem: Animals and Roman Society by Dr Iain Ferris explores the many ways that humans and animals interacted in the Roman period.

There was a diversity of meanings given to animals. They were the workhorses, the pets, the food, the entertainment, the symbols of love and death, the gods of the ancient Romans. Across such a broad swathe of peoples and lands, controlled by colonial power, it is hard to ascribe single meanings to any one animal even in one province. Dogs that might have been venerated in one part of Britain as healers, were made to fight each other for entertainment in another part.

Much of what we talk about when we talk about the Roman Empire, can be summarised by the types of evidence that we use. For animals, these are largely literary texts, art history and archaeological evidence. This type of evidence tends to skew the picture toward elite representations (although archaeological evidence can offer a broader picture). Across the empire, there would have been, as Ferris points out, an unequal knowledge about animals. The major writers on animal knowledge – Aristotle, Pliny the Elder and Aelian – were not necessarily read by many people outside of specialised communities of interest.  


Animals and the State

Animals are a fascinating way to peer into the Roman world. Not only because of the inherent interest in the natural world, but also the wealth of sources which survive.

Romans, or at least poets and artists, loved animals.

Birds are mentioned 700 times in Roman poetry. The most famous Roman lyric poem is Catullus 2: Passer, deliciae meae puellae (Sparrow, darling of my girl), gives a snapshot onto Roman society’s love of pet birds. It may also contain a double entendre, if some scholars are correct in thinking that passer (sparrow) might be a slang term for the male member.

In the West we might consider such images antidotes to fast paced modernity. Photos of cats are shared by web-users to relax. Yet there are underlying connotations to such acts, which might be called ideologies.

It was not different in the Roman world. As discussed elsewhere in this magazine, images of Roman Egypt were popular. Scenes of the Nile in flood were common and several have been found in Pompeii. These images show plenty, fertility and happiness through a rich and varied fauna. There are undertones of colonialism.

Ferris argues:

“Depiction of exotic animals in such scenes was part of a strategy for a Roman urban audience to come to terms with the modernity of their situation”.

He argues that images of exotic animals were similar to images of Barbarians. They show a non-Roman “Other” which has been conquered and subdued by Roman force.

In the arena this was quite literal. Animal massacres were immensely popular. Emperors brough exotic animals from Africa and Asia at immense expense to be slaughtered by animal hunters. The spectacles would have been performed by trained animal hunters who presumably played up to the crowd to build up a sense of jeopardy. Really there was little risk to the humans involved.

It has now become well known that the Roman games led to massive animal depopulations. This was noticed by ancient authors including Pliny and Ammianus Marcellinus, who wrote that hippos were no longer seen in lower Egypt.

Ferris uses the term solastalgia – an existential dread or distress brought about by localised environmental change. He argues that Roman colonialism was akin to strip mining. Soldiers, administrators and merchants would arrive in a region and take the assets without developing sustainable businesses. This is perhaps a simplistic picture, if taken as a whole but in terms of the Roman approach to animals, there is a truth in this. Animals were treated as vessels for human desires.

For Ferris the brutality of the arena, offers an insight into the Roman psyche. He argues that serial killers often begin their careers torturing and killing animals, before progressing to humans. What was the impact of state sanctioned torture on such a massive scale?

This is a simplistic reading, but there is a lot of truth in it.


Dogs and Gods

The Roman world’s complex relationship to animals is seen best in the use of animals in the theology of the period. The Egyptian gods are the most obvious examples in the ancient world. Although relatively rare outside Egypt, imagery of Egyptian gods as animals have survived especially in Pompeii where Apis bulls and Falcon headed Horii (plural of Horus) have been found. Such items may have been exotica, treated as curios or luxury goods. Anubis is the most prevalent example of an animal god who was venerated across the entire Roman world alongside Isis, Serapis and Harpocrates.

Britain in particular had a love of dogs. Dog figurines have been found at healing shrines at Lydney Park Temple, Coventina’s Well and Llys Awel. Ten bronze dogs have been found at Lydney Park.

It is not clear if dogs were brought to the centres to be healed or whether it was the dogs who healed (literally or figuratively). Dogs were associated with Asclepius (alongside the snake), Mithras, the Celtic matres and of course Anubis. Perhaps worshippers connected all figures into one or perhaps the healing dogs depicted a figure otherwise unknown.

Even whilst they worshipped dogs, dogs could also be sacrificed to gods. In Greece, Hecate was honoured through dog sacrifices.

Beyond religion dogs were used as working animals (possibly pulling sledges, hunting vermin and protecting property and other animals) and as pets. An exhibition at the Museum of London Docklands showed the number of lap dogs buried.

All this points to a complex and intriguing set of ideas on the one animal, which can be seen in other animals (such as snakes). How much more complex might be the entire worldview.

The Roman idea of animals has survived into Christianity. Animal scenes were popular visual imagery In Judaism and Early Christianity. Daniel in the Lion’s Den, Noah’s ark, and Jonah and the Whale were all popular. One of the most notable religious images of this period is the Alexamenos graffito found in Rome, which depicts a man worshipper a crucified donkey with the tag “Alexamenos worships his god”. What is not always revealed is another graffiti has been found in an adjoining rome stating that Alexamenos is faithful. The Donkey was both a symbol of derision and scorn, and for many Jews and early Christians a enduring symbol of Christ’s humanity and sacrifice.



Ferris’ book reveals the deep symbols and ambiguities which surround the interaction of people in the Roman World with the natural world. It was not just complex, but had a lasting impact on the history of the time and the ancient world’s legacy today. An interesting book to read as we consider our own impact and relationship to the natural world.


By Rhakotis Magazine

Classic beyond the classics