The Animals of Ancient Rome

The she-wolf of Rome

Unless you pay a visit to the zoo near Villa Borghese, you’re unlikely to encounter any exotic animals on your trip to Rome. Apart from the parakeets that have taken over the parks in recent years, there’s no wildlife you’d consider out of the ordinary.

But what about Ancient Rome? If you look at artwork in museums like the Capitoline, you’ll notice wolves, lions and other animals appearing all over the place. Read on to find out more about the animals of Ancient Rome!

The She-Wolf: symbol of Rome

The wolf is the symbol of the Eternal City. Once you start looking, you spot her everywhere – from the bronze sculpture in the Capitoline Museum to the enormous mural covering the wall of an apartment building in Testaccio. It also forms part of the logo for the football team A. S. Roma.

As a striking, powerful symbol, it’s no surprise that the wolf remains a popular image in the modern city. But to really appreciate the Roman wolf, you need to understand its ancient origins, which go right back to the foundation of the city.

According to myth, the city of Rome was founded by Romulus, a man who owed his existence to a wolf. As infants, Romulus and his twin brother Remus were nursed and sheltered by a she-wolf in her den, until they were discovered by a shepherd. The rest, as they say, is history….

She-wolf mural Testaccio
She-wolf mural in the Roman neighbourhood Testaccio (Source: Brenna Graham)

The Lupercal – the cave where Romulus and Remus were raised – was located somewhere on the Palatine Hill. In 2007 an archaeologist announced that she had found the legendary cave, hidden beneath the remains of the house of the Emperor Augustus.

Although the announcement was met with scepticism from some other experts, there’s no doubt that the story of the wolf continues to capture the imagination of modern day Romans. A few years ago, a family of wolves appeared on the outskirts of Rome – the descendants of Romulus’s adoptive mother making a return!

The Exotic Animals of the Colosseum

Did you know? Gladiator fights were far from the only attraction at the Colosseum. Over the centuries a variety of exotic animals were used as part of the entertainment. Tigers from India, lions and cheetahs from North Africa, bears from Morocco, crocodiles and hippos from Egypt, and many, many others…

The presence of these exotic animals was an important part of the spectacle, adding extra glamour, excitement, and danger. Shows known as venationes took place in the Colosseum and other venues in Rome, like the Forum and the Circus Maximus.

While some animals were tamed and trained to perform tricks, the vast majority were wild animals. These animals had been transported to Rome simply in order to be hunted and killed as part of the entertainment. One event that went down in history was a venatio organised by the Roman general Pompey. This event involved the slaughter of hundreds of leopards, elephants and monkeys. And this was before the construction of the Colosseum, where 9,000 animals were killed on inauguration day alone…

Exotic Animal Transportation
Exotic Animal Transportation (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The animal transport

The scale of animal slaughter in Ancient Rome seems even more shocking when you consider the cost and logistics. Just think about getting a hippo from Africa to Rome – no easy feat. First the hippo had to be captured, then transported in a ship with other animals, often on stormy seas. Then there was the challenge of getting the hippo off the ship and into the vivarium – the site on the edge of Rome where animals were kept until it was their time to “perform”. Finally, if the hippo had survived so far (hopefully without injuring or killing its handlers), it was taken to the Colosseum, and hunted and killed in front of the crowd.

While these animal massacres are horrifying by modern standards, there is perhaps one silver lining. Guess which animal was spared from the hunting spectacles? The sacred, symbolic wolf…As a result of the she-wolf myth, the Ancient Romans avoiding killing wolves for pleasure or entertainment.

Gladiators in the arena
Gladiators in the arena (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The exotic animal hunts ended in Rome not because of some moral awakening or change in tastes, but for more mundane and practical reasons. The Roman Empire suffered an economic crisis in the third century, which meant there was less money available for the expensive animal trade. In addition, it had also become more difficult to acquire the animals in the first place. Species that had previously lived in North Africa, for example, were virtually hunted to extinction. Survivors moved further south, towards the Sahara, and out of the reach of traffickers.

Pets in Ancient Rome

The brutality of the venationes in the Colosseum might lead you to think the Ancient Romans were entirely unsentimental about animals, but this is far from the truth. In reality, it depended on the kind of animal. Cattle was for food or religious sacrifice; wolves were respected; lions were admired but arrived in Rome with a death sentence. Dogs and birds on the other hand, were often much-loved domestic animals.

Caged birds seem to have been particularly popular pets, especially with upper-class women. There are many references to birds in Latin love poetry. The most famous of which is Lesbia’s sparrow – the subject of two poems by Catullus. Birds were convenient metaphors and aesthetically pleasing in artworks such as mosaics. Art aside, there’s still plenty of evidence that they were tamed, domesticated and kept as pets. They were pretty, cheap and low maintenance, and they remained fashionable for centuries.

Dogs

Dogs also make frequent appearances in ancient art, such as the famous mosaic sign from Pompeii with the warning “Cave Canem” (“beware of the dog”). It seems that dogs were kept mainly as guard dogs – an important role in both city and country. Ancient Romans couldn’t count on an organised police force to protect them, but dogs were loyal.

"Cave Canem", Be aware of the dog
“Cave Canem”, “Be aware of the dog” (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Romans kept a variety of dogs, from the Molossus (similar to the modern day Neapolitan mastiff) to toy breeds like the Maltese. While some would have been considered little more than working dogs or guard dogs, others seem to have been true companions. Archaeologists have uncovered countless statues and tombstone epitaphs that suggest that some dogs were beloved pets.

Cats

Cats, on the other hand, are a different story. Domesticated cats arrived in Ancient Rome via Egypt. They were kept principally as pest control, to keep houses free from mice. Unlike dogs and birds, there’s not much evidence that cats were treated as companion animals by the Ancient Romans. Judging by depictions in art and literature, as well as archaeological findings, the popularity of cats as pets came later – from the 4th century AD.

For more fascinating facts about Ancient Rome, book your tour with Roads to Rome Private Tours.

Read more: The Exotic Animal Traffickers of Ancient Rome (The Atlantic)

Written by Alexandra Turney

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