Review – Cave Canem: animals and Roman society

2 mins read
Iain Ferris
Amberley Publishing, £20
ISBN 978-1445652931
Review John Manley

Presenting a broad analysis of the role of animals in Roman society, Cave Canem is largely based on the evidence from ancient contemporaneous texts and visual representations. The author adopts a culturally contextual approach to ordering and explaining the myriad references to animals known to the Romans, rather than a geographical, chronological, or animal-specific one. Given the thousands of depictions and written references to animals, this seems a practical framework for his data.

From the author’s comprehensive appreciation of pictorial art, the reader is treated to a smorgasbord of animal-related understandings. Egypt was a popular source from which to draw representations of unfamiliar animals, such as the lion, giraffe, rhinoceros, and elephant. Naming the exotic, for the Roman colonial intelligentsia, became a way of controlling the wild. This sometimes resulted in unusual bedfellows: thus camelolepardis for – you guessed it – the giraffe.

Despite the mass slaughter of animals for public enjoyment in the arena, Roman pets do seem to have been cherished. And not just pets. It is an eye-opener to discover that sick farm animals were taken to healing shrines. On the farm, cattle – useful for meat and dairy products, as well as hides – were more often employed in pulling ploughs and carts. After their working lives, they could frequently be served up as sacrifices for the gods, although most of the sacrificial meat ended up in mortal mouths.

Inevitably, the butchering of animals in amphitheatres constitutes a disturbing undercurrent in this book. Quite clearly the Romans had a devastating effect on local animal populations. The list of disappearances is jaw-dropping: leopards from Cilicia; lions from Greece; tigers from Armenia; elephants, rhinoceroses, and zebras from North Africa; hippopotamuses from the lower Nile – all catastrophic regional extinctions. Sometimes an exuberance of examples in the book, testament to the author’s deep knowledge, crowds out the development of theoretical ideas that are briefly alluded to. But, unquestionably, anyone wanting to know what animals meant in Roman society needs to get hold of Cave Canem.

This review appeared in CA 340.

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