The Beasts of Rome

Animals in the Ancient Roman Empire

The ancient Romans had a particular attitude toward animals that was distinct from other ancient cultures. Spanning from pets, to laborers, entertainment, and curiosities, the use of animals varies greatly throughout the Empire. In some cases they served as important companions, in others, a means for obtaining profit and political influence. The role of animals in Roman history is often overlooked and undervalued. I argue they played an essential role in establishing the Empire to its full fruition through multifaceted aspects, which contributed to Roman culture and progress. The main categories of involvement included, political, social, and economic.

Importation and Entertainment

Most often in the study of animals in ancient Rome, historians focus on the role of animals in entertainment. There is a dramatic and appealing effect that gravitates many to this topic, including the taboo levels of crude violence and social acceptance of such practices. The games, as cruel as they may seem, were important to the development of the Empire because they were a very influential political and social force. With the Roman’s abilities to capture and hold lands from modern day Scotland to the Arabian Peninsula and Africa, access to a variety of species were identified. The appeal to see creatures from across the Empire was great and the infrastructure of Rome was sufficient enough to meet the demand from the people that subsequently developed. Animals not native to Italy were brought to Roman arenas and gained popularity around 50 B.C. Combined with new shipping routes and systems of roads, it became logistically possible to complete such a task. With the demand for goods (including animals) from across the Empire rising, so did the need for a more complex and useful infrastructure throughout Roman territory.

From a social perspective, the shock value from these new animals could be comparable today to bringing alien species of all sizes and shapes for people to see. This effect was exaggerated and made novel by the combinations of interactions between animals. Fighting animal against animal, animal against human, races, and stunts, offered a wide array of experiences which the public increasingly demanded. Because these experiences were so intense and novel, they had a great effect and influence to spectators. Politicians exploited this fact to their advantage and used the games primarily as a means of control. This shock value was important because it directly correlated to political influence. The greater the shock value, the greater the entertainment, and the more political influence was obtained.

The level of demand was also quickly realized by politicians and instrumentalized and exploited to gain public influence. Politicians, as well as other influencing and powerful individuals, invested in these games hoping for a substantial socio/political return. Consequently the implementation of animals to the games were highly effective in gaining public support. In many cases the games also established social and political standing, often by the establishing a hierarchy in seating arrangements. These seating arrangements were a demonstration of current social and political standing

Animals at the games were important economically as well as politically. Because the animals were of particularly high value to political leaders, the price to meet that demand grew with it. A market developed to accommodate the capture, sustain, and transport, these animals. The market also established new trade routes, exploration of unknown terrain, and geopolitical/cultural understanding. Infrastructure was needed to build arenas, some growing to immense proportions such as the Colosseum.

Domestic Uses for Animals

The trade of animals was not exclusively for entertainment however. An even larger market for animals existed domestically. Animals fueled the Roman people’s demand for resources. Clothing in large part consisted of animal byproduct. Wool provided the most popular raw material, in which clothes of all sorts could be manufactured. Leather was another useful material derived from animals in the ancient world that was used in many ways including: shoes, belts, tools, armor, etc. This demand for common products was met with individual self sustaining means earlier in Roman society. With Rome becoming a larger city that came to develop a more complex and interdependent economy, specialization became more common. Trade among sheep farmers, leather tanners, dog breeders, and so on, became better alternatives to meet basic needs than attempting to produce for one’s self. With the ability to go out and buy specialized goods rather than the time consuming process of making them by themselves, free time to pursue non survival important goals emerged. A new level of complexity came to be,  including jobs and goods that could never have been done in a self sufficient economy. This new economy would focus on trade rather than simply self sufficiency, which is a key development in Rome’s expansion.

Domestic animals were also used as tools themselves. Oxen and mules were supplemented for labor and used to plow fields and haul heavy materials. Similarly, this technology gave the farmer more time to dedicate to other tasks which made his tasks easier or pursuits to become more lucrative. Dogs were a common farm hand, valuable for both hearing and protecting other livestock. Cats were useful as pesticides, removing small vermin from fields and food storage facilities. These examples highlight the ability of animals to make basic requirements of people more efficient in that they were faster, stronger, more aware, and persistent that’s human labor alone. Domesticated breeds could also be altered to the extent of genetic modification by artificial selection. A dog could be bred to hunt, or guard, based on specific traits in the same way a horse could be bred a Stallion for speed or bred a mule for hauling. These applications of animals, especially by specific breeding, increased efficiency of work by orders of magnitude.


Transportation is one of the most important uses of animals in the Roman Empire, as it was to most of the world until the industrial revolution. Horses were the primary method of moving from one place to another in speeds faster than walking speed. They were a foundation of Rome’s economy and it’s infrastructure insofar as its abilities to transport people across the empire via land. Pack animals were also the best way to transport goods throughout the exclusive network of Roman roads for civil purposes as well. Goods unloaded from ships had to be transported inland somehow, and given the large quantities and weight of goods, pack animals were the most efficient option. The ability to move these goods had a drastic and enabling effect on the Roman economy. Horses were also necessary for the mobility and capability of the Roman military. Rome used animals in baggage trains that made military campaigns possible.

Personal Affiliation

Animals were also a part of Roman personal life. They served as pets and curious spectacles, which inspired the pursuit of knowledge. Pliney the Elder formulated a type of encyclopedia of animals that were known or thought to exist. He goes into detail to describe the characteristics and nature of the most well known animals of the empire. Pliny describes the sentiment of the Roman people toward particular animals including their virtues, utility, dangers, and abilities . The smarter animals, such as elephants were held in higher regard for their intelligence. The fiercer animals were primarily used to show their abilities as predator and their capacity for fighting or killing. Others, such as the giraffe, were a common spectacle to see because they held starkly different characteristics than most animals. While these sentiments do not seem to contribute to the success of the Empire at first glance, they help to develop a significant piece of Roman identity. This sense of identity was a reflection of the place of the individual and the group in the larger context of nature. These connections and their subsequent relationships that developed, were ones that were echoed loudly throughout western culture.

The Romans projected aspects of their world to domestic and foreign animals which helped to organize their world in much the same way the gods did. Many of these projections were anthropomorphised and often linked with the gods themselves. The Romans ascribed animal symbolism to particular gods to reflect some characteristics about them. Jupiter – eagle, Juno – peacock and cow, Neptune – horse and dolphin, Diana – deer, Apollo – mice, Venus – doves and swans, vulcan – quail, Mars – wild boar, dog, and vulture, Mercury – Crane. There were many other gods with ties symbolism to animals such as Fauna, the goddess of Earth and fertility. They can be found and recognized linguistically today, as Flora and Fauna describe large groups of plants and animals.  Animals had strong religious connotations attached to them and were important to the Romans for what they represented. They  were also symbolized politically and militarily. The Eagle was established as the very symbol of Rome, one that anthropomorphised its characteristics which embraced and reflected Roman virtues. It was on the Roman Flag, crafted into armor, and embedded in decoration of all sorts.  “Caius Marius, in his second consulship, assigned the eagle exclusively to the Roman legions.” The eagle was carried by an aquilifer as a symbol which every Legion carried to battle. It was as great loss to let the eagle be captured by an enemy. Before the eagle was adapted, other symbols of strength from the animal kingdom were adopted including, the bull, wolf, horse, and boar.

Another form of symbolism occurs in religious ceremonies. Much like their Greek forefathers, the Romans did use animals in religious sacrifices. They did not however sacrifice the gods symbolic animal, but rather an animal that the humans thought valuable to themselves such as oxen, and commonly offered animal byproduct that was common such as milk or cheese. Even Roman sacrifices contribute to a sense of culture and unity is formed in close relation to and further understood by animals.

Religious ceremonies and ascribing animal symbols to the gods was one way of communicating a connection to the natural world yet this may have been better obtained through direct contact and ownership. Interactions with animals for the purpose of companionship or entertainment outside the arena was also influential in developing some aspects of Roman culture. Common pets were birds, dogs, and horses. “Among the animals, also, that are domesticated with mankind, there are many circumstances that are far from undeserving of being known: among these, there are more particularly that most faithful friend of man, the dog, and the horse.” Dogs were recognized as intensely loyal companions who remained so even some circumstances after their owners death. Dogs were useful in chasing away thieves or intruders, as they were experts in recognizing their owners and defending against those who posed a threat. They were thought to be some of the smartest animals for only they come when their name is called, and have the ability to follow commands. Through artificial selection for thousands of years, dogs developed a set of characteristics that were comparable to Roman virtues. Romans knew how to use dogs for purposes of hunting, for which the animal was especially adapted for. One could even argue that Roman virtues were best observed in canine companions and later extended to be good characteristics of fellow humans.

The horse was the primary means for transportation, but it was used and cared for so often and maticiously, they were also close companions in many cases. Emperor Augustus even erected a tomb for his horse, signifying the utmost respect for the animal. There appear to be many similarities between the horse and the dog. They both are perceived to have a great capacity for loyalty to their owners while exhibiting a useful application. Pliny describes Alexander the Great’s horse as only letting Alexander himself ride and no one else, the same was said for Julius Caesar. Horses were said to have known when battle was near. They “danced” or moved in a particular way in reaction to pre-battle music. They were intensely loyal and disciplined in battle, operating in complete compliance with their master even to the death by impact or exhaustion. After battles, Pliny describes how they lamented with their owners. In some particular cases when the master has died, the horse would shed tears or even commit suicide by starvation from grief. These stories illustrate an admiration of the animals but more importantly than if they were actually true or not, was the feelings that were evoked and felt needed to be communicated about the nature of the animals.

Animals as Food

As many ancient people did, the Romans maintained a diet which consisted mostly of vegetables. Meat was expensive because it was not easy to come by, especially in urban areas. To eat meat was a sign of wealth. Some of the ways Romans demonstrated the extent of their wealth, was to indulge in very rare forms of meat. Dinner parties were  also used to convince nations Rome wished to conquer, that submission had benefits of Roman life. This tactic was largely deceptive and used with manipulative intent as only the richest of Roman’s were to enjoy such delights. Gladiators would commonly indulge in a meal before they fought in the games that consisted of brains, duck tongue, testicles, and utters. Consuming organs before a fight was thought to transfer power from the eaten animal to the consumer. A more common food, less rare but perhaps even more disgusting by today’s standards, was garum. It was a Roman staple, much like ketchup is used today. It consisted of fermented anchovies and a great amount of salt. When the garum was finished preparing after weeks in the sun, the pot it was housed in contained a liquid like substance with thick consistency. The Roman’s commonly applied this to dishes as a sort of flavor enhancer. Scientists today have discovered that the dish, through chemical processes unknown to the Roman’s, produced the chemical monosodium glutamate or MSG. MSG has been used in recent times as a flavor enhancer but has largely been banned due to its addictive properties. Garum is an example of the types of food that the Roman people enjoyed as well as how economic demand was met with innovative methods of manufacturing, storing, and transporting goods. The role of food and the level of influence, control, attraction, and mysticism all played an essential role in Roman identity and culture.

To summarize, animals played an immense role in nearly every aspect of Roman life. Though most of the time Roman’s thought of animals as separate from themselves and valued mostly for their instrumental use, they spent a great deal of time around them as they were indispensable to everyday life. Entertainment, transportation, utility, food, religion, and companionship, are all closely linked with animals in the Roman Empire. When describing the Romans, animals are an essential topic to more fully  understand culture and progress. These topics contributed greatly to the development and identity of Roman and Romanitas, and their ideas about the world. They inspired other parts of the world to adapt their Roman culture and perspectives of the connection between humans and nature. This sentiment was transferred geologically and through generations. Animals played a major role in creating the Roman Empire as a whole and to omit them as an important driving force would be mistaken.

Here is the fully cited version: romanempirefinaldraft-1



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