The Greeks and Romans shared their world with many different kinds of animals, and these animals served a variety of functions in private and public life. They provided food, served as beasts of burden and pets, and had featured roles in sporting events and other public spectacles. Animals also had important sacred, or religious, functions throughout the ancient world.
Food and Transport. The major food-producing animals of ancient Greece and Rome were pigs, sheep, goats, cattle, and poultry. Pigs were an important source of food in both Greece and Rome. The meat of pigs formed a major part of the Roman diet, and bacon was a standard provision in the Roman army. In addition, the Romans used the dung and urine of pigs as fertilizer.
Farmers generally raised sheep and goats in areas where the landscape was too hilly for planting crops. The Greeks and the Romans raised sheep for wool and for meat. They used the milk from sheep and from goats to make cheese. Geese and chickens were also common farm animals.
Cattle were larger and more costly to keep than other livestock. Both the Greeks and the Romans used cattle as work animals to pull wagons or plows. The Romans ate beef and veal (the meat of calves).
Donkeys and mules, used by the armies to carry equipment and supplies, came from special farms called stud farms. The Roman army used so many mules as transport animals that large stud farms grew up throughout the empire.
Pets. Both the Greeks and the Romans kept animals as pets in their homes. Dogs were the most common pet—probably the small, white dog known today as the Maltese. Images of such dogs appear on Greek vases from the 400s B.C. Many Greek and Roman writings mention dogs, and inscriptions on ancient gravestones sometimes refer to an owner’s affection for a dog.
The Greeks and Romans also kept tame birds. Especially popular were crows, magpies, and starlings, which can be taught to talk, and nightingales and blackbirds, which have beautiful songs. Both the Greeks and the Romans kept ferrets—small, weasel-like animals—to kill mice and rats. By the time of the Roman Empire, cats were beginning to replace ferrets as controllers of rodents.
The Romans raised fish in fish ponds, both for food and as pets. Some Roman estates had large outdoor enclosures called vivaria that housed birds and larger animals such as antelope, wild pigs, and deer.
Romans kept cats as domestic pets starting in the first century B.C. Cats were useful animals to have around the household, since they captured mice, rats, and other vermin. However, as this mosaic from Pompeii shows, sometimes cats preyed on animals that were also useful to their owners.
Human threats to animal species began long ago. Ancient Greek and Roman writings and murals depicted lions, leopards, and hyenas roaming in Greece, hippopotamuses splashing near the mouth of the Nile, and marshes around the Mediterranean Sea teeming with birds. By the time of the late Roman Empire, however, hunting had greatly reduced the numbers of these animals and driven them into remote regions. The European wild ox, or auroch, was one animal driven to extinction. Hunters prized the animal for its strength and endurance in the chase. Romans used it for spectacles that featured scenes from classic mythology. (Zeus was sometimes depicted as an ox.) By A.D. 1000, only a few aurochs remained in central Europe. The animal became extinct in 1627.
The Romans liked exotic animals, too. Some Roman households had pet monkeys, and wealthy Romans kept showy animals such as flamingos from Africa.
Games and Sports. In ancient Greece and Rome, hunting was a popular sport among the upper classes. These people hunted rabbits, deer, boars, and lions. Commoners hunted as well, but they did so to add meat to their diet and to destroy the wolves that raided their herds or the deer that ravaged their gardens.
Animals played a central role in one of the principal entertainments of the classical world—the public games. In Greece, the games were athletic competitions. In Rome the games were large, costly spectacles that often involved bloodshed. Greek competitions included horse and chariot races. The Romans held chariot races, but their games featured a variety of other animals as well.
In Rome and throughout Roman territory, people flocked to chariot races and often bet large sums on the outcome of a race. The horses used to draw the chariots were raised on stud farms and had special trainers. Fans knew the names of winning horses and followed their careers closely. The Romans treated racehorses well, but they were not as kind to other animals used in the games. Sometimes, they sent animals into arenas to face professional fighters called gladiators, who used nets, spears, swords, and tridents* against the animals. At other times, fierce animals fought unarmed people—generally slaves, criminals, or prisoners of war—in the arena. The crowd also watched animals fight each other. Starved wolves or lions might be turned loose in an arena with a herd of deer.
At first, the Romans displayed exotic animals such as ostriches, camels, and elephants as curiosities at circuses and in parades. Starting around 50 B.C., however, they began to use these imported creatures in hunts and combats. Tigers, leopards, lions, bears, bulls, and elephants fought animals or teams of trained hunters. Ostriches, deer, gazelles, and goats faced both animal and human enemies. Even rarer animals—hippopotamuses, rhinoceroses, and crocodiles from Egypt—appeared from time to time. The emperor Nero flooded an arena so that he could show polar bears catching seals.
Far-ranging networks of hunters and shippers provided animals for the Roman arenas, stripping entire regions of their wildlife. Enormous numbers of animals perished. Thousands died in the 100 days of games held to celebrate the opening of the Roman Colosseum. Although one crowd supposedly burst into tears and protested the slaughter of a herd of elephants, for the most part there seems to have been little opposition to the cruelty that was part of the games.
Sacred Uses of Animals. From earliest times, certain birds and animals were thought to create links between the human world and the world of the gods and spirits. The Greeks and Romans honored their gods with blood sacrifices, or offerings of animals. They looked for perfect animals to use in the sacrifice. Worshipers offered light-colored animals to gods of the heavens and dark-colored animals to gods of the underworld*. The sacrifices followed strict rituals, which generally involved cutting the animal’s throat and burning its meat on an altar. In some cases, the worshipers then devoured the meat. Many sacrifices occurred in fulfillment of vows, either by individuals or by a representative of the state. For example, a worshiper might vow to sacrifice 12 white roosters to ensure the occurrence of a desired event. Common sacrificial animals included bulls, cows, horses, roosters, sheep, and goats.
* trident three-pronged spear; similar to a pitchfork
* underworld kingdom of the dead; also called Hades
Another sacred use of animals was in divination or augury—the interpreting of omens* to predict future events. Trained observers practiced augury, reading great significance in such things as the flight of birds or the roll of thunder. There were complicated rules for augury. For example, a raven croaking on the right was a good omen, but a crow’s caw was a good sign only if it came from the left. Another type of divination, called haruspicy, involved looking for omens in the entrails (inner organs) of sacrificed animals. (See also Agriculture, Greek; Agriculture, Roman; Augur; Games, Greek; Games, Roman; Omens.)
* omen sign, good or bad, of future events