Daisy Dunn

Butchered to make a Roman holiday: cruelty to animals in and out of the Colosseum

Brutality might be expected of a people who fed each other to lions – but it extended even to the elephants the Romans regarded as soulmates

Mosaic in the Sultan Ahmet Mosque in Istanbul (Roman, 5th century). Elephants were cruelly mistreated, despite being thought the closest things to humans in the animal world. [Alamy]

Did you know that the elephant was the most written about animal in the Roman world? Pyrrhus of Epirus, of victory fame, was the first to introduce it to Italy as an engine of war when he invaded in 280 BC. Roman soldiers could not decide whether it was an animal or a machine. Eventually they plumped for luca bos (‘Lucanian cow’), though the creatures came from India rather than Italian Lucania and were more inclined to trumpet than moo.

And did you know that the people of Roman Cyrene in Libya were legally obliged to declare war on locusts three times a year? The swarms were so deadly that inhabitants had to employ a three-staged attack. The eggs were killed first, then the grubs, and finally the mature insects. The people of Lemnos were similarly tasked with delivering dead locusts to their magistrates each year.

And did you know that the largest pigeons in Italy came from Campania in the south? Or that black-haired dogs were considered the most intimidating and therefore most effective guard dogs in Rome? Or that the hooves of Julius Caesar’s beloved horse Genitor were purportedly cloven in such a way as to resemble toes?

Battle Elephants and Flaming Foxes is a ‘Did You Know?’ kind of a book. It is not quite a bestiary, although the first part is described as ‘a bit of’ one. Nor is it a fluid account of animals in the Roman world in the manner of Pliny’s Natural History. It is more of a commonplace book – a jumble of intriguing quotations and snippets arranged by animal – followed by chapters on chariot racing and the place of animals in medicine, fashion and the army, as pets and, shudder, meat.

It’s all very chatty and informal. A paragraph on Hannibal’s use of elephants in the Punic Wars breaks off into bullet points: ‘Here are some Hannibal facts.’

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