BMCR 2006.07.42

Animals for Show and Pleasure in Ancient Rome. Originally published 1937 by Manchester University Press

, Animals for show and pleasure in ancient Rome. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005. xiv, 209 pages : illustrations ; 21 cm. ISBN 0812219198. $16.50.

Table of Contents

This reissue of a book (originally published in 1937 by the University of Manchester Press) was written by an author (J) with an unusual expertise in animal behavior and handling; it is valuable primarily as a specialist’s commentary on the literary evidence for Roman animal shows. It should be stated at the outset that, despite its title, the book virtually ignores the animal most commonly used “for show and pleasure in ancient Rome [as in the modern world]”, namely, the horse.1 However, this is neither surprising nor inappropriate considering the qualifications of the author. “George Jennison (1872-1938) was superintendent of the Belle Vue Zoological Gardens in Manchester, England, a zoo founded by the Jennison family in 1837 and among the first open to the public” (jacket cover). Thus J’s primary interest lies in exotic animals, although he does discuss animals native to Italy kept as pets or used for entertainment, and he has much to say on the elephant as an instrument of war as well as amusement. There is currently a great demand for accessible scholarship on Roman spectacles. This volume is an essential reference for scholars, and its brevity, clarity, and readability also make it a potentially useful classroom text. However, in some respects, the work has become dated in the 69 years since it was first published, and its coverage of the primary evidence is less than comprehensive.

Readers approaching the book from a political or social historical perspective will appreciate its chronological and thematic organization, as opposed to the strict arrangement by species adopted by its main English-language competitor, J.M.C. Toynbee’s Animals in Roman Life and Art (Ithaca 1973). The first five chapters present a historical survey. Chapter I reviews the range of species kept as pets and for sporting purposes among the Greek city-states. Chapter II documents the imperial scope and sophistication of the Hellenistic collections. Chapter III reviews the rise of the venatio and other spectacular uses of animals in the Republican period, Chapter IV documents the increasing scale and variety of such shows in the early Empire (to 117), and Chapter V follows the further development of beast hunts through the reign of Honorius. These five chapters present a concise overview of the types of animals known, the venues and styles of exhibition, and the evolving range and volume of collecting. Chapters VI through VIII provide a detailed catalogue of the species kept in private Roman collections, including the attested varieties of birds, fish, quadrupeds, and reptiles. Chapters IX to XIII cover the logistical topics on which J’s expertise best equips him to comment, such as capture and transport, the design and equipment of various Roman and provincial venues, stockyards, and the personnel and procedures of the arena.

Throughout, J reveals an extensive knowledge of the textual evidence, and the practice of citing sources in the margins (regrettably out of fashion these days) will make the book easy to use as a general commentary on animal references in Greco-Roman literature. J also makes good use of some visual sources, such as the round up of wild animals depicted in a painting from Bona (Hippo Regius) in Algeria (145). In general, however, Toynbee is vastly superior in the comprehensiveness of its coverage of the visual, epigraphic, and numismatic evidence. For instance, J relegates the testimony of Latin inscriptions concerning games in Italy outside of Rome to a bare enumeration (81-82), and there is no reference anywhere in the book to any inscription in Greek. Likewise, on one hand, J several times repeats the claim of Nicolaus of Damascus ( Athletics 4.153) that the gladiatorial games were an Etruscan invention, a claim that is now usually rejected for lack of supporting evidence. On the other hand, he makes no mention of the painting from the “Tomb of the Augurs” depicting the contest between a hooded man with a club and a wild dog, which has obvious parallels in the later Roman practice. J’s heavy dependence on the literary sources naturally results in an over-emphasis on the city of Rome and its environs, notwithstanding a brief chapter on “Provincial Amphitheatres” (165-173).

Further, there are instances where J’s historical analyses appear dated and/or inadequate. For example, in Chapter I, J correctly concedes that the Greeks did have indigenous traditions of cock-fighting, quail-fighting, and, in Thessaly, bull-fighting—in other words, spectator sports that involved killing animals. He also notes that the city-states of Classical Greece lacked the wealth and imperial reach for creating large collections. J traces the development of Roman blood sports on a mass scale in virtual tandem with the expansion of their empire, and he documents extensively in Chapters VI-VIII their keeping animals for non-pugilistic purposes in “amateur menageries”. On its own, these observations would suggest that the difference in Greek and Roman practices was more a function of relative resources and imperial reach than of ethnic or racial proclivities. Nevertheless, J refers to “the Roman liking for bloody spectacles” (47) and asserts (wrongly) that “the Greeks had not the Roman taste for watching wild beasts being killed in large numbers” (10), views which mimic the chauvinistic cultural stereotypes perpetuated by earlier scholars like Friedländer, whom he cites specifically as one of his main secondary sources (viii). Also, J commits what is at the least a vast over-simplification by attributing the later “softening” of the shows to the influence of Christianity (179).2 Outdated and misleading assumptions like these somewhat diminish the value of the book as a text for non-specialist consumption, and many instructors will hesitate to expose their students to them.

However, these limitations do not negate the book’s significant contribution, which derives from J’s highly specialized knowledge of animals, animal behavior, and the business of keeping them for show. Although J sometimes rejects the testimony of ancient writers (e.g., 146-148), his insights often come in the form of informed speculations explaining stories that would otherwise seem mysterious or incredible. For instance, is Aelian’s account of the eaglet who threw itself onto the funeral pyre of the boy who raised it a purely fictional morality tale? According to J it may actually have happened, as “birds do not know the danger of fire, and in bright daylight would not notice flames” (18 note 2c). In the realm of historical narrative, J gives a plausible explanation for the behavior of the African elephants brought to Rome by L. Metellus in 250 B.C.E. (44). According to L. Piso they were driven around the Circus by slaves with blunt spears in a display intended to inspire contempt on the part of the spectators. J speculates that the trick may have been achieved by planting mahouts in the audience who could direct the elephants by their shouts, which would not be noticed by the excited crowd. The scene provides an interesting example of the Republican elite’s manipulation of public opinion.

The divergent types of analysis provided by the naturalist, J, and the art historian, Toynbee, are illustrated by their very different treatments of Statius’ description of a dying lion, killed by its fleeing prey, in Silvae 2.5. Toynbee cites the poem as an example of the sympathetic feeling a Roman could express for a lion, an animal with strong imperial connotations which she explores in depth (62). Conversely, J’s reading establishes the behavioral and biological context within which to read Statius’ “admirably true” description (79-80). The line “Quid tibi monstrata mansuescere profuit ira” is illuminated with the observation that “to teach a beast to make a show of anger is common with trainers” (79 note 1). J explains the lamentable and unexpected demise of the lion with reference to the vulnerability of a certain spot on the lower backbone: “The place is so weak that I have known two lions killed unintentionally by a blow there from a broomstick” (80). The lion’s prey, perhaps a leopard or another lion, probably made a lucky snap when cornered. The results of such a blow conform well to Statius’ description: “…the hindquarters, paralyzed, drop on the sand, while the beast, panting, snarling, open-mouthed, eyes blazing, wild with impotent rage, drags his useless body towards his foe” (80). Such analysis represents the application of a genuinely interdisciplinary approach.

The deployment of knowledge across disciplines probably finds its greatest benefit in the chapters on the logistics of capture, transport, holding, and handling in the arena (137-176). J notes that “…the means of killing wild animals have changed far more than the means of taking them alive [or at least they did when J wrote in 1937]” (8), and he catalogues the variety of techniques and technologies that might have been used. A particularly poignant observation is the difficulty with which carnivorous predators would have been made to leave their cages and attack in front of a crowd (159-160, 168-169), and J’s reconstruction of the inner wooden barricades that must have existed in the arena posits a “narrow opening below the lowest plank” through which hot pokers could be applied to force the evacuation of the animals (160).

One analysis that illustrates both the strengths and the limitations of J’s interdisciplinary skills is his reconstruction of the methods and infrastructure for collecting elephants along the Red Sea coast under the Ptolemies, which relates to the question of the performance of Ptolemy IV’s African elephants against the Indian elephants of Antiochus III at the battle of Raphia in 217 B.C.E. (37-40). Ancient writers believed that African elephants were smaller than Indian elephants, and Polybius attributed the failure of Ptolemy IV’s elephants at Raphia to this factor. Starting in the mid-nineteenth century, scholars observed that, of the elephants they saw in zoos, the African breed was larger than the Indian, and they concluded that this was a clear demonstration of the woeful ignorance of the ancients on this topic. It was a famous article by Sir William Gowers, published in 1948, that overturned the conventional wisdom.3 Gowers argued strongly that the African elephants captured by the Ptolemies on the Eritrean plateau and used at Raphia were in fact smaller than the Indian elephants they faced because they were of a different African breed, the “forest” variety, which was smaller than the “bush” variety commonly seen in England’s zoos.

However, eleven years earlier, J had defended Polybius’ account in a different way (37-40). According to J, the small numbers and inferior size of Ptolemy IV’s elephants were due to the conditions under which they were collected, which were made more difficult by a lack of cooperation from native hunters and by the necessity for long-distance transport along the Red Sea coast. Now Gowers’ identification of the ancient “African elephant” with the forest variety is surely correct, and his argument has the virtue of explaining a larger class of evidence, not just the testimony of Polybius.4 However, J also presents compelling evidence to support his claim about the lack of native cooperation with Ptolemid elephant hunters (Agatharchides De mari Eryth. 53 = Geographi Graeci Minores I.144) and his reconstruction of the difficulties of collection has the advantage of accounting for the inferior numbers of elephants that Ptolemy IV was able to deploy at Raphia, which Gowers’ thesis does not.5

In his preface, J writes, “Even a poor book which could throw light from an unusual angle would not be useless. I have endeavoured to make a good book and trust it may prove valuable” (xiii). This book was evidently a labor of love, published the year before he died, by a naturalist who was both a lover of animals with a concern for their treatment and a dedicated student of the Classics. As I have pointed out, the book has its limitations, and room remains for a volume on the subject that is up-to-date, comprehensive, and student-friendly. The most appropriate audience for the present work is the specialist, who will benefit from the insights of a naturalist without being misled by the omissions and obsoleta. Nevertheless, the book makes many contributions that continue to stand the test of time.


1. On horses see P. Vigneron, Le cheval dans l’antiquité gréco-romaine. Nancy, 1968; and Toynbee 1973, 167-199.

2. On both the cultural stereotypes and the role of Christianity, see especially the discussion in T. Wiedemann, Emperors and Gladiators. London, 1992, 128-164, with references to earlier scholarship.

3. “African Elephants and Ancient Authors.” African Affairs 47 (January 1948), 173-180.

4. See the additional discussion in support of Gowers’ thesis in Toynbee 1973, 33 with notes 3-5 and in H.H. Scullard, The Elephant in the Greek and Roman World. Ithaca, 1974, 60-63 and 143-144.

5. For more on the difficulties experienced collecting elephants on the Red Sea coast (without reference to J), see Scullard 1974, 130-133.