BMCR 2023.11.08

Birds in Roman life and myth

, Birds in Roman life and myth. Global perspectives on ancient Mediterranean archaeology. New York: Routledge, 2023. Pp. xix, 227. ISBN 9781032162867



The breadth of Green’s title, Birds in Roman Life and Myth, reflects a potentially overwhelming topic. It alludes to a wealth of information, and the reader undoubtedly wonders how the author will approach this topic. The title of the series “Global Perspectives on Ancient Mediterranean Archaeology,” of which Green’s monograph is the inaugural volume, helps the reader refine his/her expectations, as it suggests a focus on the physical remnants of avian bones and avian detritus; yet at the same time, “Global Perspectives” points at a breadth not limited to an archaeological lens. Indeed, Green’s work (and I assume the goal of the series) moves beyond disciplinary divisions and instead tackles the topic from a range of approaches and sources: zooarchaeological evidence, (e.g., in her discussion of chickens on p. 96)  and, just as importantly, its absence (e.g., the absence of peacock bones from Roman archaeological sites, p. 118); a range of literary works (e.g., by Columella, Juvenal, and Pliny); and an array of artistic works, including paintings, mosaics, and carvings. Using this range of primary sources, Green successfully shows how “taking a ‘bird’s-eye view’ of history is an effective method for interpreting and understanding cultural beliefs and social stratification” (p. 7).

Framed by an introduction and a conclusion, the core of Green’s book is divided into five chapters, each further divided into sections that emerge out of the topic of each chapter; some of these subdivisions focus on specific kinds of bird. For example, the sections in Chapter 1, “Omens, Augury, and Auspices,” (again, framed by an introduction and conclusion) are titled “Roman Augury and Auspices,” “Auspices in the Later Republic,” and then “Vultures,” “Eagles,” “Ravens,” “Crows,” “Owls,” “Woodpecker[s],” and so on. It may seem odd that I have paid such attention to organization, but these sub-headings are very useful, and allow a reader to consult the book as a reference work in addition to reading it cover to cover.

The introduction lays out Green’s goals and methodology, emphasizing how studying “the Roman view of birds can give us tremendous insight into how they conceived of the relationship with the gods and how they stratified and organized their society” (p. 2).

Chapter 1 treats divination with birds: first, “natural divination” (in which birds’ natural behavior and intelligence was interpreted to human benefit, e.g., sailors using migrating cranes as an indication of favorable sailing conditions: these birds didn’t fly if conditions were bad, p. 10); and, second, “superstitious divination,” founded on the idea that gods could and would control bird behavior to convey information to humans and that humans could interpret such behavior. This second category leads into the practices of Roman augury and the taking of auspices, and Green takes the reader into the complex terminology and specific requirements of both (to take public auspices, for example, one had to be a magistrate). Well supported by textual references, this chapter is dense, and readers will probably need to come back to it rather than absorb all it offers at one time. Particularly enlightening here is the reconstruction in diagram form of the Roman templum—the area of the sky that an augur or magistrate would study. On the ground, an augur would mark a templum in terris, which he would then mentally project into the sky (p. 20). Studying the only surviving example of a templum in terris, excavated in Banzi, southern Italy, and building on previous scholarship, Green leads the reader through the sophisticated layout and its interpretation. That interpretation depended on the type of bird seen as well as its location within the templum: a woodpecker appearing on the left was lucky, for an example, but an owl appearing on the left was not (p. 27).

The subsequent sections of this chapter are a treasure trove of information about individual types of birds culled from ancient sources. For example, crows were signs of marital fidelity (p. 40), and owls—for the Romans at least—were “the foulest bird, associated with death, night, evil spirits, and witches” (p. 41).

Despite all the knowledge of bird behavior, type, and location required for the Romans’ understanding of avian symbolic meaning, Green is careful to point out that interpretation wasn’t foolproof: the appearance of vultures as a sign of future victory (the vultures would soon be eating the enemy) did not at all work out when Brutus and Cassius saw them before the battle against Octavian and Antony (p. 31). Clearly, some flexibility in interpretation was required.

The second chapter has a narrower focus than the first but is in some ways the most enjoyable in the book, as it brings a practical view to the Roman rite of taking auspices from chickens (auspicia ex tripudiis) rather than wild birds. As Green shows, these “sacred”—a misnomer, as she convincingly argues—caged chickens could be made to behave in a predictable manner, thereby ensuring the desired outcome for the practicing magistrate.

From a focus on chicken auspices, the book’s third chapter, “Farming and Aviculture,” explores the human consumption of birds, both physical and aesthetic. Setting a narrower timeframe here, Green looks at what consumption reveals about wealth and inequality in the late Republic and early Empire. The bird lover will be happy to read here that, unlike contemporary farmers, Romans did not kill their laying hens as soon as they had passed peak productivity (about two years), but rather used these older hens to incubate the next generation (p. 105). Presumably, this decision was driven by practical considerations, not emotional attachment, but nonetheless it is a pleasant detail. Green is aware of the inevitable bias towards the elite in the heavily literary sources used in this chapter (several pictures of Roman mosaics or paintings are included, but these, too, connect with the elite realm), but she does her best to include information on the ways in which the less wealthy might also have played a role at least in the demand for avian consumption.

We learn more about poorer people in Chapter 4, which illuminates how bird catching—“fowling”—could be a way to get some extra sustenance or to generate additional income. For the wealthy, fowling becomes an avenue to business entrepreneurship and to conspicuous consumption. This chapter’s details of maiming, trapping and killing birds bear witness to the ingenuity of human cruelty; those familiar with the medieval and modern technique of spreading lime on a tree branch so that the hapless birds get thoroughly stuck—an image transferred into literature to describe the effects of love: Gottfried of Strasbourg’s Isolde famously recognizes that she is stuck firmly by the “lime” that Love has spread—will be interested to learn that the Roman method of liming was rather different, though equally cruel. This chapter is not for the animal lover.

Chapter 5 studies birds in their role as “pets.” Green notes the absence of such a word in Latin, and it behooves readers to distance themselves from our modern understanding of our pets. Roman children are depicted with birds (e.g., on funerary monuments), but she is careful not to read this as necessarily evidence of pet-keeping. Indeed, even if children were sentimentally attached to birds, Green points to literary evidence that adults expected such attitudes to be put aside with the teenage years (p. 173).

But birds, both caged and wild, were still enjoyed for their songs and visual appearance, and the Romans also found diversion in cock and quail fighting and in training birds—parrots, but also crows and ravens—to speak. Like Chapter 1, this one is full of fascinating tidbits—a purple swamphen, it was said, kept in a home where the mistress committed adultery would hang itself (p. 189)—as well as thoughtful commentary (e.g., Green’s discussion of the long-debated identity of Lesbia’s passer, which she concludes was probably either the house sparrow Passer domesticus or the Italian sparrow Passer italiae).

The conclusion of the book neatly summarizes the rich knowledge that the study of birds in a culture reveals about that culture, from an insight into belief systems to a clearer understanding of economic disparities. By paying attention to birds of the past in fictional and non-fictional literary texts, realistic and fantastical visual depictions, and archaeological evidence, Green uncovers a great deal about the beliefs, practices, food systems, and values of Roman culture. As she notes in her conclusion, many more avenues for study of human-avian relationships exist, and her book should inspire such studies.

Overall, Green’s book is engaging and informative. It is clear that Green has read broadly and extensively. She consistently acknowledges previous scholarship; on occasion, it would have been productive if she had been a bit more critical in what she repeats. For example, Green repeats an observation that green woodpeckers are occasionally confused with bee-eaters (p. 47)—an observation certain to startle those familiar with these two species. While it is true that both birds have been known to break into beehives in the winter, woodpeckers don’t engage in the typical bee-eater behavior of catching bees in the air, and the two species differ significantly in shape, size, and color. More to the point, however, is that this mention of bee-eaters is irrelevant to Green’s discussion here and could easily have been omitted.

There is a lot of (necessary and interesting) terminology in the first chapter, which might deter some readers, but the organization of the book allows such a reader to start with one of the later chapters and then return to the beginning. What ultimately emerges from this study is the value of studying birds in their context—be it in the wild or in a domesticated space, in literature or art.

Studying birds gives us insight into society and its culture—in this case of course, an ancient culture, but such study and its value are easily transposed to the present. It is perhaps telling that Green’s book on Roman life and myth does not include a chapter on bird extinction—an author has to make choices, and the Romans may not have been concerned about extinction of species. We, on the other hand, should be—in the continental US and Canada, five bird species have gone extinct in the last couple of hundred years; if we extend that geographic range to include Hawaii, the Caribbean, and Middle America, we come to a total of 37 (data from the American Ornithological Society). Green has shown us how much human and avian culture interact and how the latter aids the former. Our magistrates no longer take auspices, but paying attention to birds and their behavior remains a key way to learn about ourselves and what our cultures are doing to the planet. Green’s richly researched and interdisciplinary Birds in Roman Life and Myth has a lot to offer—not just about the past, but also about our current situation, giving us much to ponder about how we need to behave in the future.