CAVE CANEM: Animals and Roman Society
Iain Ferris
Amberley Publishing
320pp, 97 colour and three black and white illustrations
Hardback, £20

Any book on animals in the Roman world brings to mind images of horrific slaughter in the arena – but, thankfully, this is only a small part of the picture. In Cave Canum: Animals and Roman Society, archaeologist Dr Iain Ferris undertakes a comprehensive study of the subject with scholastic vigour in a commendably objective way, helping us see the subject from the Roman point of view.

Animals formed an intrinsic part of Roman life, and Ferris does a fine job in linking the multifaceted roles that they played – on the farm, in transport, in war, in religion, in entertainment and at home – backed up by evidence found in surviving physical and archaeological records. Animals are often depicted in Roman art in its various forms, especially in mosaics. Cave Canem ('Beware of the dog!') is the title and the Romans kept guard dogs – most memorably in Pompeii, where mosais of pet dogs (one is shown on the book's cover) and a plaster cast of a chained dog in its death throes have survived. Birds, dogs and cats were most commonly kept as pets, and birds frequently appear (as powerful metaphors) in wall paintings.

Roman gods were often associated with particular animals (The goddess Minerva, for example, was linked to the owl) and many creatures, cows, bulls, sheep and pigs, were sacrificed in religious ceremonies.

Ferris analyses written accounts describing the role of working animals in farming and agriculture, while horses, mules, elephants and camels were all used by the army. Other animals were reared for the table – although the philosopher Seneca once swore off meat on the grounds of the cruelty involved in raising them. Hedgehogs and dormice were on the menu alongside more familiar dishes. The common folk would have eaten little meat but we have accounts of Roman aristocratic culinary excesses, notably Trimalchio's feast in Petronius' Satyricon. Pork was a favourite with Romans and, of course, the ubiquitous, pungent fish sauce, garum – a fine house in Pompeii belonged to a wholesaler who traded in this noisome substance.

Ferris not only supplies us with the staggering numbers of exotic creatures that met a grisly end in the arena, but also explores the massive, industrial-scale effort necessary for their use in popular entertainment. His description of the famous episode of the slaughter of elephants at the inauguration of the Theatre of Pompeii, when the mood of the baying crowd was changed by the pitiful trumpeting of the creatures, is truly poignant. But some sports involving animals are closer to home: chariot-racing prompted the same enthusiastic following as horse-racing and football do today, and winning charioteers became rich and powerful celebrities.

Aided by a plentiful selection of illustrations, Ferris gives us a broad, but detailed, account of the roles that animals played in the Roman world, which makes for interesting, if not always comfortable, reading.

Diana Bentley