Battle Elephants and Flaming Foxes: animals in the Roman world

Review by Chris Epplett

Over the past few years, there has been an increasing number of books and studies written on humankind’s interactions with and exploitation of the natural world. The book under review, drawn from the author’s background as both an animal lover and a student of ancient history, is yet another addition to this ever-growing field of publications. As she notes in her introduction, an understanding of the role of animals in Roman society contributes to a deeper understanding of Roman history as a whole.

Much of the book consists of numerous anecdotes and accounts from a variety of Greek and Roman authors concerning different animals, as well as how they were regarded and made use of in antiquity. This arrangement of material, incidentally, is not unlike that found in the works of some of the authors Freeman-Cuerden cites, such as Aelian and Pliny the Elder. Interspersed with this ancient testimony are the author’s own thoughts concerning the topic at hand. The material in the book is divided into two parts: Part I (‘A Bit of a Bestiary’) contains sections on a select group of animals and insects ranging from elephants to snakes, while Part II (‘Animals in the Roman World’) discusses the role of animals in such disparate activities as chariot-racing, the Roman spectacles, cosmetics, cuisine, and the military.

In general, Freeman-Cuerden’s book has much to recommend it. Although it appears to be aimed primarily at general readers with an interest in antiquity and the animal world, as opposed to a scholarly audience, it is certainly not without interest for the latter. Much of the information recorded in the text will already be familiar to scholars of fauna in Graeco-Roman antiquity, but some, for example the animal-based ingredients of many Roman cosmetics, may not be.

The author’s somewhat informal writing style should make the book accessible to a wide general readership. Certainly, one will not be bogged down by the minutiae and convoluted verbiage that one might find in a more academic text! Another strength of Freeman-Cuerden’s book, in terms of accessibility, is her frequent use of modern-day comparative material in order to illustrate the occasional parallels and similarities between antiquity and the present day. One such parallel drawn by the author is the use of scorpions as an anti-personnel tactic by both the ancient Hatrans defending against the Romans and modern-day members of ISIS terrorising Iraqi civilians. Another pairing of ancient and modern-day parallels involves Roman chariot-racing and the filming of Ben-Hur in 1925: as the author notes, the horrific horse casualties inflicted during the filming of the latter’s chariot-race sequence provides ample testimony as to just how dangerous the sport was in antiquity.

Factual errors in the text, such as the assertion that Hannibal invaded Italy in the 2nd century BC (p.225) are few and far between. The main criticism this reviewer has of the book involves the thoroughness of its referencing. Although it contains a bibliography, as well as a short appendix on the ancient authors referred to in the text, more rigorous referencing of information would be useful, particularly for those using the book for research purposes. While quoted material is cited in the text, no such specific reference is given for some of the other material discussed by the author. As one example, the author’s brief discussion of horse injuries and their treatment in the Roman period (pp.42-43) contains no specific citations for the information presented.

Such criticisms, however, do not seriously detract from the overall quality of the book. As noted above, Freeman-Cuerden’s work appears to be aimed primarily at a general audience, one that is far less likely to be perturbed than an academic like myself by a paucity of citations. The author has produced a well-written and interesting book that succeeds, among other things, in illustrating that there are more similarities between the modern and ancient interactions with and treatment of the animal world than we might initially assume.

Battle Elephants and Flaming Foxes: animals in the Roman world
Caroline Freeman-Cuerden
History Press, £20
ISBN 978-0750999618