Ancient Romans continued the hunting traditions of their forebears on the hills and forests of Latium and in the lands they conquered. The Villanovans, their predecessors, certainly did: they left fine hunting scenes on the scabbards, razors, and other items found in their tombs.
Archaeological evidence from excavations in Latium and historical documents in the Republican period show that, Romans hunted from their earliest history. As in ancient Greece hunting was an aristocratic sport, a communal activity that trained soldier-citizens, and a practical means of survival for country folk.
The animals they hunted were deer, wild goat, boar, beaver, hares, rabbits, birds of various kinds, and even the tortoise. Small furry animals were most commonly the prey of peasants, with larger animals being the preserve of the wealthy.
As in other cultures, dogs played an important role in the hunt. The scholar Marcus Terentius Varro (116–27 BC), in his work on living in the country, said that every family should have two types of dog, a hunting dog and a watchdog. His younger contemporary, the Roman poet Grattius, in his book about hunting with hounds was the first writer to notice likenesses between dogs and their owners!
Initially Romans hunted on foot accompanied by large Laconian hounds, which hunted by smell. The writer Arrian describes a breed known as the Vertragus, the ancestor of the modern Italian greyhound, named for its swiftness. Grattius too refers to the Vertragus: "swifter than thought or a winged bird it runs, pressing hard on the beasts it has found". It revolutionized the hunt, chasing by sight and enabling the hunter to follow on horseback. After the conquest of Britain, wolfhound and lurcher types of dog were imported across the Empire and used for hunting wolves as well as deer.
Grattius’ dwells on dogs for most of his poem. These, he says, belong to a thousand lands from where they each derive particular characteristics. Median dogs, though undisciplined, are great fighters, while those of the Geloni, from the Persian border, dislike fighting but have wise instincts. Some Romans imported dogs of unmanageable ferocity from faraway China. Others preferred the easygoing and long in limb Lycaonian dogs. Myth creeps into some descriptions. He claims that the female Hyrcanian dogs ‘seek unions with wild beasts in the woods’. With the assistance of goddess of love, Venus, they were able to mate with cattle or even tigers to produce offspring with new traits. An ancient version of a British bulldog, the Molossian, is prized, not for its looks but for its bravery, might and stealth: qualities as valuable on a hunt as on the battlefield. Not so the Aetolian breed which yelps too much and alerts boars to the hunters’ presence prematurely.
We shall return to Grattius later to learn more about Roman hunting methods and weapons.
By Celine Castellino