Artistic expression has been present roughly since the first physically-modern men wandered the earth, and will likely never disappear from human cultural practices. Across all eras and continents, artists have used painting, sculpting and myriad other techniques to produce representations of generic daily life, broad zeitgeists and internal emotions or curiosities. Whether rendered with lifelike accuracy or in an unearthly, surreal composition, one would be hard pressed to encounter a work of art that does not communicate some sort of inherent significance to its viewers. While attempting to construe its understanding of the cosmos through creative means, mankind has often included animals in its iconography.
I think studying human relations with, and attitudes towards, non-human creatures is a worthwhile task that can be completed from any number of angles. It’s a line of questioning that can tell us much about who we are. Yet taking an art historical approach allows for the visual demonstration of the deep infatuation modern peoples’ ancestors harboured for animals, and can define and measure changes in many areas— including man’s valuation of animal life in comparison to his own, and the usefulness assigned to animals for survival, entertainment and companionship.
Join me on a five-part safari through the ages, as I analyse imagery that runs the chronological gamut to reveal humankind’s fluctuating glorification and demonisation of animals, and emphasise just how interconnected the history and bonds between people and other species are.
Chapter Two: Classical Antiquity
Thousands of years after the earthy-yet-ethereal works at Lascaux were created, man figured out farming and established mighty empires in the fertile environs of the Mediterranean Sea. Mesopotamians, Egyptians, Persians, Greeks, Phoenicians, Carthaginians and Hebrews all succeeded in developing rich civilisations and art forms which continue to enrapture us today. Yet in terms of human-animal imagery, I wish to focus on possibly the most famous and influential of these sophisticated societies, that of the ancient Romans, which spread over the centuries from seven little Italian hills to absorb entire continents, including Europe, Africa and Asia. It is a rise and decline familiar to many of us, riddled with militaristic and architectural triumphs, lost knowledge, and personalities both heroic and hated, spanning from the city of Rome’s humble origins in 753 BCE to approximately 476 CE, upon the ousting of the last emperor.
The Romans indeed embodied much intellectual, artistic and civic progress; their cities were home to senators, philosophers, poets, athletes and aristocrats, who lived their days out among opulent bath houses, imposing columned temples, bustling basilicas and imperial villas—rather cushy living in comparison to the damp caves inhabited by early Homo sapiens. However, some aspects of Roman life, plebian and patrician alike, were rather less refined and rather more barbaric.
The ancient Romans happily occupied themselves with diverse diversions, many of which we continue to enjoy today, like drinking, gambling, attending the theatre, attending dens of iniquity, sweating out tough days and long nights at the thermae and feasting until obliged to purge in the vomitorium (sadly, just a myth, but a myth I’ll forever liken to the original all-you-can-eat buffet).
Some of the most popular forms of entertainment were also the bloodiest— wild animal shows at the Colosseum. Some spectacles remained on the tame side, with beasts trained to perform tricks as clever circus acts. More often, animals, once placed in the arena, forcefully met their destiny to die there. Exotic species such as zebras and ostriches were trained to pull chariots, while more savage kinds battled gladiators and each other, were used as targets in staged hunts or were set loose to maul defenseless prisoners and Christians to death as a form of execution known as damnatio ad bestias. The rarer and more outlandish the animal, the better the fight and the bigger the crowds. Cages crammed with living trophies legendarily lined lower floors of the Colosseum, and it is believed that on the first day the site officially opened to the Roman public, over five thousand animals were slaughtered in the sandy ring.
Massive selections of wild animals were culled and transported from their natural habitats for events in the capital and provinces, with some species eventually getting driven to extinction from such heavy harvesting. The fantastic range of the captive animals glorified the vastness of the lands dominated by the Romans. For sheer entertainment value were regularly flaunted wild boars, bulls, bears, deer, wolves, goats, dogs, antelopes, buffaloes, snakes, camels, donkeys, hyenas, giraffes, lions, tigers, leopards, cheetahs, panthers, elephants, crocodiles, jaguars, chimpanzees, baboons, rhinoceros, and hippopotamus. Oh my. Such a list is not exhaustive, but indicative enough of the quantities of pelts collected and blood spilled for superficial purposes.
One well-preserved artistic achievement that defines Roman dominion and cruelty for the sake of leisure hails from Leptis Magna, located in modern day Libya. It is a detail from a mosaic known as The Execution of the Garamantes in the Amphitheatre of Leptis Magna, which adorned a wall in the local Villa of Dar Buc Ammera, and is believed to have been completed during the second century of the Common Era.
The scene is one of anguish and gore, rendered horrifically in delicate coloured tiles. In the centre a man cracking a whip tugs roughly at the ear of a prisoner, while an open-mouth male lion charges fearlessly towards them from the right. Other figures in the composition include a horse chained to the leg of a man, with an arrow shot through its snout producing a dramatic spray of blood. A bear on its hind legs claws into the face of a rampaging bull; the two are chained together and it appears the death of one or both animals is imminent. A slave in a loincloth with a long hook lunges desperately to separate the colliding masses of fur, teeth and horns, his chances of success likely to be dashed as he stumbles over what appears to be a shield flung aside in the fray. Another fragment stars a spotted leopard leaping for the jugular of an accused criminal strapped to a pole, and several panicked men fighting off bristly boars, additional wildcats and snapping jackals. Although depicted in a flat, schematic way this chaotic, meticuously-made mosaic speaks volumes of the terror, punishment and waste of life that permeated the most enthralling and popular kind of Roman recreation, and the pride that was taken in it.
Modern sensibilities are easily appalled by the frequency and total acceptance of such pagan pageantry. However, to understand how the people of classical antiquity perceived non-human animals in comparison to themselves is to understand why grotesquely killing for kicks became so mainstream.
Many unquestionably-held philosophical ideas of the time, especially those of Greek thinkers, fused together in “The Great Chain of Being”, which was for the ancients a constitutive pattern of the universe that handily imbued everything in nature with a rigid purpose and rank. Rocks, minerals and creatures barely mobile occupied the lowest reaches of the chain, and just above were conscious beings with the possible ability to have experiences, the animals of the seas, skies and fields man was granted stewardship over in the texts of later religions. Higher up were rational beings with souls— human beings— who only fell in line behind divine spiritual entities, such as angels and deities requiring sacrifices and the attentions of vestal virgins. The lower-rung dwellers were designed solely to be of use to the higher-rung dwellers, essentially declaring all the inhabitants of the earth to be in the explicit service of mankind. Since the Romans grew up orienting themselves comfily on the upper-end of the cosmos, never balking at the suggestion that non-human animals were vehicles of pleasure of inherently lesser importance and quality, it is not at all surprising that they lusted after and visually portrayed degrading blood sport so zealously— it was simply the natural order of things.
Next week, learn how a healthy dose of Italian Renaissance humanism sparked the first small rebirth of our perceptions of animals…
Sources: “Wild Animals at the Colosseum”, Roman-Colosseum.info, 2008
Chris Trueman, “Roman Entertainment”, HistoryLearningSite.co.uk
Jona Lendering, “Lepcis Magna: History”, Livius.org, 2007
S. Wise, “Trapped in a Universe That No Longer Exists”, Rattling the Cage: Toward Legal Rights for Animals, p. 9-34, Perseus Books, 2000