Hunting in the Roman world: anthropology, animal bones and ancient literature

By guest blogger Dr Martyn Allen (University of Reading)

Hunting in the Roman world is a rarely studied and poorly-understood phenomenon, and it is normally considered to have been quite unimportant to the Romans. This was a society which, of course, was based upon agriculture. Its wealth and complexity was founded on its ability to produce and transport large quantities of food to support both urban and rural populations, as well as a geographically-widespread military with high demands. As with all cultures, animals play a central and fundamental role, providing sources of food, means of transport, and offering companionship, practices which are often key to understanding those cultures. Due to the substantial economic importance of domestic livestock across the Roman Empire we could be forgiven for overlooking the relationships between people and wild animals. However, if these relationships are to tell us anything about Roman society, we must think more carefully about what it actually means to hunt: who is doing it, where they are doing it, and why. Hunting in agricultural societies is very different to that in hunter-gather societies. Firstly, for the latter group, there is no such thing as a ‘wild animal’–the classification exists only in our consciousness as the opposite of a domesticated animal–and, secondly, the ways in which hunter-gatherer groups and farmers behave towards and think about, animals are very different. A hunter-gather’s relationship with animals is one based upon kinship and trust, whilst the farmer-livestock relationship is more exploitative and unequal (Ingold 2000; Willerslev 2004). Hunting in agricultural societies must then also be seen in different terms.

Farming was first developed as a means of producing food, larger quantities of it in fact, leading to the development of more complex societies and settlements, such as towns and cities, a shift which largely eliminated the need to hunt animals for food. And yet, people did not stop hunting. The reasons why are much debated, because although game animals tend to be eaten they are not required for survival as they would be for hunter-gatherer communities (except perhaps in extreme circumstances, but not as a general rule). In addition, there is considerable debate surrounding what we actually classify as ‘hunting’ within farming communities. Anthropologists would argue that a hunt must involve an animal which is free to run away, or at least is perceived to be ‘free’ (Cartmill 1993, 29). The ‘running away’ bit is important, because the animal must not be under any obvious form of control or restriction. The hunt must also involve direct violence between the hunter and their quarry, albeit usually a short and very final act. There are, however, notable exceptions, such as trapping (fur-bearing mammals, for example). It is debatable of course, but this is not strictly a form of hunting under these criteria.

Importantly, it is the act of hunting which is important, rather than the production of meat. It is a social performance which sends an array of messages about the identity, or identities, of the people involved. Much ancient Greek literature concerning hunting discusses it as a form of military training, not only in a practical sense but also metaphorically, where the quarry are associated with a human enemy, and the hunting landscape (e.g. woodland, etc.) is perceived as a foreign land (Cartmill 1993, 32). This shows us that it is not only the relationship between people and wild animals which is important, but also their connection to the place where hunting is undertaken. Hunting takes place in the wild, within ‘nature’, beyond the domestic realm. Compared to ancient Greek literature, perhaps surprisingly, Roman writers were less intent on placing the same emphasis upon hunting. This is a cultural difference, but there are hints of Roman attitudes towards the natural world in the writing of its poets and in iconographic depictions of some of its elite citizens. More specifically, some of the early Emperors (particularly the Hadrianic ones) appear to have been keen on associating themselves with hunting, or at least the idea of hunting. Domitian, in particular, is to be found in numerous reliefs and carvings where he can be seen slaying wild beasts (Tuck 2005, 239). The contemporary writer Suetonius (Domitian 19) suggests that this was not merely a symbolic gesture, but was enacted by Domitian in the game park on his estate outside Rome.

However, not everyone in the Roman world was an advocate of hunting. Not because of animal welfare as might be the case today, but because hunting in this context was seen as transparent and overly-extravagant. Occasionally game was not even killed during the end of the chase, but first driven into nets and then presumably slaughtered (perhaps not even by the hunter, but by slaves). Such a practice may have removed one of the most important aspects of the hunt: the violent killing of a free animal. Pliny the Younger, poking fun at some of his notable contemporaries, humorously derided that he captured animals, not with spear and lance, but with pen and notebook in hand (Epistulae 1.6, quoted in Anderson 1985, 100). It was the chase, the show of horsemanship and mastery over the wild beast, and not necessarily the kill that was always important in the mind-sets of some. Despite the ambiguous nature of the hunt in the Roman world, as shown in its literature and its iconography, it would appear to have been an important device which demonstrated elite identity and social power within the landscape. It represented the authority of the emperor as protector of the Roman state and its people. But, how much hunting actually took place in the Roman Empire: how much meat from wild animals actually made it to the dining table and in whose house? And, was it really hunting, or merely hollow demonstrations by the wealthy few?

In Britain, archaeological excavations have produced an astonishing number of animal bone assemblages from an array of towns, military sites, and rural settlements all occupied during the period of Roman occupation (historically taken as AD43-410). However, the remains of wild animals in these assemblages are generally rare, normally occurring in very low quantities compared to the bones of domestic livestock. In a comparatively large assemblage, animal bones from wild species would normally register somewhere between 0.5%-2% of the total identified. An assemblage with a wild component of around 5% would be seen as exceptional, and only very occasionally do they occur in a greater frequency than this. But we should expect this. Domestic livestock were of major economic significance in Roman Britain, not only for meat, but also for dairy, wool, leather, horn, fat, and bone, not to mention the importance of manure and the use of cattle and horses for ploughing and traction–vital components of an agricultural society. It makes complete sense that the remains of domestic livestock dominate the faunal assemblages from Roman farms and towns. However, as I have sketched out above, the importance of wild animals in agricultural societies does not lie in their role within the economy, which would have been negligible at best, but in their symbolic importance. Deer bones found at late Iron Age and Roman sites in Britain are recovered in greater frequencies on villas and military sites, compared to other types of settlement (Allen 2014, 177), indicating that venison was more commonly eaten at higher-status sites. As is suggested by the historical accounts, the archaeological evidence does appear to show that deer more frequently hunted by those with landed wealth and by military groups, people with a level of social and economic power.

There is also evidence that some elite groups in Roman Britain furnished their estates with deer parks. Fishbourne Palace in West Sussex produced bones of fallow deer, a species which, although common today, is not native to Britain and was only properly introduced after the Norman Conquest. Radiocarbon dating and isotopic analysis (looking at chemical signatures) of fallow deer teeth from Roman Fishbourne showed that one individual had been imported during the mid-1st century AD, whilst a second had lived its entire life in Britain (Sykes et al. 2006). The results of this important analysis could be inferred as evidence for the maintenance of a breeding herd of fallow deer at the site at least into the 2nd century AD.

Unfused red deer Cervus elaphus femurs from Roman Fishbourne (photo by M Allen)

Unfused red deer Cervus elaphus femurs from Roman Fishbourne (photo by M Allen).

The analysis of red deer bones from Fishbourne, which were comparatively numerous, indicates that these animals may have been deliberately managed (Allen 2014, 178). Numerous red deer femur (thigh) bones came from skeletally-immature animals, whilst most other red deer bones were found to have been fully developed. The femur bone in the red deer is known to be one of the last to fully mature, which suggests that this species were generally killed and eaten at Fishbourne when within a restricted age range. Measurement of red deer bones has also indicated that most were from particularly large animals compared to those from other sites, suggesting that male stags were a focus for slaughter (Allen 2014, 179). Such a cull pattern would imply that red deer of particular age and gender were selected for killing rather than randomly caught in the wild, i.e. a deliberate management strategy was being employed. In addition, the recovery of some exceptionally young roe deer remains may also support this interpretation. Radiographs of a number of roe deer mandibles from Fishbourne have shown that some were culled almost as new-borns (neonates). This may indicate that neonatal roe deer were considered a delicacy by the inhabitants of the palace, and consumed soon after birth, but we must also think of this evidence in terms of management strategies. Roe deer were certainly hunted at Fishbourne, as attested by the remains of older animals, but the selection and removal of young would have enabled population control for risk management as well as the maintenance of a healthy herd.

Radiograph of neonatal roe deer Capreolus capreolus from Roman Fishbourne (photo by M Allen).

Radiograph of neonatal roe deer Capreolus capreolus from Roman Fishbourne (photo by M Allen).

It could be argued that deer were being slaughtered solely to keep local numbers of wild deer down, perhaps if they were being destructive to local farmland. However, if this was the case we should see similar evidence from other sites. Predominantly, this is not the case; deer management was not practiced by the vast majority of the rural population. On the other hand, if deer were being kept within an enclosed space, such as a game park, they would need to be consistently managed and maintained, firstly to minimise damage to the local environment, and secondly to provide suitable animals for the hunt, i.e. young stags. If we accept that the zooarchaeological evidence represents the presence of a managed deer park, it is helpful to view it against the ancient literature, because it is here that we find the attitudes of Roman elite groups towards wild animals and how this was reflected in what it meant to have been a member of the elite classes during that period. Of course, much more work is required on this desperately under-studied subject, particularly with regards to what the evidence means in terms of the relationships between different people, with animals, and also with the landscape, but when placed in context it is truly amazing what an animal bone can tell us!

If you want to know more about Martyn and his work, please take a look at his profile on our Guest Bloggers page.


Allen, M.G. (2014) ‘Chasing Sylvia’s Stag: Placing Deer in the Countryside of Roman Britain’ in Baker, K., Carden, R. and Madgwick, R. (eds.) Deer and People, Windgather, Oxford, pp.174–186.

Anderson, K. (1985) Hunting in the Ancient World, University of California, Berkeley.

Cartmill, M. (1993) A View to a Death in the Morning: Hunting and Nature through History, Harvard University Press, Cambridge.

Ingold, T. (2000) ‘From trust to domination: an alternative history of human-animal relations’ in Ingold, T. (ed.) The Perception of the Environment: Essays in Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill, London, Routledge, pp. 61–76.

Sykes, N. J. White, J. Hayes, T. and Palmer, M. (2006) ‘Tracking animals using strontium isotopes in teeth: the role of fallow deer (Dama dama) in Roman Britain’, Antiquity 80, 948–959.

Tuck, S. (2005) ‘The origins of Roman imperial hunting imagery: Domitian and the redefinition of virtus under the principate’, Greece & Rome 52, 221–45.

Willerslev, R. (2004) ‘Not Animal, Not Not-Animal: Hunting, Imitation and Empathetic Knowledge among the Siberian Yukaghirs’, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 10.3, 629–652.


One thought on “Hunting in the Roman world: anthropology, animal bones and ancient literature

  1. Sally McGrath

    Interesting! I found the remains of 4 deer(MNI) in a house midden along with the remains of domestics including Equus caballus and Equus asinus at Ancient Abdera in Northern Greece.
    The houses are just inside the west gate which has guard towers on either side. None of the houses would fit the category of ‘elite residences’, but the guard towers would suggest a military presence.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s