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Varro’s Aviary and Hortensius’ Menagerie: Private animal collections in ancient Rome

Matthew McGowan

Associate Professor, Fordham University

Did the Romans have zoos? Or keep animals for anything other than slaughter in the arena? This paper responds to those questions by investigating private animal collections in ancient Rome. It focuses, in particular, on the words Romans used for enclosures meant for animals in captivity: vivaria, leporaria, roboraria, therotrophia, paradisi, aviaria, ornithones, piscinae. The last three terms refer to aviaries and fishponds, an important subset of the more common vivarium or “place where living creatures are kept; a game enclosure or preserve” (OLD sub voce). One such vivarium belonged to renowned orator and optimate, Quintus Hortensius Hortalus (114-50 BCE), and is described by Varro in the De Re Rustica 3.13.3:

Nam silva erat, ut dicebat, supra quinquaginta iugerum maceria saepta, quod non leporarium, sed therotrophium appellabat. Ibi erat locus excelsus, ubi tricilinio posito cenabamus … ut tanta circumfluxerit nos cervorum aprorum et ceterarum quadripedum multitudo, ut non minus formosum mihi visum sit spectaculum, quam in Circo Maximo aedilium sine Africanis bestiis cum fiunt venationes.

For there was a forest which covered, he said, more than fifty iugera; it was enclosed with a wall and he called it, not a warren, but a game-preserve. In it was a high spot where was spread the table at which we were dining … whereupon there poured around us such a crowd of stags, boars, and other animals that it seemed to me to be no less attractive a sight than when the hunts of the aediles take place in the Circus Maximus without the African beasts. (trans. W.D. Hooper / H.B. Ash 1934 [Loeb])

The juxtaposition of the animals found in Hortensius’ private therotrophium and those hunted during public venationes in the Circus Maximus contains a point of dramatic contrast: the missing African beasts—sc. lions, leopards, hippos, crocodiles, etc.—that had become the obsession of the Roman public by the time of Varro’s dialogue on agriculture (c. 37 BCE). There is ample evidence for this obsession, but perhaps the most famous is Augustus’ Res Gestae, where the emperor boasts about some 3,500 African beasts slaughtered in his hunts, RG 22: Venationes bestiarum Africanarum meo nomine aut filiorum meorum et nepotum in circo aut in foro aut in amphitheatris populo dedi sexiens et viciens, quibus confecta sunt bestiarum circiter tria millia et quingentae. Successive emperors—e.g. Caligula, Claudius, Nero—vied to top Augustus in individual games (Dio Cassius 59.7.3; 60.7.3; 61.9.1), but they were all outdone by Trajan, who had 11,000 beasts butchered to celebrate his Dacian triumph (ibid. 68.15).

            Although we know a great deal about the number and sort of animals killed for sport at Rome and throughout the empire, we know far less about how they were kept. A mid-third century CE inscription from the Castra Praetoria in Rome (ILS 2091), set up by the custodes vivarii (“zoo-keepers”), corroborates the description of the βιβάριον in that part of the city we find in Procopius (Bellum Gothicum 1.23.16-17). Surely the conditions were deplorable and must have provided a stark contrast to the idyllic aviary (ornithon) Varro had constructed for his villa at Casinum (Monte Cassino), replete with a little theater (theatridion), duck ponds (piscinae), and elaborate seating for the birds (RR 3.5.8-17). Like Hortensius’ therotrophium, Varro’s ornithon was built for pleasure (delectationis causa, RR 3.4.2), a fundamental factor distinguishing it from the profit-driven collections of (exotic) animals for the arena. This paper reflects on that distinction in assessing the Roman contribution to the history of the menagerie and man’s artfully mediated encounters with animals both in view of post-classical private collections and today’s well-manicured zoological parks.

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Animal Encounters in Classical Philosophy and Literature

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