The Symbolism Behind Animals in Roman Life & Art


The relationship between animals in Roman life and art was long and tenured. From the advent of the mythology surrounding the birth and rearing of Romulus and Remus (the two twin progenitors of the Roman Empire villainously discarded by their uncle to die, then saved by a "she-wolf"), Roman history, art and literature is peppered with animal imagery that still resonates today.

1 Dogs

Dogs played a large role in the Roman consciousness and daily life because they often symbolized fertility and protection. From myths most likely borrowed from Greek and even Mesopotamian traditions, dogs appeared in paintings, sculptures, reliefs and Etruscan architecture. The famous Dogs of Pompeii mosaics represented a common belief in the power of dogs to warn people about impending disaster. Unchained dogs often were free to warn people; the chained dogs in the mosaics were unable to help warn citizens about the eruption of Mount Vesuvius that killed a huge portion of the area's population.

2 Snakes

The magic wand held by Mercury, the Roman healing god, represents authority. Commonly referred to as the "Staff of Asclepius," the rod is encompassed by a snake said to represent regeneration and healing. Snake representations appeared in other places such as on silver coins -- the goddess Salus, a woman physician, appeared on these coins sometime around 210 B.C. Various images show her holding one or multiple snakes simultaneously.

3 Goats, Rams and Sheep

In early Roman culture, goats represented victory, intelligence and even voraciousness. Depicted for centuries, images of the sheep and ram indicated earthy qualities. The Roman god Faunus (the equivalent of the Greek god Pan), represented physical sexuality and nature. Religious rites of passage were meticulously performed using goat blood and skin. Fertility rites involving whipping with goat skins sometimes were performed before a formal courtship as well.

4 Horses

Pieces at the Tarquina Tomb of Francesca Giustiniani are one example where a depiction of the relationship of horses in daily Roman life appear. Thought to provide good luck, Romans sometimes sacrificed horses and divided pieces of the animals between households in the hopes that either the blood, bone, tail or skin would bring a successful harvest. People who owned horses also were held at a higher status then those who did not own the animals.

Vaughnlea Leonard started her professional writing and editing career in 2005. Her work has appeared in "Press Journal," "Atlantic Publishing Company" and "Hometown News and Florida Today." A former military police enlistee and Florida certified educator, she obtained a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Central Florida.