Institute of Archaeology


RAC/TRAC Session 11: Tracking the hunt in the Roman world

Details of the RAC/TRAC Conference session 'Tracking the hunt in the Roman world.'

Conference Sessions and Abstracts - Thursday 11 April 2024

11. Tracking the hunt in the Roman world

Julia Koch – Justus-Liebig-Universität Gieβen
John Pearce – King’s College London

Diverse evidence, including isotopic traces of game introduction, testamentary listings of gear for the chase, animal offerings, hunting lodges, hints at a sophisticated and resource-intensive Roman hunting culture. Yet hunting of wild animals in the Roman world has been a marginal subject. It tends to be viewed as a representational strategy, an artistic shorthand for the ‘good life’, rather than as a practice in an ecological and socio-cultural context. In this session we seek to restore hunting to Roman landscapes. Our focus lies more on hunting for game than on arena animals, but we are open to exploring connections between the two. We invite contributions on the following areas:

  • How far can we reconstruct hunting practice, its tools and techniques, participants and victims, calendar and scale, using archaeological, scientific, epigraphic and visual evidence?
  • How should we situate engagement in the hunt in relation to status, gender, culture and so on?
  • What are the economic and environmental implications of hunting, within the wider context of Roman human-animal interaction?

We explicitly invite a comparative approach, in particular exploiting characterisations of the hunt in other imperial settings, especially the expanding literature on European colonial hunting, to illuminate Roman practice.

Session schedule 

Thursday 11 April (PM)              Room 3 - Nunn (Level 4)
13:40Exploring the Hunt in Roman Imperial Attica (Anna Kouremenos)
14:00Hunting with Cerialis on Roman frontiers (John Pearce)
14:20Sociocultural characterization and practice of the lion-hunt in the Roman Imperial and Early 20th century colonial hunting literature (Miika Remahl)
14:40The Character of Ancient Wild Boar Hunts (Johannes Nollé)
15:00                                               BREAK
15:30Chasing the Seasons: Socioeconomic Variation in the Roman Hunting Calendar (Caleb Hammond)
15:50Hunting - the evidence from pottery, especially handmade pottery (Ian Longhurst)
16:10Tracking the hunt and fishing in the Roman Pojejena (Călin Timoc & Ștefana Cristea)


 Exploring the Hunt in Roman Imperial Attica
Anna Kouremenos – Western Connecticut State University

Hunting holds a significant place in the historical and cultural tapestry of Attica in the Roman period, particularly within the southern Attic deme of Besa in the second century CE. In Questiones Convivales 657f. 3.10, Plutarch notes that he attended a reception hosted by Euthydemus of Sounion which included a very large wild boar, presumably hunted in south Attica. The abundance of various types of wild game in this forested region of Greece attracted several important Romans, including emperors. Roman imperial hunting was more than a mere pursuit of sport; it was a multifaceted activity that showcased the emperor's prowess, consolidated his authority, and maintained a symbiotic relationship with local communities. Besa, nestled in the picturesque landscapes of south Attica, became a focal point for such hunts under the patronage of Hadrian. Hunting expeditions not only reflected the emperor's appreciation for the region's natural beauty and history but also underscored his ability to wield power. In antiquity, a diverse range of formidable wildlife inhabited south Attica, ranging from wild boars to bears. Literary sources and faunal remains provide evidence for the former, while faunal remains validate the presence of the latter. Hadrian, a Roman with Athenian citizenship registered in the deme of Besa, strategically utilized hunting as a means of engaging with local elites and reinforcing the bonds of loyalty. Hadrian's persona as a "hunter-king" drew inspiration from mythological and historical archetypes, evoking the image of a benevolent ruler who mirrored the legendary heroes of Greek myth and history. Bringing in new material from the Besa Project, this paper will illuminate the Graeco-Roman hunting tradition, focusing on the deme of Besa during the second century CE, to exemplify the intricate interplay between political authority, cultural assimilation, and commemorative practices.

 Hunting with Cerialis on Roman frontiers
John Pearce – King’s College London 

Hunting has sometimes been considered a diversion for Roman soldiers from the demands of frontier policing or as an opportunity to enrich themselves or find favour with imperial authority by furnishing animals for the arena. Drawing on comparisons with recent work on hunting and colonialism, this paper argues that its significance has been under-estimated in the symbolic and practical exercise of power in Roman frontier landscapes. Taking evidence for materials and practice from northern England as a case study, it seeks to re-integrate hunting with its frontier setting.  The Vindolanda writing tablets, including documents linked to the household of the prefect Cerialis offer an opportunity to discuss the logistics of hunting, and its cultural and social as well as institutional contexts, considered in tandem with other epigraphic and archaeological evidence. For example altars linked to success in the chase indicate the landscape in which hunting was practised and embody its performative context. As a pious acknowledgement of deities under whose auspices the chase successfully unfolded, they instantiated one of the virtues and qualities paraded in the hunt; others include command of human and animal auxiliaries and the ‘wild’ setting in which they were deployed, optimal for hunting virtue, and generosity expressed in consumption of the fruits of the hunt with friends and peers. 

 Sociocultural characterization and practice of the lion-hunt in the Roman Imperial and Early 20th century colonial hunting literature 
Miika Remahl – Helsingin yliopisto

By the early imperial era, Romans had accustomed to numerous sociocultural activities that involved the hunting of lions. Some motives i.e., a safeguard for agriculture and livestock, were a result of the rural way of life of the common people. Others, such as the Hellenistic influences (c.3rd century B.C.) for hunting in a grand manner, were culturally implemented. Lions in the staged hunting spectacles (venationes) marked the growth of Roman wealth and the importance of public games. The sociocultural landscapes of the lion-hunt were vast and vivid in Roman literature. Authors i.e., Oppian (Cynegetica), Pliny the Elder (Naturalis Historia) and Statius (Silvae and Thebaid) illuminate the ideas of virtuous engagement, excitement and mindset of both hunter and lion in various hunting situations. Similar characterizations of the lion-hunt are present in later European colonial hunting literature of the early 20th century, most prominently in Sir Alfred Pease’s The Book of the Lion (1913). Although the practices had differences, the late colonial African lion-hunt shared many similarities with the Roman literal landscape. This comparative paper analyzes the similarities in practice and motives of the lion hunt in the imperial settings of Romans and colonial Europeans of the early 20th century.

 The Character of Ancient Wild Boar Hunts
Johannes Nollé – Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München 

After I wrote a small booklet in 2001 dealing with wild boar hunting, especially in archaic and classical Lycia, a discussion arose as to how these hunts should be evaluated. Were they hunts that served the aristocratic pleasure and therefore took place at least partly in hunting enclosures (paradeisoi), or were they protective hunts in which the aristocrats wanted to protect the fields, vineyards, and orchards of their territory from destruction by wild boar? By caring for a particular territory, were they not also staking their claims to rule over it? With this question in mind, it is worthwhile to take a look at our tradition of wild boar hunts in the Roman Empire. There are a number of literary, but also epigraphic, numismatic and monumental testimonies. Coins associate Roman emperors, such as Hadrian and Caracalla, with wild boar hunting. Is it hunting for pleasure, is it a passion for the hunt, is it a demonstration of imperial virtue or is it caring for the peasants afflicted by wild boars? Inscriptions attest to such wild boar hunts among Roman soldiers. Even if the objectives of hunting activities may be very different, it is still possible to identify focal points of hunting activities that can in turn shed more light on the circumstances of hunting in the Pre-imperial, Archaic, and Classical Periods of Antiquity.

 Chasing the Seasons: Socioeconomic Variation in the Roman Hunting Calendar
Caleb Hammond – University of Arizona

Since C. M. C. Green affirmatively answered the question, Did the Romans hunt? — arguing that hunting was widespread both temporally and socioeconomically in Roman society — a clearer understanding of the Roman relationship to the practice has emerged. While elite Roman men engaged in the hunt as a favorite pastime, subsistence-level Romans relied on wild game to supplement their diets when agricultural activity was limited. In addition, farmers and herders engaged wild animals in their efforts to safeguard their crops and livestock. This paper considers how the landscape received and accommodated Roman hunters at different times of the year depending upon their socioeconomic background in its reconstruction of the Roman hunting calendar. It argues that social and economic status affected the timing of hunting activity and that the seasons differently shaped the experience of the hunt, particularly related to risk, availability, visibility, and preservability. This argument is supported by iconographic representations, literary sources, ethnographic studies, and seasonal animal behavior. This contribution broadens our understanding of the intersection between socioeconomic conditions and the human relationship with the environment.

 Hunting - the evidence from pottery, especially handmade pottery
Ian Longhurst

This paper explains an embarrassing discrepancy between the artistic and literary evidence for the importance of hunting for the Roman elite and the comparative lack of game bones on archaeological sites (Cool 2006; 111-8). Archaeologists are wrong to expect many game animal bones at archaeological sites because hunted animals undergo rapid rigour mortis and putrefy rapidly (Jensen, 1954; 165). Hunting to exhaustion depletes the glycogen reserves in the muscle, reducing the acidification in the meat, making the meat more vulnerable to bacteria (Paulsen 2011; 279). Hunted animal meat was preserved more usually by cooking rather than the techniques used for the meat of domestic animals. The archaeological evidence for the consumption of hunted animals largely comes in the form of cooking wares especially hand-made cooking pots rather than in animal bones. Bone marrow is much more conducive to the rapid growth of spoilage bacteria than muscle itself so commonly game was preserved as boneless cooked meat preserved under fat. Bones were more likely to be found where the meat was processed, often in more remote sites. Locating the pottery production sites usually predicts the type of game hunted, suggesting Roman predation on migrating waders, salmon and quail was of some scale. 

Cool, H.E.M. 2006. Eating and Drinking in Roman Britain. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Jensen, Lloyd B. 1954. Microbiology of Meats. Illinois: The Garrard Press
Paulsen, P. et al. 2011. Game meat hygiene in focus: microbiology, epidemiology, risk analysis and quality assurance. Wageningen: Wageningen Academic

 Tracking the hunt and fishing in the Roman Pojejena
Călin Timoc – Muzeul Național al Banatului            
Ștefana Cristea – Muzeul Național al Banatului

Roman Pojejena was a fortified settlement on the Danube border between Dacia and Moesia Superior. The archaeological site, aggregating an auxiliary fort and a military vicus / civilian settlement, and an important port, provides information on its long existence due to its strategic position. Here, the banks of the river have always been forested, the areas suitable for living from Neolithic until modern times being close to the river. Therefore, the military and civilian population had conditions both for tending domestic animals and for fishing and hunting. Since the archaeological excavations at Pojejena were focused on the military fort, most of the data used in this study came from there. G. El-Susi uses in her study from 1996 the faunal material from older archaeological excavations and establishes a predominance of domestic mammal bones in which bovine bones occupy the largest percentage (38.7%). Among the wild animals, most bones belong to the deer, boar, bear, aurochs, and marten. El-Susi observes a predisposition towards hunting mature animals and the preservation of a small number of fish bones (carp, catfish, pike). Last year, part of the civilian settlement was excavated for the first time, the bones discovered here confirming the analysis carried out for the fort. A significant discovery was made in square A: a fireplace with a layer about 10 cm thick of bones and fish scales and ash (carp, pike?), associated with the Pecheneg cauldrons.