Skip to main content

Art - Animals that made history

Marvel at the pets and produce of Pompeii and Herculaneum

Marvel at the pets and produce of Pompeii and Herculaneum

At first glance it seems an unexceptional little pot - the size of an earthenware coffee jar but lined with odd little shelves.

Children, however, are drawn to the glirarium, where in AD79 dormice were housed and fattened on fruit and nuts until they grew snugly plump. They were then stuffed with pork and spices and rolled in honey and seeds before being roasted for the dinner tables of Pompeii and Herculaneum, where they were relished as a delicacy.

Most of the artefacts on display at the British Museum, in the Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibition, have a human focus; the sudden and brutal demise of those cities has fascinated the world for centuries.

But animals often feature, too: there is the Pompeian guard dog at the entrance of the exhibition, still chained and collared, and contorted in death, as well as a beautiful marble podium-style table - its support formed by a magnificent silver panther - designed to show off the family's precious ornaments and treasures at the entrance to their home.

That a wild creature with links to the god of wine and pleasure, Bacchus, could be symbolically tamed was a key aspect of such animal representations - underscoring civilised Roman dominance over the natural world. Later we see a sculpture of a pair of stags being torn apart by hunting dogs - a hint of the circus imported into the domestic world.

Animals feature in the art and frescos throughout Roman houses, where they are rich in symbolism. In the diningliving room we see wall paintings of corpulent pigeons and other birds; images of dogs and deer; and a particularly splendid mosaic depicting a battle between a lobster and an octopus. As well as being indicative of wealth, such emblemata may have whetted the spectator's appetite as he or she anticipated the real creatures being served up.

For it is in the kitchens, of course, where the animals gather in greatest abundance. Frescos show live birds and rabbits picking their way through various ingredients as they await their inevitable death and preparation for the table. Roman cookbooks display a remarkable taste for the exotic - they even feature recipes for flamingos.

In the end, nature had the last laugh, raining deadly ash and poisonous gases on to Pompeii and Herculaneum, burning and burying most of their populations in just a single day.

But it is wonderful, in this exhibition, to get a glimpse of how those people lived and to see the roles that animals played in their lives.

Jerome Monahan is a freelance teacher and journalist


For further details of the exhibition and information about school visits, see:


Pompeii Live, a special hour-long interactive show for schools, will be screened at more than 250 cinemas on 19 June. Admission costs #163;15 and there are a range of concessions. Book online at


Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you