Birds in Roman Life and Myth

Dr Ashleigh Green recently published her first book, Birds in Roman Life and Myth. In 2020, her PhD thesis in Ancient World Studies passed examination without corrections. She went on to hold a La Trobe Society Fellowship at the State Library of Victoria in 2022 and is now a Teaching Associate in the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies. She sat down for a conversation with recent PhD graduate Dr Ash Finn.

Can you tell us about your book?

My book Birds in Roman Life and Myth is based on a doctoral thesis of the same name that I completed here at the University of Melbourne a couple of years ago. The examiners and my supervisors encouraged me to turn it into a book, and I was lucky enough to secure a contract with Routledge as part of the series Global Perspectives on Ancient Mediterranean Archaeology.

The book examines the place of birds in Roman religion, culture, and daily life. The first two chapters look at birds in Roman augury and auspices, paying particular attention to the notorious ‘sacred chickens’ – the caged hens that Roman generals consulted before battle. Roman magistrates had to take auspices as a way of checking that the gods approved of a proposed action before they could exercise their authority. Birds provided most of the signs that a magistrate would look for, with the positive or negative attitude of the gods being expressed through the type of bird that appeared and its behaviour. My study represents the first time that the chief augural birds have been catalogued and their symbolism fully explained. I also placed particular emphasis on answering practical questions such as where and when the ritual took place. This framework then allowed me to devise an explanation for why Roman generals progressed from observing wild birds to consulting caged hens before battle.

Hens pecking wheat. Fresco from the columbarium of Villa Doria Pamphili, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, Rome. Roman wall paintings and frescoes often feature accurate depictions of birds in a variety of naturalistic poses. All photos by Ashleigh Green (2018)

After that, I explore how birds were farmed, hunted, or otherwise exploited for food or profit. The Romans ate birds of all kinds, from ducks and thrushes to cranes and guineafowl. They raised many species both commercially and intensively, even deliberately fattening birds in special enclosures so they would net higher prices at the urban markets. Flamingo tongues are perhaps the most notorious fad in Roman cuisine, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg – it’s quite extraordinary how birds dominated the Roman palate!

The chapter on bird-catching was perhaps the most interesting to write. I found very little had been written on it, so I was able to reconstruct a number of ingenious and unusual hunting techniques, such as the use of a liming cane, or harundo, which was essentially a portable glue trap. Fowlers would smear sticky birdlime on the end of a long cane then hide beneath a tree and slowly, carefully poke the cane into the canopy before lunging at the bird to smear its wings with the lime.

I finished with a chapter on pet birds. This was a nice way to round out the research, and it was particularly lovely to discover how common it was for children to have pet birds – so much so that birdkeeping was practically synonymous with childhood.

Songbird, Villa Oplontis, Bay of Naples, first century CE

How did you get on to the topic of birds in ancient Rome?

I first came up with the idea to write about birds in ancient Rome at the end of 2015. I’d been reading about birds in ancient Greece and Egypt, and I was disappointed when I couldn’t find an equivalent work on Rome. Birds in the ancient world have been written about since the late nineteenth century, but there was a tendency to focus on cataloguing references to birds in literature. Recent research from the field of zooarchaeology – and more specifically, archaeo-ornithology – really captivated me. Archaeo-ornithology uses bird bones recovered from archaeological sites to make inferences about the culture, values, and activities of the people who lived there. I felt that there would be great value in using the latest research in this branch of zooarchaeology to interpret, rather than catalogue, ancient literature on birds. I grew up on a farm, so I’d always had a love for animals and an interest in agriculture; as such, this topic seemed like a perfect fit for a PhD proposal.

After birds, what is your next focus on research going forward?

Funnily enough, more birds! I had a number of ideas and topics that I wasn’t able to explore fully in my book, so I’m working on developing them and getting them published.

One is an article on the reception of bird-catching symbolism in erotic contexts, which has just been released in the journal Parergon. This research grew out of my work on bird-catching more generally; once I reconstructed some of the social and practical realities of fowling in the ancient world, I saw that bird-catching metaphors were often employed in literature. Eros/Cupid was often seen specifically as both a bird and a bird-catcher, while lovers saw themselves either as birds hunted by Love or as bird-catchers pursuing their beloveds, who in turn were styled as birds. This led to my reflecting on how Shakespeare and his contemporaries later used the same ideas and imagery in their works and how this transmission took place.

Another project I’m working on is a book chapter that provides an in-depth appraisal of vultures in Roman augury and wider literature. Vultures provided the strongest and most auspicious bird omens of all. According to legend, they even provided Romulus with the omen that was necessary to found the city of Rome itself. Ultimately, this chapter will attempt to explain why vultures were seen so favourably.

I am also doing a comparative study on owls in Rome and China. This is a joint project between myself and Dan Zhao of Cambridge University. After Dan and I noticed that ancient Rome and China both considered owls portents of doom that were capable of affecting the machinations of state, we began working on a paper that will explore why owls were seen this way in both cultures.

Owl with the trappings of Minerva, Pompeii.

How did you get into classics/archaeology/ancient world studies?

I’ve been interested in the ancient world for as long as I can remember. Growing up in a small country town, I didn’t have any opportunities to study it in a formal way, so every weekend my father would take me to the local library and I would check out every book on the subject I could find. Later, when the library closed down, I would buy books at the Borders bookstore in the closest city with money I saved from working at a supermarket. When I graduated high school, I applied to do Ancient World Studies at university, and my love for the subject only grew from there.

Can you tell me about your recent fellowship at the State Library? And what is your current role at Unimelb?

The library fellowship was the La Trobe Society Fellowship at the State Library of Victoria. The La Trobe Society aims to promote research that is focused on the Port Phillip District/colony of Victoria during the time that Charles Joseph La Trobe was the Superintendent and Lieutenant-Governor (1839–1854). This is a fascinating but understudied time in Victoria’s history — Melbourne was founded in 1835 and the Port Phillip District became an independent colony in 1851, the same year that gold was discovered and the Victorian goldrush began.

Due to my previous work at the Old Melbourne Gaol, volunteering for three years with the National Trust while I was still a PhD student, the fellowship was perfect to facilitate my study of the construction of the first gaols, prisons and asylums in the colony. I’m writing a book that will cover the years 1835 to 1857, from the founding of Melbourne to the murder of the Inspector-General of Penal Establishments John Giles Price at the hands of prisoners, which led to a drastic overhaul of the prison system.

Working and researching at the State Library was fantastic. It’s safe to say I couldn’t write this book without the resources I found there. The La Trobe Society was also very supportive, and I was honoured to give the 2023 AGL Shaw Memorial Lecture on the topic, ‘Law and Order Under La Trobe: The First Prisons of Port Phillip’. An edited version of this talk has since been published in the Society’s journal, La Trobeana.

I began my current role at Unimelb in February this year. I’m a Teaching Associate in Classics and Archaeology, and I’m so happy to be teaching Ancient World Studies subjects, such as Myth, Art and Empire: Greece and Rome (ANCW10002), Classical Mythology (ANCW20015), Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia (ANCW10001) and Interpreting the Ancient World (ANCW30017). I received my doctorate at the end of 2020, right in the middle of all the lockdowns, so after all that uncertainty and remote work it’s wonderful to be back in the classroom.

Can you tell me why students (or anybody for that matter) should study the ancient world?

The ancient world saturates our history and popular culture. It’s appropriated by many people and for many reasons. Familiarity with even the basics can help you to challenge misinformation when you see it and cultivate a greater understanding of the world around you, whether you’re observing the neoclassical architecture of gold rush Melbourne, watching a film, or looking at works of art in a museum.

The fact that so many groups use an appeal to the ancient past to prove or support a particular point should tell us something about the enduring allure and importance of classics — and in particular, the importance of understanding history and the historical method so we can identify when it is being misused.

The motto at SHAPS is that history tells us how we lived in the past so that we can understand the present and plan for the future. I stand by this, and I also advocate the study of the ancient world because it is so interesting and rewarding in its own right!

Dr Ashleigh Green is a Teaching Associate in Classics and Archaeology and the author of the book Birds in Roman Life and Myth. Her research interests include the study of birds in classical antiquity and more generally what human-animal studies can reveal about societies both past and present. In 2021 she was the recipient of the Australasian Society for Classical Studies Early Career Award. In 2022 she was a Virtual Fellow of the Centre for the History of Emotions and the La Trobe Society Fellow at the State Library of Victoria.

Dr Ash Finn recently completed his PhD in Classics and Archaeology at the University in Melbourne. A Roman social historian, he focuses in his thesis and publications on the role of violence, punishment and the retributive emotions in ancient Rome.