Monday, June 8, 2009

Tigers in ancient Rome

Tiger hunting a bull (?).
Mosaic from Capitoline Museum, Rome
This is about the Romans and India. In a museum in Rome in May 2009 I saw a huge 2nd century AD fresco taken from a palace in Ostia, depicting a tiger. A lion would have been one thing, but it being a tiger took me aback.  A curator I spoke to said that the Romans had been quite familiar with tigers from the hunts staged in the Colosseum, and tiger bones have been found underneath it. 

Now, I was used to the idea that the Romans brought African animals to the Colosseum - but from India … ha! How to transport a tiger all that way?

Then I thought, they probably brought the tigers as cubs and reared them in Rome, in the menageries attached to the Colosseum.  That would certainly mitigate the transport difficulties.

The next puzzle is, what sort of conversation did the Romans have with the Indians about tigers? “I see you’ve got some tiger cubs in a cage, I'll take the lot”.  That would presuppose the Indians themselves kept captive tigers. Did they? Or perhaps : “Any fierce animals in that jungle?  I'll pay a good price for them if you catch me some”.  

Christian God influenced by Hinduism

At this point I'll mention that the Christian idea of God may be influenced by Hinduism and Buddhism. Bear with me while I trace the connection to tigers. In the 3rd century Plotinus popularized the One and Ineffable God and though he wasn’t a Christian, the Christians were happy to incorporate this sort of God.  According to Karen Armstrong [1], Plotinus wanted to go to India to study their religions. In the event, he didn’t actually get there.  Nevertheless, if he harboured this ambition, we can take it that he must have had a fair familiarity with Indian religions in the first place. 
Lastly, about 10 years ago I read a book by Mortimer Wheeler Rome beyond the Empire (1954), about Roman trading posts around the coast of India, and there was mention of an anonymous Greek merchant who sailed all the way round India as far as the Bay of Bengal, around 60 AD. Maybe he's the one who brought back the first tiger cubs.

I could write much more about Rome and maybe I shall. We stayed in a wonderful apartment in a non-tourist area next to the deservedly renowned covered Testaccio market where we bought all our provisions fresh every morning. 
And it was only a couple of metro stops from the Colosseum.  The apartment is currently listed at but may soon migrate to Highly recommended. 
    [1] Karen Armstrong, A History of God, 1999, paperback edition, pp 124, 127


  1. I'm impressed that you had the knowledge and the intrigue that lead to this train of thought. If I'd been there I'd probably have just thought "...and there's a picture of a tiger..." and moved on.

  2. Recently I've heard that tigers used to roam in Turkey. Perhaps my supposition that the Romans were obliged to go as far afield as India for tigers is false?

  3. You know, tigers don't live exclusively in India, they used to live in Russia, Iran, Iraq, China, North Korea, Turkey, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan and many other countries.

  4. Aha. I should be interested to know the nearest tiger habitat to Rome in the classical period. Mesopotamia was (I think) a Roman province for centuries, and if they had tigers there at that period, then the trip to India that I imagined needn't have happened.

    1. They would have used the Caspian tiger, which is now an extinct tiger sub-specie. It used to live from southwest Russia, all the way down to Iraq.

    2. Have posted a correction at

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  6. Your misconception comes from the way you've learnt history. You learn history as if all the ancient powers were China, India, Greece and Rome and everything came from there. People usually forget that between rome and India there were really power countries like the scythians, the hunns, the goths and most importantly the persians. The hyrcanian tiger, extinct about 100 years ago, used to be very common in the southern coast of the Caspian sea and the caucasus. The Romans most likely brought tigers from that area as it was near the Roman border in Persia and also close to Armenia as a vassal state of either the Romans or persians, So they probably had easy access to the Caspian sea forests and therefore the tigers.