Or: Some History behind Ostrich Riding, Part 6 of 7
Background: I ran into two historical images from California with ostriches used as transportation. That got me wondering about the history of ostrich riding. And that lead me down quite a rabbit hole.
I’ve divided my findings into separate posts (find them with the ostrich riding tag). Warning: serious early history and language nerdery ahead in Serious Academic Voice.
TL;DR – Tracing ostrich riding to a 3rd century BCE tomb find (a statue of Arsinoe II) from Egypt doesn’t hold up. The use of various ostrich products in human material culture dates back thousands of years. A few ancient depictions involve humans handling ostriches; however, extant sources don’t tell us whether ostriches were merely hunted or whether they were also tamed in the ancient world. The most promising source seems to be a description of a magnificent parade put together by Arsinoe II’s husband-brother Ptolemy II. This Grand Procession included eight chariots drawn by pairs of ostriches, and the ostriches may have been ridden by boys in costumes.
I had hoped to find a nice, neat selection of ancient texts putting the Greek word for ‘ostrich’ in context, but even a cursory look reveals that the history of the word strouthos is complex. At best, we can say that there are no immediate red flags either in the original Greek or modern English translations for Arsinoe II’s statue or Ptolemy II’s Grand Procession. The poem Berenice’s Lock was said to contain further evidence of ostriches as mounts in Ptolemaic Egypt after Arsinoe II’s death. Instead, what we seem to have is a case of poetic ambiguity translated with poetic license and taken uncritically as evidence.
Some centuries after Arsinoe II and Ptolemy II, ostrich riding may appear in the Roman Empire. Claims in some secondary sources turn out unverifiable, however. Researching primary sources helps but a little: on one hand, many of these texts either have problematic histories or their authorship or accuracy may be questionable; on the other, ostriches tend to appear in context of fighting in gladiatorial games, not being ridden or raced. Surviving visual art only confirms the appearance of ostriches in hunting and arena scenes the Roman territories, not riding or chariot-pulling. A description in the life of Emperor Firmus comes closest, but Historia Augusta, the source of his life, is considered unreliable.
Below is the long story.
There are secondary sources that take the existence of ostrich riding or charioteering as given in the Roman Empire, but on closer examination they prove frustratingly vague. For example, in 1877 de Mosenthal & Harting (15) claim that
“[i]n the gorgeous public spectacles in which many of the Roman emperors used to delight, the ostrich played a conspicuous part; and it seems that domesticated birds were occasionally used for riding purposes by Roman ladies of noble birth.”
In 1992, Bertram (9), when talking about the beginnings of the demand for ostrich feathers in the 14th century Europe, says that “odd young birds” had been “kept as pets, or for riding as in ancient Rome and Egypt” and names a source – namely, a 1963 publication Ostrich Farming in the Little Karoo by one D. J. v. Z. Smit – but that source isn’t available online, so its sources weren’t verified. For Roots (2006, 18), the statue of Arsinoe II depicts her “riding a saddled ostrich” (my emphasis; except we know the saddle part to be inaccurate from the original Greek text). Roots (2006, 18; 2007, 84) also claims that Romans trained ostriches to pull chariots or to ride on. In 2013, Williams (112) mentions the practice of eating ostriches as evidenced by mosaics in Pompeii, Roman cookbooks, and reports on the extravagancies of Emperor Elegabalus.
Tracking all these references was laborious, because these authors’ source citations are few, vague, or non-existent. de Mosenthal & Harting mention no specific sources to back up their claims. Instead, they resort to generic hand-waving to the effect of ‘trust us, young Padawan, it’s so because we say so’.
The only precise sources de Mosenthal and Harting mention are Pausanias (the familiar passage about Arsinoe II’s ostrich riding statue) and descriptions culled from Herodotus and Strabo of how “a certain desert tribe” and “a race” in Africa use ostrich skins. The latter would be interesting from the point of view of a historical study of the word strouthos, but are of no help regarding the history of ostrich riding. Roots and Williams don’t even attempt giving source information.
A few easily available Roman texts do mention ostriches. Already a hundred years before Pausanias, Pliny the Elder’s encyclopedic account of birds (in Naturalis Historia, 10.1) starts with the ostrich, followed by the phoenix (10.2). Pliny (23-79 CE) was a Roman author, naturalist, and natural philosopher, known mainly for The Natural History. Begun in 77 CE, The Natural History is divided into 37 books and presented as a work of reference to classify information, and is therefore seen as a precursor to modern encyclopedias. In addition to actual fact, it included a lot of hearsay, exaggeration, and superstition, but was hugely influential from its day to the late medieval period in Europe.
Since Pliny acted primarily as a compiler, gathering information from hundreds of Greek and Roman sources, his description could be seen as a good reflection of popular knowledge at the time. The Natural History only describes the bird in general terms, however, and doesn’t touch on how common ostriches were in the Roman territories. To find out whether they were merely imported or bred locally, and why – as transportation, entertainment, curiosity pets, or food – we must turn to other sources.
According to Cassius Dio’s Historiae Romanae, ostriches were brought to Rome for Emperor Commodus (161-192 CE) to kill. Commodus enjoyed gladiatorial fights, and often stepped into the arena himself. The Historiae section mentioning an ostrich (73.21) is meant to cast doubt on the respectability (and/or sanity) of the Emperor, so it should be taken with a grain of salt:
“Having killed an ostrich and cut off his head, he came up to where we were sitting, holding the head in his left hand and in his right hand raising aloft his bloody sword; and though he spoke not a word, yet he wagged his head with a grin, indicating that he would treat us in the same way. And many would indeed have perished by the sword on the spot, for laughing at him (for it was laughter rather than indignation that overcame us), if I had not chewed some laurel leaves […]”
Cassius Dio’s account takes the presence of ostriches in the city of Rome for granted – it’s not the ostriches that are remarkable in the passage above, but the Emperor’s behavior. That tells us something, but unfortunately nothing of ostriches used in riding or chariot-pulling.
Confirming the ostrich connection for Emperors Firmus and Elegabalus is another tale in research hell frustration. First, you must establish the identity of Firmus. There is a Firmus who was the son of the Moorish prince Nubel. This Moorish-born Firmus was a Roman military officer and a Christian. He rebelled against the comes Africae (i.e., commander of Roman forces in Africa) by the name of Romanus, and was declared Emperor c. 372-375 (he died 375 CE). No life is extant; what we know of him comes largely from Rerum gestarum libri qui supersunt by Ammianus Marcellinus, and there’s no mention of ostriches there.
One ancient source, the Historia Augusta, mentions another Firmus. This second Firmus, born in Seleucia in Syria, is said to have rebelled and been killed by Emperor Aurelian in 273 CE. The life of the Syrian-born Firmus is attributed to a Flavius Vopiscus (one of the authors of Historia Augusta) and it is full of fantastical details (book 3, chapters 3, 4, and 6):
“For example, it is said that he fitted his house with square panes of glass set in with pitch and other such substances and that he owned so many books that he used often to say in public that he could support an army on the paper and glue. He kept up, moreover, the closest relations with the Blemmyae and Saracens, and he often sent merchant-vessels to the Indians also. He even owned, it is said, two elephant-tusks, ten feet in length […]”
“But as for Firmus himself, he was of huge size, his eyes very prominent, his hair curly, his brow scarred, his face rather swarthy, while the rest of his body was white, though rough and covered with hair, so that many called him a Cyclops. He would eat great amounts of meat and he even, so it is said, consumed an ostrich in a single day.”
“[…] if you wish to learn it, you should read him yourself, most of all the passage which tells how this same Firmus went swimming among the crocodiles when rubbed with crocodiles’ fat, how he drove an elephant and mounted a hippopotamus and rode about sitting upon huge ostriches, so that he seemed to be flying.”
The selection above is intriguing. Window glass existed in the Roman empire, and sea trade between Greek and Roman territories and India did take place (see the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea); in contrast, swimming with crocodiles reads like a fantasy narration. Alas, Historia Augusta turns out to be extremely problematic, like so many of our other ostrich riding sources.
Historia Augusta is a series of biographies of Roman Emperors and usurpers for the period 117-284 CE. It’s said to have been written by six authors, but the accuracy, actual authorship, and even the date of the text are disputed. In fact, Historia Augusta is thought to contain a lot of plagiarism, even downright forgery. Accordingly, modern research casts doubt on the existence of the Syrian-born Firmus (see e.g. Drijvers 139). And again, like with Cassius Dio’s account, even if Historia Augusta could be taken entirely seriously, its evidence is limited. The Syrian-born Firmus having a go on an ostrich sounds more like a rash stunt rather than the semi-established practice that de Mosenthal & Harting and Bertram refer to (see beginning of this post).
In addition to ostriches in connection to Emperor Firmus, in Historia Augusta there are several mentions of ostriches in the life of Emperor Antoninus Elagabalus (also called Heliogobalus, c. 203-222 CE). He is said to have given ostriches away as presents (volume 2, chapter 21), served them as food (28 and 32), and eaten their brains (30):
“[a]t one dinner where there were many tables he brought in the heads of six hundred ostriches in order that the brains might be eaten.”
The life of Elagabalus isn’t the only source to mention eating ostriches. A late Roman manuscript on cooking dating from c. late 300s / early 400s CE conventionally referred to as either Apicius (after the author) or De Re Coquinaria included a recipe for boiled ostrich. Unfortunately, Apicius has a reputation of using a plethora of unusual ingredients or making one ingredient or material look like another. (Foiled Fowled again!)
There is also some non-textual evidence for the presence of ostriches in Rome. In a Google image search for ostrich racing in ancient Rome, one of the results is an ostrich killing scene from the 2nd century CE Zliten mosaic in Libya (presumably one of the gladiatorial scenes in the house depicting venationes or “hunts of the arena”; see Dunbabin 121-122). Another is a large, detailed mosaic of a chariot being pulled by two large birds, and comes from an antechamber in Villa Romana del Casale:
Villa del Casale’s gorgeous early 4th century CE mosaics (also referred to as Piazza Armerina mosaics) are among the most well-preserved and extensive in the world. While often quite realistic, they do also contain unreal or imaginary details or beings (like a crosshatch skin pattern on an elephant or a griffin). The Wikipedia file for the image above calls these birds “possibly herons or ostriches” but I don’t think the species identification is correct.
It also turns out that this mosaic is only a part of a larger scene with four chariots racing, each pulled by a different type of bird:
The larger scene is described as a children’s race (and sometimes called Little Circus or Vestibolo del Piccolo Circo). One site describes the Little Circus birds (from top right and moving counter-clockwise) as flamingos, white geese, waders, and wood pigeons. Flamingos, geese, and some waders might be big enough, but I have a hard time imagining pigeons or pigeon-like birds pulling chariots in the real world. Arnott identifies one of the birds as Porphyrio madigascarensis (African swamphen) and says attempts were made to domesticate it in ancient Greece and the Roman Empire. The swamphen range from large to very large, with body lengths between 38–50 cm and wingspans 90–100 cm. That’s better, but to me their size still sounds quite small for charioteering purposes. Toynbee in her discussion of harnessed birds (280-282) identifies the Little Circus birds as flamingos, ducks, porphyrions, and wood pigeons, and concludes that each of the teams symbolizes a season. It doesn’t seem that we have any ostriches here.
(Sidenote: Setting aside my incredulity over these seemingly small birds pulling chariots, there are a few aspects of the children’s race mosaic that give it credibility. Firstly, the racing team colors – red, white, blue, and green – match what we know of Roman racing. Secondly, you can see the reins wrapped around the team drivers’ waists. This was apparently how Roman racers steered their chariots as opposed to holding them in their hand like Greeks did.)
There is a second mosaic of interest at Villa del Casale, this one illustrating two captured ostriches on a boat ramp:
They appear in the so-called Corridor of the Great Hunt (or Ambulacro della Grande Caccia) and are a much more believable match to ostrich than any of the birds in the Little Circus racing scene. I couldn’t find enough context to find out whether they’re transporting a captured wild animal or a farm-grown individual (like mentioned in Part 2, a static image does not differentiate between the two). According to Toynbee (28), the Villa Romana del Casale mosaics contain yet another ostrich. That one is being unloaded from a ship, so it’s of equally limited use here.
So far, then, the evidence is mixed. Emperor Firmus’ possible escapades aside, it doesn’t sound like Romans actually kept ostriches for transportation; there certainly doesn’t seem to be any confirmation in the surviving art of ostrich riding or of ostriches as chariot beasts. In any case, the large bird mosaics at Villa Romana del Casale are not only fantastic works of art; they also support the textual evidence of exotic animals, ostriches included, in arena spectacles in the Roman territories (for more examples see e.g. Toynbee, whose study lists an impressive range of animal appearances in extant Roman texts and art). It also seems that ostrich meat was available at least as a fad and at least to the wealthy, but it’s difficult to make further-reaching claims than that. The idea of riding ostriches was unquestionably known in the ancient Mediterranean and continued to intrigue people.
Thoughts for writers
- Old lives and histories (and I mean old, not just from 200-500 or a thousand years ago) can serve as inspiration for strange settings, curious circumstances, extraordinary events, or peculiar perspectives. (Like chewing on laurel leaves to keep yourself from laughing, for example.) Check around online or in your local library for free translations to modern languages.
- What passed for historical research in Europe in the 1800s and early 1900s wasn’t particularly strenuous; in fact, parts of it sound more like the game of telephone (Chinese whispers). If accuracy of research matters to you and you can’t find reliable sources on your topic, try an alternate discipline like art history, archeology, anthropology, ethnography, or linguistics, for example.
- There’s a great temptation to think of historical eras preceding ours as primitive and limited. The reality is often much more nuanced. Yes, we have computers and penicillin and space probes, but intercultural trade is probably as old as humankind, and there is evidence of long-distance travel from millennia ago. Human curiosity and ingenuity were and are a motivation for all sorts of adventures, both in the physical and mental worlds (=research, art, religion, etc.).
Selected Sources for Part 6:
Arnott, W. Geoffrey. Birds in the Ancient World from A to Z. Oxon: Routledge, 2007. https://books.google.com/books?id=EJiBAgAAQBAJ.
Bertram, Brian C.R. The Ostrich Communal Nesting System. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992. https://books.google.com/books?id=QDsABAAAQBAJ.
de Mosenthal, Julius and James Edmund Harting. Ostriches and Ostrich Farming. London: Trübner, 1877. https://books.google.com/books?id=8g0AAAAAQAAJ.
Drijvers, Jan Willem. “Ammianus on the revolt of Firmus.” In Ammianus after Julian: The Reign of Valentinian and Valens in Books 26-31 of the Res Gestae. Philological and Historical Commentary on Ammianus Marcellinus XXVI, Volume 26. edited by J. den Boeft, J.W. Drijvers, D. den Hengst and H.C. Teitler, 129-155. Leiden: Koninklijke Brill NV, 2007. https://books.google.com/books?id=INz-Kqphz3cC.
Roots, Clive. Flightless Birds. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2006. https://books.google.com/books?id=7PQD-0dYJLgC.
Roots, Clive. Domestication. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2007. https://books.google.com/books?id=WGDYHvOHwmwC.
Toynbee, Jocelyn M. Animals in Roman Life and Art. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996. https://books.google.com/books?id=WrFaAAAAYAAJ.
Williams, Edgar. Ostrich. London: Reaktion Books, 2013. https://books.google.com/books?id=ZVXqAQAAQBAJ.
Post edited for clarity.
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