The dog and the deer

A couple of days ago, I came back – rather exhausted – from CA2015, the Classical Association annual conference. I must say I do not go very often, as I find large conferences very intimidating, and the CA particularly so. However, since the conference was held in neighbouring city Bristol, and since one of the themes this year was the senses, I made an effort to come out of my shell. The senses are the new big thing in classical studies. Historians of science and medicine, as well as experimental archaeologists, observe this turn with interest. To us, the senses have always been central. I attended some very interesting papers on the theme at Bristol, and I look forward to reading some of these in print.

An important part of conferences is of course what happens out of the lecture halls: the lunches, dinners, books stalls, disco, and – most importantly to me – the excursion. While I often feel uncomfortable at coffee breaks at conferences, I do love the excursions. What we visit just provides an ideal topic of conversation, and more basically, visiting new sites is always great.

There were several excursions on offer this year, but I selected the most obvious one: the Roman baths at Bath (Aquae Sulis in Latin – the waters of the goddess Sulis) . Although I have been to Bath before in my capacity as a Georgian architecture lover, I had never visited the baths. I am glad I have now done so. These are a must see for 1) ancient technology geeks; 2) lovers of Victorian re-imaginations of Roman architecture; 3) people fascinated by ancient lead curse tablets (a rather niche fascination, I have to admit); 4) people who want to be blessed by a ‘Roman priest’. As you may have guessed, I fall in categories 1 to 3.

I had no idea the baths at Bath had lead pipes that are still in place. Lead piping often gets a bad press, but the fact is, they are very rarely responsible for lead poisoning, as they get coated with limescale. Lead is a flexible, strong material that was a very good choice for ancient plumbing. The main pool at Bath, a magnificent pool filled with aquamarine hot water, is also covered with very thick sheets of lead, which must have provided insulation. Also made of lead are the curse tablets (defixiones) at Bath. These are message on which people curse their ‘enemies’, most often people who have stolen some of their belongings.

Dog chasing a hare. Roman baths at Bath

Dog chasing a hare. Roman baths at Bath

What caught my attention most at the baths, however, are two steles representing animals. The first quite clearly represents a dog chasing a hare. I do love how the dog strains at the lead and the hare leaps through the air, in that intensely charged moment, before the master lets go of the dog, and the hare gets caught. Perhaps there is still a small chance the hare will bounce out of the frame to freedom. The other stele is far less clear. It is labelled as ‘dog biting a deer’. As pointed to me by a Twitter follower, however, neither dog nor deer are particularly easily recognisable – ‘more like a croc biting a dog’.


A whippet carrying a small roe deer? Roman baths at Bath

A whippet carrying a small roe deer? Roman baths at Bath

I did a little bit of research on this (with the provisos that I am no Roman Britain specialist and know very little about dogs). Deer are not always tall: the roe deer, which is common in Britain, is relatively small. To me, it looks like the animal being bitten does have antler. But what about the dog? This official website describes it as a mastiff. In some ways, the strong musculature would point to a mastiff, but the face is certainly not that of an English mastiff. In my opinion, this looks more like a hound. The first publication on this relief (Scarth, 1864) does call the dog a hound, but does not go into more detail. I would suggest that the teeth and position of the eyes indicate an English whippet.

Actaeon and the hounds at Caserta. Source: wikimedia

Actaeon and the hounds at Caserta. Source: wikimedia

Dogs and deer: I was brought back once again to my favourite goddess Artemis (in her Roman incarnation as Diana). Once, a hunter named Actaeon gazed upon the naked virgin. In her anger, she cursed him and vowed he would be changed into a deer if he ever spoke again. Unavoidably, this occurred, and Actaeon the deer met a horrific death: torn by his own hounds. A cruel story if there is one… but the wrath of the goddess knows no bounds.


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