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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces an article in the
Classical Review
Vol. 36 (1922), p73

The text is in the public domain:
George Jennison died in 1938.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!

 p73  Polar Bears at Rome.

Calpurnius Siculus, Ecl. VII.65‑6:

aequoreos ego cum certantibus ursis

spectavi vitulos.

Has it ever been suggested that these were probably polar bears (Ursus maritimus)?

Bears, always plentiful in the spectacles, are not referred to elsewhere in connexion with seals or water, though water exhibits usually got special mention — e.g., the crocodiles and hippopotami of Scaurus and Augustus. Nor do I know any bear that would enter water to hunt the seal except the polar bear, of which it is the usual prey.

The negotiator ursorum, or fur‑trader, who got such a treasure to Rome would be asked how to show it to the best advantage. What better suggestion could he give than to provide a tank, stock it with seals, which were cheap and plentiful, and turn the bears amongst them — assuring to the spectators a fine exhibition of natation with the certainty of a good noisy fight at the finish? That Calpurnius does not draw special attention to the rarity of the bears in no way vitiates the argument; the whole show was a marvel to him and all the wonders equally wonderful.

We have no evidence of the exhibition of animals from the distant North in the time of Nero, but they become increasingly common from Gordian I onwards; therefore these lines from Eclogue VII may help to fix Calpurnius' date.

George Jennison​a

Zoological Gardens,

Thayer's Note:

a George Jennison (1872‑1938) was a prominent English zoologist whose family had founded the Manchester zoo. Just before he died, he would publish the work he is best known for today, Animals for Show and Pleasure in Ancient Rome, for which see the review at Bryn Mawr Classical Review.

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Page updated: 3 May 20