Welcome, dear readers, as always.
In Terence’s play, Phormio, from 161BC, one character, Antipho, seems to another to have succeeded in fulfilling his fondest wish—but, on being congratulated, he replies:
“…immo, id quod aiunt, auribus teneo lupum.”
“…not at all—as the saying goes, I’ve got a wolf by the ears.”
(P. Terentius Afer—“Terence”, to us– (195/185-159BC?), Phormio, Act III, Scene 2—my translation)
And, recently, I feel like we’ve been almost up to our ears in wolves in these postings. First, there was the Big Bad Wolf who caused such architectural mayhem among the local pigs,
and then others soon appeared in packs as wintry invaders of the Shire.
In both cases, wolves were villains, a tradition which must go back as early as when people huddled in caves—sometimes caves wolves themselves would like to have occupied.
And certainly, by Neolithic times, from about 10,000BC on, when people began to domesticate animals,
would have feared for their flocks. Certainly we can imagine that Roman shepherds would have been anxious enough about them—perhaps that proverbial expression above was created by them–
and the earlier Roman dramatist, Plautus (c.254-184BC), even suggested that a person whom you don’t know yet might really be just such a dangerous predator: “Lupus est homo homini, non homo, quom qualis sit non novit”—“A man is a wolf to a man, not a man, whom you haven’t [yet] learned [just] what sort [of man] he may be”–that is, “Any man might really be a wolf, until you’ve understood his character.” (T. Maccius Plautus, Asinaria, Act 2, Scene 4, line 495—my translation)
This philosophic idea, ironically, could even be extended into folklore: the Romans believed in werewolves, or versipelles (wer-SIH-pell-ace)—literally, “skin-changers”. One is described in mid-change by a character, Niceros, in Gaius Petronius Arbiter’s ( c.27-66AD) novel, Satyricon:
Venimus inter monimenta: homo meus coepit ad stelas facere; sedeo ego cantabundus et stelas numero. Deinde ut respexi ad comitem, ille exuit se et omnia vestimenta secundum viam posuit. Mihi anima in naso esse; stabam tanquam mortuus. At ille circumminxit vestimenta sua, et subito lupus factus est.
Niceros is walking outside town, where the Romans customarily built their cemeteries.
Because it’s night and he’s nervous, he’s brought along a companion, a large soldier, for protection. This turned out to be a less than perfect choice:
“We came among the tombstones. My companion began to read the inscriptions on the stones. I, full of song, was sitting and counting the stones. And then, as I looked back at my companion, he stripped himself and put all his clothing next to the road. My heart was in my mouth—I was standing stiff as a dead man. Then he peed in a circle around his clothes and, suddenly, he became a wolf!” (Satyricon, Section 62—my translation. If you don’t know Petronius’ weird and interesting work, here’s a LINK to a translation from 1930: https://sacred-texts.com/cla/petro/satyr/index.htmf There are more modern translations,. of course, but this has the advantage of being linked, in turn, to the Latin text—as well as being free!)
Ancient wolves must have been fearsome by themselves,
but wolves are pack hunters, who employ sophisticated tactics to deal with those they hunt, following herds of grazing animals and assessing them before beginning the actual chase.
(For more on these frighteningly intelligent stalkers, see: https://www.livingwithwolves.org/how-wolves-hunt/ )
This fact, however, brings us back to the Romans, but in a completely different way. Although wolves were feared as skillful predators, they might also be admired—as skillful predators–and the Romans, who always knew a good symbol when they saw one, adopted the wolf as part of their foundation mythology.
If you are an up-and-coming military power, but who began as a random collection of farmers’ and shepherds’ huts on a few little hills,
how can you suggest to the world that you are much more than that? And here is where the wolves come in.
First off, you consider who your founders’—in this case, Romulus and Remus’–parents were. In a male-dominated world, mothers are less important, but at least their mother, Rhea Silvia, was:
a. a princess, daughter of Numitor, the king of Alba Longa, descended from Aeneas, the Trojan refugee considered the ultimate founder
b. a Vestal Virgin—the holiest of Roman women, keeper of the hearth in the temple of Vesta, which symbolized all of the hearths—and therefore all of the homes—of Rome
She, in turn, having had an encounter with Mars, the god of war,
produced the twins, Romulus and Remus, but, when their wicked uncle, Amulius, overthrew his brother, Numitor, and took the throne, he tried to insure that there would be no dynastic problems in the future by ordering a servant to deal with the boys. The servant, tender-hearted (you recognize him, perhaps, from the huntsman who can’t kill Snow White?),
put them in a basket, instead, and set it to float on the River Tiber (and another familiar scene, perhaps? Moses in the rushes?).
They are nudged to shore, where they are found by a mother wolf who has recently lost her cubs and the rest, as they say, is mythology–
but such powerful mythology. Rome’s founders’ father is the god of war. Rome’s founders’ foster mother is a wolf: an intelligent, well-organized predator, which is the terror of the countryside. With those parents in mind, perhaps it would have been wise for the world beyond Rome to realize that, soon, it would be holding their own wolf by the ears?
Thanks for reading, as always,
And remember that, as ever, there will be
For more on wolves in mythology, start here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wolves_in_folklore,_religion_and_mythology
For recent research on those early wolves—the so-called Canis Dirus—see: https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2021/1/26/2010776/-Hidden-History-The-Dire-Wolf-The-Big-Bad-Wolf-Was-Not-Really-a-Wolf-After-All