Object: Bronze Sheep

Bronze Sheep carrying Woolsack
Roman (?)
Unknown location
Unknown date
Materials: Bronze

This sheep statuette is standing upright and carrying a triangular woolsack, or carrying bag, on its back.  It is 1 in. (2.5 cm) high, 1 in. (2.5 cm) long, and 1 in. (2.5 cm) wide.  It also has small curled horns on the sides of its head.

Some wild sheep (mouflon) were used in venationes (animal hunts).  These sheep had shaggy wool and curly horns. Romans imported wild rams from Africa, which they said had a marvelous color. A sheep breed from Spain was also renowned for their gold tinted wool. These wooled sheep were sometimes used for public spectacles. As with other types of animals, Romans imported sheep from around their empire. Unlike with some imported animals that were used mainly for spectacles, imported wild sheep were often kept on estates and tamed.

There were native Italian sheep as well, the most famous of which were the Tarentines with their fat tails. Tarentines grazed on the Galaesus river banks. Romans praised the Tarentines for the quality of their wool, which they used for clothing. Another important use for sheep besides wool, milk, cheese, and spectacles was their role as sacrifices. Sheep were sacrificed to many deities, including Jupiter, Juno, Janus, Mars, Terminus, Faunus, and Silvanus. Sheep were part of the large state-sponsored sacrifices to the gods. One example of state sacrifices is the suovetaurilia, which called for the sacrifice of a ram, bull, and pig.

Sacrificed sheep were one of the most popular animals to use for divination. Haruspex priests, or diviners, inspected the entrails of the sheep, focusing mainly on the liver to predict the future.  Etruscans also practiced haruspicy. A bronze model of a sheep’s liver with Etruscan writing has been found, called the liver of Piacenza. By examining the liver, the haruspex would learn the will of the gods. Haruspices were used both by the senate and by private people. Later in Roman history, however, well-educated Romans looked down on consulting the haruspices. Emperor Claudius tried to bring back this practice and had the senate pass a decree for priests to look into reviving parts of haruspicy.

In art, sheep are most commonly shown in pastoral scenes. Mythological sheep scenes were created to depict the story of the golden ram carrying mythological figures Phrixus and Helle across the sea (which was termed the Hellespont after Helle fell into the sea). During the Christian era, sheep then became a common image in Christian art.

Sheep were useful in many ways for the Romans. In this bronze statuette, the sheep is shown in a practical role carrying a woolsack. The bronze sheep is therefore most connected to its role of giving wool.  This may be a depiction of one of the sheep popular for the quality of their wool, such as the Tarentines discussed above.

Works Cited

Smith, William

         1875 “Haruspices.” A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities. London: John Murray.   586-587.      <http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/secondary/SMIGRA*/ Haruspices.html>.

Toynbee, J. M. C.

            1973 Animals in Roman Life and Art. New York: Cornell University Press.

[Chelsea Cinotto]

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Ethnology @ SNOMNH is an experimental weblog for sharing the collections of the Division of Ethnology at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History.


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