The number of preventive excavations has increased in the past decades, thus, it has now become possible to re-examine the connections between animals and Romans in Aquincum in a multiplicity of new ways.
Roman society was complex, hierarchical and multiethnic in the provinces. This situation is also reflected in the animal bones, as well as the tools and jewellery made from them. If we examine the ratio of animal species and how they were butchered, we can ascertain that the Romanized Celtic population – living in the territory of Aquincum – took the animals into their villages to slaughter, butcher and prepare them in a traditional way. In contrast, the inhabitants of the town used a centralised meat processing system: the animals were butchered away from the populated areas while meat processing and further cutting up of the carcasses was carried out by professional butchers. Finally, meat was sold in the town’s macellum (or meat market).
While meat and leather mainly derived from domestic animals (approximately 99%), the ratio of the beef, lamb, pork, goat and chicken intended for consumption was different for various ethnic groups. Differences were probably related to dietary customs. Thus, the ratio of pig bone fragments in Aquincum is usually lower than what might be expected based on the usual situation in the other towns of the Roman Empire over the same period. It is feasible that these lower than expected numbers are related to the large number of soldiers of Eastern origin stationed in Aquincum, a proportion of whom might have been prohibited from consuming pork. The bones of dogs, cats, rabbits, horses, donkeys, mules, chickens and geese were also found among other domestic animals and pets. The Romans in Aquincum also ate fish, especially carp, though these possibly could have come from fisheries. People from low social classes probably ate less meat. Based on the state of the bones, Romans in Aquincum most often ate the meat of older animals, which were butchered only after they could no longer be used for work. Wealthy customers could afford the veal, lamb and pork from immature pigs. They even consumed oysters and, based on recipe books, bird tongues.
They appear not to have eaten dogs or horse. Dogs ranged from small, bow-legged lap-dogs to wolf-sized hunting or guard dogs. Their bones can be found scattered throughout the settlements in Roman towns. The absence of gnawed bones indicates that they were not allowed to wander around freely in the urban areas. In contrast, dogs seem to have been able to rummage freely in the household rubbish in the villages of the indigenous population. We rarely find horse bones in urban areas, although their bones were used regularly to manufacture tools or jewellery. It is also well known that keeping horses also reflected the high rank of the military officers. Mule and donkey bones are often found in refuse pits of military buildings and villas, where they were exploited as important pack animals.
Based on the injuries found on their bones, it can be concluded that they were also used as draught animals. Cow, sheep and goat milk products were certainly consumed. Wool was an important secondary product from sheep, although it was mainly produced for local consumption in the Aquincum area. The situation was different in the fortresses and the villages surrounding them. The traces of the butchering techniques found on some animal bones at these military sites lead to the conclusion that the soldiers’ meat was sometimes dried and smoked and eaten together with the staple grain products – especially in the winter. Meat from wild animals was consumed by soldiers at these military installations as well including red deer, wild boar and fish, to help make their somewhat one-dimensional diet more varied.
Further research aims to shed more light on the utilisation of the animals’ meat, draught power, skin, muscle strength, and ways in which their bones and hooves could have been made into other products such as glue. It is a challenge to understand the ways in which the role of animals changed and varied in the more than 400 years of Roman occupation of Aquincum.
Alice M. Choyke