The Ancient Admiration of Birds: Flamingos as Masterpieces of Art and Food
In the ancient past, relationships between humans and animals were stricter than today and included the sphere of the imaginary and the sacred. Investigations on how the ancients approached different species can allow us to throw light on some beliefs and some concealed aspects of daily life not revealed in the ‘official’ history.
Beyond the purely scientific interest, aimed at verifying the possibility of using historical sources to acquire information on the biogeography of certain species, the results of this kind of investigation permit us to confirm with more and more evidence how, over time, humans change their attitude towards nature in general and animals in particular.
The Thesis of the Flamingo
Here I present the thesis of an investigation on the flamingo ( Phoenicopterus roseus), a colorful and showy water bird that dwells across the Mediterranean, whose popularity has continued up to the present day.
Based on the opinions and the feelings of the ancient classic authors, I have tried to investigate the interest that flamingos aroused in antiquity and to identify its presence, symbolism, and familiarity with humans.
Flamingos have exerted very strong influence on humans and their meditations since the most ancient of times. Their name derives from the Greek φοινικόπτερος and means “ (bird) with red wings”. Romans adopted the Greek name and, where mentioned (for example, in Martial) it is apparent that there is a constant association with the concept of rarity, exoticism, and luxury.
Like other gregarious birds, flamingos always fly in flocks and their flight, preceded by a long ride on the water, is very characteristic. The formation in the sky varies from the typical V to long swaying rows and in the ancient sources they are described as purple birds, flying in such big flocks they look like clouds. The sight of a group flying is unforgettable, but among the ancients it must have aroused anxiety and fear, for instance, the psychological comparison of arriving armies or fleets of enemies.
Of similar formations in flight (although the specific context refers to cranes) Lucan wrote: " And the letter dies, upset by the scattered feathers". The "letter" was clearly referring to the V or Y of the formation.
Five adult flamingos in flight. Their tendency of these and other gregarious birds to aggregate in compact flocks, sometimes formed by thousands of individuals, have often reminded the ancients of the armies deployed in battle. Author Supplied / Alessandro Andreotti.
The Flamingo in Art
The flamingo silhouette appears in the most ancient iconographic representations of history, and for the Egyptians of the Predynastic Period, its color was so important it was fixed in the system of the fundamental graphic signs, even if used only rarely.
Over the centuries, representations of the bird are frequently found in many ancient civilizations, with an unexpected lack in the Pompeian frescos and Byzantine mosaics from Ravenna. In the mosaic decorations of many early Christian buildings, however, flamingos appear and seem to simply witness the beauty of the early Christian paradeisos (paradises), rich in lush vegetation and populated by the most varied animals. Among the best preserved of these are: the mosaic floors of the basilica of Sabratha (Libya), the synagogue of Gaza Maiumas (Israel), the funerary chapel of Polieyctos in Constantinople and the basilica of Qasr Elbia (Libya), all dated to the 5th /6th century AD.
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Modern painting ‘Entering the Palace Gardens’ shows a flamingo enjoying the garden. (Rlbberlin / Public Domain)
In the pagan past, they were not attributed to any specific deity but, like other birds such as peacocks, grouses, Numidia chickens, pharaoh hens, and pheasants; flamingos were sacrificed in honor of various gods such as Jupiter or Isis and in the pantheon of Egypt. The imminent death of the emperor Caligula, who liked to identify himself with Jupiter, seems to have been portrayed by many prodigies and fortuitous incidents, including the blood of a sacrificial flamingo that, according to Suetonius, spilled on his toga.
Further proof of the strict relationship with humans comes from Sardinia, where, according to tradition, even if without any archaeological find, the hollow femurs of the flamingos were considered the most suitable material for the construction of the ‘launeddas’, a three-pipe wind instrument used since prehistoric times and today produced with marsh reeds.
The use of launeddas, one of the oldest and most extraordinary musical instruments of the Mediterranean, is attested for a time span ranging from prehistory to the present day. This is a specimen of launeddas made in 1981 by Master Orlando Maxia with the bones of a flamingo found dead. (Author Supplied / Paolo Lussu © Museo Sardo di Antropologia ed Etnografia dell'Università degli Studi di Cagliari)
The Flamingo as Gourmet Food
Despite the immense popularity of the bird, there are not many naturalistic descriptions in the ancient written sources, perhaps because they were thought to be only passing through Greece and Italy and therefore hardly observable: Aristotle does not seem to talk about the bird, but Pliny the Elder does, albeit incidentally, just confirming the culinary appreciation that Apicius makes of the bird's tongue and brain.
Rich aristocrats, lovers of excess and extravagance, emperors such as Vitellius or Elegabalus, appreciated the flamingo as gourmet food in the 15th century. If we consider that, Lorenzo de’ Medici in Florence had flamingos brought live from Sicily, it’s easy to deduce that in ancient Rome the bird was almost certainly imported and therefore very expensive.
The luxury of these expensive and bizarre dishes was, however, also much criticized by those who recommended more sober lifestyles, like Seneca, Philostratus the Elder, and Juvenal, between the 1 st and the 2 nd century AD.
Decorated jar with Nilotic scenes (D-ware). Baked clay. Predynastic Period, Naqada II, 3700-3300 BC. (Author Supplied /Nicola dell’Aquila and Federico © Taverni/Museo Egizio di Torino)
Even in more recent times the tongue of the flamingo continued to be appreciated. In his travel diaries, William Dampier, English pirate, explorer, and scientific observer (17 th – 18th century), told of its delicacy. In the 18 th century, the Italian zoologist Francesco Cetti noted that he had tasted these dishes, but he did not share the positive opinion that the Romans had.
In the Edictum de Pretiis of Diocletian, however (301 AD), among pheasants, geese, chickens, partridges, turtle doves, thrushes, pigeons, francolins, ducks, goldfinches, garden warblers, sparrows, peacocks, quails, and starlings (all birds whose meat was of good nutritional value), the flamingo is not indicated. And curiously it does not even appear under the heading "Feathers", unless they were included in the " wild feathers of different birds" which cost 50 deniers a pound.
Despite this, already for the poet Martial it was enough to talk about the color of the flamingo’s feathers to evoke the image of the bird that " owes its name to the fiery red feathers".
The Ultimate Feathery Show of Roman Affection
Besides being sought as food, flamingos were also appreciated gifts for lovers and exhibited in rich Roman villages, both as live animals and as decorative elements in the mosaic representations. In many bird mosaic decorations from the area of the southern Mediterranean, dating from a period ranging from the 1st to 6/7th century AD, the repetition of small errors (not webbed feet, unsuitable food, etc.) show the already mentioned poor scientific knowledge of the bird by the ancients, in spite of its great popularity in the collective imagination.
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A flamingo, detail from the 6th century AD Bird Mosaic that adorned the atrium of a large palace complex outside the city wall of Byzantine Caesarea, Caesarea Maritima, Israel. (Butko / Public Domain)
It is important to point out that, contrary to what emerged in the case of other species, specifically the Purple swamphen ( Porphyrio porphyrio), another colorful aquatic bird object of a previous study, the flamingo has never been associated with beliefs or ethical conceptions, nor been so familiar and domestic as to live in close contact with man in daily life. Though, the species has kept its popularity intact over the centuries and even in our time it is still one of the most admired birds, well known by experts and non-experts alike.
Top image: Flamingoes have been admired throughout history. Source: CC BY 2.5
Maura Andreoni is an independent scholar in Social History of the Ancient World.
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