Passer domesticus

Did the Romans keep sparrows as pets?


Male (left) and female (right) sparrow (Passer domesticus). Passerine birds have three toes pointing forward and one back, designed for easy fence sitting.

The house sparrow is a very common so–called songbird, found all over the world wherever humans live. It likes to be in an urban environment, for the obvious reason that our activities provide a good source of food, but was it ever kept as a pet? It may look somewhat pettable, enough so to stroke its soft feathers if you could get close enough to do so1, but I know of no ancient or current cultures where they are kept for the enjoyment of their presence, their singing, or their plumage. The opposite, where they are considered pests, is more common2. So, why did some scholars and artists seriously think the Romans had sparrows as pets? I came across such a statement on several websites, and in the book The Sparrows by Denis Summers–Smith.

It turns out this can be blamed on the Roman poet Gaius Valerius Catullus (84–54 BCE), who wrote a large number of poems about his mistress Lesbia, one of which (Catullus 2) was translated as:

Sparrow, my girl’s darling
Whom she plays with, whom she cuddles,
Whom she likes to tempt with finger–
Tip and teases to nip harder
When my own bright–eyed desire
Fancies some endearing fun
And a small solace for her pain,
I suppose, so heavy passion then rests:
Would I could play with you as she does
And lighten the spirit’s gloomy cares!

When I read this poem my first thought was that Catullus is definitely not talking about a sparrow here. Artists in the Victorian era apparently were not allowed such thoughts and made pictures of Lesbia and her sparrow, alive and dead. For in a second poem devoted to the sparrow (Catullus 3) it has sadly died. I leave it to your interpretation of what that could mean. Catullus wrote about 25 poems about the ups and downs of his extramarital relation with Lesbia, whose real name was probably Clodia Metelli. To quote wikipedia: “In his poems Catullus describes several stages of their relationship: initial euphoria, doubts, separation, and his wrenching feelings of loss”. She was not only unfaithful to her husband, but to her lovers as well.

You can get a sparrow to do what you see in the top picture if you offer it food; or if it is dead, put it in your lap. But cuddling and teasing it? However, as Obélix states frequently: “Ils sont fous, ces Romains” (“they are nuts, the Romans”). So, who knows?

Apparently not much else was written about sparrows in Roman (or other ancient) literature. About a century after Catullus, Pliny the Elder (23–79 CE) wrote one line about them, comparing their lecherous and lustful behavior to that of pigeons: “Pigeons and turtle–doves live eight years. On the other hand the sparrow, their equal in salaciousness, has a very small span of life: the cocks are said not to last longer than a year, the proof being that at the beginning of spring no black colouring is seen on their beak, which be gins with summer; but the hens have a rather longer span of life.” Of course a lot can happen in a century, but I’d think that if Romans kept these birds as pets in Catullus’ days, they would also have known more about the true life span of the sparrow, which is now estimated to be about 13 years. Also, Pliny was not a very good observer3. The picture of the male sparrow at the top of this page was taken in may, with black beak and all. Or is that already later than the beginning of spring?4. Probably at about the same time as Pliny two of the gospel writers, Matthew and Luke, wrote about sparrows. They mention that sparrows are sold, although they disagree slightly on the price, and that God keeps track of that. I think we can safely assume they were sold for food, and not as pets. I did find corroborating evidence for my immediate interpretation of the sparrow in a rather long paper by Richard W. Hooper5, which starts with the sentence “Poliziano’s theory that the sparrow of Lesbia in Catullus 2 and 3 is non other than the phallus of the poet has not fared well in recent years.” after which Hooper takes his 15 pages or so to show that Poliziano really was not far off the mark. In a paper by Julian Ward Jones Jr.6, Hooper’s remark about Poliziano is substantiated:

Poliziano only hinted at an indecent meaning. The Dutch scholar, Isaac Voss, in his Observations on Catullus published in 1684, makes the matter explicit.The Greeks, he alleges, often used the names of birds to refer to a man’s penis, and similarly passer in poem is ambiguous and at one level represents the poet’s penis. By this obscene interpretation, the basic allegory of the poem would be something like this. Lesbia has great familiarity with the poet’s male member. She delights in playing with it and in this way seems to satisfy her erotic impulses. The poet by means of similar play would like to take similar satisfaction for himself. He cannot because masturbation gives him no pleasure.

Or just not as much pleasure as Lesbia could give him. A dirty mind is a joy forever, and Catullus (and the Dutch apparently) had one. This is also reflected in the name Lesbia he gave to his lover, on which Eliot Wirhsbo wrote a short paper called “Lesbia”: A Mock Hypocorism?7:

Numerous explanations have been offered for Catullus’ choice of the name “Lesbia” for his beloved: perhaps it was during a conversation about Sappho that the woman was won over, or perhaps Catullus was paying homage to his lover by associating her with the revered Sappho, or the poet saw a similarity between the passion Sappho expressed for a young bride and his own passion, or “Lesbia” had by Catullus’ time become proverbial for “Pretty as a girl from Lesbos,” and so on. These explanations need not be mutually exclusive; Catullus was doubt less aware of the various connotations such a word would have. I suggest that additional, playful reference is contained in the word, that Catullus was simultaneously twitting his lover as he exalted her. By its association with λεσβιάζω8, the pseudonym alludes to something private and personal, which undercuts the seriousness of the learned reference to Sappho. That “Lesbia”, in addition to her many charms was also a fellatrix cannot be proved, though her reputation for stooping to the lowest acts may partly derive from this activity. The possibility that Catullus chose a name with both sublime and lewd connotations accords well with the growing evidence of his tendency to self–mockery.

I assume Lesbian in this context means ‘from Lesbos’. I wondered if there is evidence for the statement in Liddell–Scott–Jones about the sucking capabilities of Lesbians — it is not in the online version of this Greek–English lexicon, so no references either — but I’ve already wandered too far from the topic of sparrows to follow this link any further. One of the wonders of the internet is the possibility to do random walks through web space, but it is too easy to get lost. Back to the sparrow.

There are plenty of other poems about the sparrow, mostly with a very high kitsch content of the “The little sparrow, Abandoned by your mother…” kind. I did find one other that deserves mention. As the Sparrow by famous underground poet Charles Bukowski, contains the lines:

Dear child, I only did to you what the sparrow
did to you; I am old when it is fashionable to be
young; I cry when it is fashionable to laugh.

Which of course begs the question what the sparrow did to the dear child, and if Bukowski knew about Catullus’ sparrow; or why there is a semicolon after the first line. The poem is too dense and contains too many double adjectivated words like billion–blooded sea, inward–breaking shoals, and white–legged, white–bellied rotting creatures to make sense to me. Maybe he was just pissed at, or happy about, who can tell, his publisher Black Sparrow Press. So far I have not found a decent analysis of this poem, or even one where at least these lines are explained.

Finally, the qualities of the sparrow as a songbird9 are best illustrated the poem “The Sparrow” (“De Mus”) by Dutch poet Jan Hanlo, which can be found on a wall in Leiden (Nieuwe Rijn 107), The Netherlands. Since sparrows tjielp in Dutch and chirp in English, the translation is simple.

[1] When I was young one of my uncles told me that if you put salt on a bird’s tail, you could simply pick it up. I did not believe it then, and never chased the birds in the backyard with a salt shaker as some of my cousins did. Now I do think this is actually true: if you can get close enough to put salt on its tail, you can also pick it up.

[2] One of the great accomplishments of Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward was the murder of about a billion sparrows as part of the Four Pests Campaign. With the unintended consequence of massive locust plagues, leading to crop failure and to about one dead person for every twenty dead sparrows.

[3] For some other interesting observations of Pliny regarding cures for certain ailments, view the Qi episode Antidotes (A6).

[4] Do male sparrows really change their beak color in spring?

[5] In defence of Catullus’ dirty sparrow, Greece & Rome, 32, (1985), 162–178.

[6] Catullus’ Passer as Passer, Greece & Rome, 45, (1998), 188–194.

[7] Classical Philology, 75, (1980), 70. A hypocorism is a nickname that shows affection or closeness.

[8] Liddell–Scott–Jones glosses λεσβιάζω as “do like the Lesbian women, fellare”.

[9] The American song sparrow Melospiza melodia, which has a “colourful repertoire of songs” (wikipedia), is not a sparrow of the genus Passer. Many people call just any small greyish brown bird a sparrow.

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