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Hammers, Axes, Bulls, and Blood: Some Practical Aspects of Roman Animal Sacrifice*

  • Gregory S. Aldrete (a1)

Abstract

Animal sacrifice was a central component of ancient Roman religion, but scholars have tended to focus on the symbolic aspects of these rituals, while glossing over the practical challenges involved in killing large, potentially unruly creatures, such as bulls. The traditional explanation is that the animal was struck on the head with a hammer or an axe to stun it, then had its throat cut. Precisely how axes, hammers, and knives were employed remains unexplained. This article draws upon ancient sculpture, comparative historical sources, and animal physiology to argue that the standard interpretation is incomplete, and, in its place, offers a detailed analysis of exactly how the killing and bleeding of bovines was accomplished and the distinct purposes of hammers and axes within these rituals.

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I am grateful to a number of people who shared their professional expertise with me on various topics discussed in this article, from Roman religion to bovine physiology. Among these are: Sarah Bond, Melanie Grunow, Michael MacKinnon, C. Robert Phillips, Jonathan Pollack, James Rives, Jordan Rosenblum, and Joaquin Aldrete. While they generously offered their knowledge, my interpretations and theirs sometimes diverged, and the arguments expressed in this article should, of course, only be regarded as my own. I would also like to thank JRS's anonymous readers for their suggestions. The Institute for Research in the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, its staff, fellows, and director, Susan Friedman, provided a most congenial home during the time that the first draft of this article was written.

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Hammers, Axes, Bulls, and Blood: Some Practical Aspects of Roman Animal Sacrifice*

  • Gregory S. Aldrete (a1)

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