An intimate, heartfelt show at the Tampa Museum of Art charmingly reveals — as if we didn't know it already — how little has changed among humans and their pets since ancient times.
A child playing with a pet bird, a faithful hound chasing prey or an intruder, a handsome horse getting a rubdown: The ancient Greeks and Romans loved their animals as much as we do.
Adults and children will be able to enjoy this intimacy in "The Classical World in Focus: Animals in Ancient Art." Intelligently combining works from the museum's own noted collection of antiquities as well as loans from the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, this small show can capture your heart without you having to check out a history book.
"They lived a lot closer to their animals than we do today," said Seth Pevnick, the Tampa Museum of Art's chief curator and Richard E. Perry curator of Greek and Roman art.
Pevnick pointed out bulls and wild boars painted on clay wine jugs. Decked with garlands, they were being led in a festive procession to be sacrificed to the gods. "But the animal needs to go willingly," Pevnick emphasized. "People in the procession scattered food in front of them."
Of course, the people got to eat the meat just as folks enjoy barbecues today, while the gods only got the skin, bones and smoke.
People and dogs lived as close to each other as they do now. Guard dogs and hunting dogs as well as pet dogs were common in ancient Roman times. Equally common were warning signs reading "Cave Canem" (Beware the dog).
A fragment of a marble mosaic floor from a fifth or sixth century A.D. Roman house in what is today western Syria comes from the Hood Museum of Art. It shows a ferocious hunting dog with sharp teeth bared for a mean bite.
The tale of the faithful family dog is nowhere better portrayed than in Homer's saga, The Odyssey. When Odysseus returns home in disguise after many years away at war, only the shepherd's dog recognizes him at first.
The faithful old dog, Argos (meaning "swift-footed"), rises up to greet and lick his master before he lies down to die.
Horses were prize possessions. Only the wealthy could afford to keep them. One of Socrates' pupils, Zenophon, said, "A horse is a thing of beauty. None will tire of looking at him as long as he displays himself in his splendor."
A beautifully painted clay vessel shows a groom with puffed cheeks as he blows the horse hairs off a grooming brush.
Horse racing back then was like Formula One racing today. A controversial military man and wealthy politician named Alciabides once aced an Olympic event. This handsome man-about-town owned the teams that won the first-, second- and fourth-place prizes in a single chariot racing event.
You can see elegant depictions of the drivers in their four-horse chariots. You can even catch one of them in the thick of the race as he is peering behind him to see how closely he is being followed.
This show of fragments from everyday Greek, Roman and Etruscan lives is highlighted by a massive sarcophagus from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The ferocious lions appearing on each corner were supposed to guard the remains of a wealthy Roman.
However, it's often the tiniest images that catch your heart. Note the friendly, winsome owl peering from a small jug. As cheerful as a Disney character, the wise little owl was the symbol of Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom. Never mind that this little fellow looks too perky to be very solemn.
A curling octopus decorates a dish used for seafood. The dish even has a tiny bowl in the center used to hold the dipping sauce.
Perhaps the most heart-wrenching item in the exhibition is a small jug no bigger than a toddler's sippy cup. It shows a little boy playing with a bird, and it was found in a child's grave.
Birds and dogs were thought to travel into the afterlife to keep the child company after death.
The grief of the child's parents is given voice in one of the most eloquent passages from ancient literature. Euripides' play The Trojan Women tells the story of what happened to the Trojans after the Greeks captured Troy. The Trojan queen, Hecuba, mourns the loss of her warrior son, Hector. Even more, she mourns the loss of her toddler grandson murdered by the conquerors.
"The pattering welcomes of thy little feet, ah, what a death hath found thee, little one. … Thy curls, these little flowers innocent that were thy mother's garden where she laid her kisses," cries the queen.
Contact Joanne Milani at email@example.com.