One day you’re in, the next day you’re out.

Bronze Mouse with Mask British MuseumWhile the Roman emperors were basking in the glow of Pax Romana, the people were busy it seems decorating their first- and second-century homes with small bronzes of mice. A plethora of them has been excavated over the past two to three hundred years in the Empire’s ashes from Italy to England, Turkey to Syria to Northern Africa, along the sunlit coasts of the Mediterranean. By all accounts the mouse’s primary purpose was to look pretty, adorning the lids of oil lamps and food containers; serving as finials for lamp-stands and for railings. At an inch, inch and a half in height the tiny creature is mostly shown in a crouching position, often with a nut, a biscuit or a piece of fruit between his paws.

One sculptor, however, had a more fanciful notion or possibly a client with a fondness for Greek theater. Instead of depicting the mouse in his natural state of forager, he cast his rodent in the role of an actor playing Papposilenos;[1] he gave him both the mask and the pointed ears of this elder silen—half-beast, half-man who was, according to mythology, Dionysus’s surrogate father and tutor as well as the head of the satyrs.

Papposilenos was a recurring character in satyr plays—a bawdy form of drama in which he would lead an uninhibited chorus of those cavorting, pleasure-seeking half goats in a routine of mock-drunkenness and dancing and lewd expression; the actors would be naked except for the animal skins and the masks they wore. Originating in Athens five or six centuries prior to the bronze mouse’s making, in the days of Aeschylus and Euripides, satyric dramas provided comic relief to the tragedies that were performed during the Dionysia, the fall festival held to honor the god of wine and, yes, fertility. With regard to the latter, then is it any wonder that the sculptor chose to cast Dionysus’s advisor as the ever-fecund mouse?

Regardless of the richness of a sculptor’s imagination, the prevalence of these statuettes of mice, clearly made with an enormous amount of sympathy, seems to suggest that the Romans found them utterly appealing, a true fad.[2] And that surely real mice, who served as models for the bronzes, were just as ubiquitous then as they are now—only the Romans, unlike us today, didn’t mind at all.

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[2] Arielle P. Kozloff, Animals in Ancient Art from the Leo Mildenberg Collection, Cleveland, OH: Cleveland Museum of Art, 1981, p. 185.

Additional source: H.B. Walters, Catalogue of the Bronzes in the British Museum, Greek, Roman & Etruscan, London: British Museum, 1899; Eric Csapo, Actors and Icons of the Ancient Theater, London: John Wiley, 2010.

(Image: Lamp lid with mouse, 1st century A.D., Bronze, cast, 3 cm h x 3.2 cm diam., British Museum, reproduced for non-commercial use only.)


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