Return to the Pigeon Cote's main page.   A. O. Cooke
Chapter One The Roman Columbarium
In a book so limited in size and scope as the present volume, a learned disquisition on the pigeon, on its place in former ages and in many lands, with an excursus on the subject of its prehistoric ancestry, will hardly be expected, and assuredly will not be given. We are concerned chiefly with the dovecotes of England and Scotland; and though some enthusiastic owner of an ancient pigeon house may claim that it descends from Saxon times, it will hardly be seriously disputed that the keeping of pigeons in Great Britain, with the construction of dovecotes in which to house them, had its beginning in, and came from, although in directly, Rome. A word or two on Roman pigeon keeping, then, will not be altogether out of place; and happily our knowledge of the subject has its bases soundly fixed on such reliable authorities as Pliny the Elder and Varro, with some useful support from Columella.

Pliny, after noticing the fidelity and combativeness of the dove, reminds us that during the siege of Mutina, Decimus Brutus dispatched to the Consuls a message fastened to the foot of a pigeon; the modern method, it may here be mentioned, is to tie the letter underneath a wing. The use of pigeons as letter carriers during the siege of Paris in 1870 may well be known to many who are unaware that the Germans attempted to destroy such messengers by means of hawks. Pigeons, too, played their part as message bearers in the recent war.

Pliny goes on to speak of the "mania" for pigeons, which, in his day, existed to such an extent in Rome that veritable "towns" were sometimes built upon the roofs of houses for their use; and finally sets down, no doubt in all good faith, a few beliefs which, current in his time, will hardly survive collision with modern science. He states, for example, that if the body of a tinnunculus - by which Cuvier believed him to have meant the kestrel - were buried underneath each corner of the pigeon house, its occupants would not desert the place.
He also speaks of a peculiar venom in the teeth of human beings, which not only tarnished the brightness of metal mirrors, but proved fatal to young unfledged pigeons, which we now call "squabs." Allusion is also made to the special fondness of pigeons for the mixed grain called by the Romans farrago, a word which has descended to us with a different sense.

Much interesting information as to Roman pigeon-keeping will be found in the proper section of Varro's Rerum Rusticarum. Two different breeds were chiefly kept. One was the wild rock pigeon, agreste, of a mixed or dappled colour; shy in its habits, keeping to house gables or high towers, feeding in the distant fields. The other, clementius, was a white bird; very common, and quite tame enough to feed about the doorstep, but not greatly in request with pigeon keepers, for the reason that its snowy plumage made it a conspicuous prey for hawks. The birds most largely bred for table were a cross (misccellum) of these two, and were usually housed in what was sometimes called a peristeron or peristerotrophion, which might hold as many as five thousand birds.  

The Roman columbarium was usually round, the vaulted roof being generally of stone, though tiles were sometimes used. The entrance was small, and the windows either latticed or covered with a double trellis to ensure the birds against the invasion of snakes and other vermin. The interior surface of the walls was covered with a smoothly worked cement made from ground marble, while the outer face immediately around the windows was often similarly treated, so that no foothold might be offered to small climbing animals. The nest holes, very similar to those that we may see to day in many an English dovecote, lined the walls from floor to roof; the entrance to each being only large enough to admit the bird, but the whole expanding inwards to the breadth of a foot. Sometimes the nests appear to have been circular, and in some instances they were constructed of a kind of porcelain. Before each row of nests there was a shelf eight inches broad, to serve as an alighting place and promenade.

There was one detail in the construction of a Roman pigeon house which, though it may possibly have found its way to France, seems never to have reached Britain. This was an arrangement by which the birds could be fed from the exterior of the house through an elaborate system of pipes and troughs. The troughs were placed all round the tiers of nest holes, while the pipes communicating with them had their orifice outside the walls. The most perfect nicety of adjustment must have been required, since the pipes were called on to convey, not smoothly flowing water, but a great variety of grain, such as peas, beans, millet, refuse wheat, and vetches. It may perhaps be fairly doubted whether so complicated an arrangement was in very general use.

Varro seems to recommend that water, not only for drinking but for washing purposes, should flow into the house, and one authority suggests the provision of a fairly large bath basin in the centre of the floor, a hint we shall in due course find followed in an ancient English dovecote. Columella, on the contrary, favoured the use of small drinking vessels which would admit the pigeon's head and neck alone, on the ground that bathing was bad for the eggs on which hen birds might be sitting. Pigeons being very cleanly birds the keeper of the columbarium was to sweep the house out several times a month, and that for the additional reason that the manure yielded was of the highest quality. The present use of this manure as a tanning agent for certain classes of skins is not alluded to.

Varro goes on to speak of the desirability of the window or windows admitting plenty of sunlight, and of the necessity of a netted off chamber for the sitting hens; also that these should have a due amount of exercise and air, lest, " saddened by the slavery of continued confinement," they might lose their health.

It seems that the occupants of a pigeon house were expected to draw others of their kind to swell the owner's colony; for the pigeon keeper is reminded that if his birds are anointed with myrrh, or if a little cummin or old wine be added to their usual food, the pigeons of the neighbourhood, attracted by the sweetness of their breath, would follow them. This recipe, or something very like it, long survived, and even crossed the sea to us. In John Moore's Columbarium, or the Pigeon House, first published in 1735, occurs the following passage:
"Being thus entered on the head of diet, it leads us necessarily to consider a certain composition called by the fanciers a Salt Cat, so named, I suppose, from a certain fabulous oral tradition of baking a cat . . . with cummin seed, and some other ingredients, as a decoy for your neighbour's pigeons; this, though handed down by some authors as the only method for this purpose, is generally laughed at by the gentlemen of the fancy, and never practiced."

Moore then gives the ingredients of this mixture, which include sand, lime rubble, with cummin seed and saltpetre, both the last named items being much relished by pigeons. Whether, however, the genuine "salt cat" was always altogether absent from the composition seems doubtful. I n the accounts of Jesus College, Cambridge, for the year 1651-2 may be read the following suggestive entry: "For a roasted dog and cummin seed, 00:02:00;" while a boiled goat's head forms a prominent feature of another prescription for the same purpose.

It is melancholy to observe that the immorality of any attempt to "decoy your neighbour's pigeons " to your own dovecote does not seem to occur to either Roman or British writer.

Hawks were a frequent menace to the pigeons of Rome. A method of snaring them was to take two twigs, lime them, and bend them towards each other till they formed an arch, below which could be placed as bait the carcass of some favourite prey.

Young birds intended for speedy fattening were separated from their elders as soon as covered with down. They were then fed, or rather "crammed," to use the modern poultry keeper's phrase, with white bread already half chewed by men specially hired for the work. These men were highly paid, as one would fancy they deserved to be; indeed it was a question with experts whether the game was worth the candle, the wages of the chewers eating up the extra value of the squabs. Young pigeons are, as will be known to many, fed by their parents upon half digested food.

The English farmer's wife who wishes to fatten quickly a clutch of young ducklings is careful to give them no opportunity of swimming, but confines them in a narrow pen and doles out water only with their food. The Roman pigeon keeper had more drastic methods with hiss quabs; he broke their legs, to do away with all excess of exercise. Columella, almost as though he had an eye upon the modern British reader and inspectors of the S.P.C.A., hastens to add that the pain caused by the operation disappeared in two, or at the most three days. It may have been so; but one cannot help recalling the remark of Sydney Smith, who, when a man recounted how he had been bitten without any provocation by a dog, replied, while sympathizing, that he "would have liked to have the dog's account of the affair."

But Roman pigeons were not kept exclusively for satisfaction of the grosser and material appetites. There are signs of a commencement of a " fancy," for people were in the habit of taking favourite birds with them to the theatre, which, it must be remembered, was open to the sky, and there releasing them, that they might show their "homing" powers.

The prices sometimes asked and paid for pigeons also points to this. For a handsome pair of well bred birds, free from all blemish, and of a popular colour or mixture of colours, as much as two hundred sesterces-about thirty shillings-was a common price; even a thousand sesterces was occasionally demanded, and a case is citéd where sixteen hundred had been offered and refused. Persons took up pigeon breeding as a trade or an amusement, or a blend of both, and might possess a house, appliances, and birds to the value of one hundred thousand sesterces, say eight hundred pounds. Varro, in one of those imaginary conversations in which he liked to impart his agricultural knowledge, strongly advises a friend to master in Rome the technicalities of the business, as he there would have before him many examples, and might then establish his breeding place in the country. He goes on to offer the truly alluring return of fifty per cent per diem! but, unfortunately, this rosy prospect is not supported by any statement of figures likely to pass the scrutiny of a modern accountant.

Having thus given a view of columbaria as they were in ancient Rome, we move north westward; but, before entering Britain, it is well to make a halt in France. For not only is it practically certain that the first builders of the dovecote in England were the Normans; but in France we find examples which, while very similar in some respects to those of Britain, yet display in many instances a rich ness of ornament which we cannot equal. Many a French dovecote is, as compared to those of our own country, what such Renaissance chateaux as Blois, Chenonceaux, and Azay-le-Rideau are to the rugged ruins of English castle keeps. At least a few French dovecotes therefore claim to be described, togetherwith some mention of the laws concerning them.

Dovecote: Table of Contents