The Roman Army’s Trusty Vultures: The World’s First Banded Birds

Adrienne Mayor

For most of human history, vultures were the first responders to the carnage of war. These large, carnivorous birds of prey were commonly observed wheeling in vast numbers over battlefields to feast on the dead and dying. As scavengers with keen eyesight and sense of smell, the vultures are able to detect a dead body from more than a mile away. But the carrion-birds quickly learned to follow ancient armies on the march in anticipation of a banquet of carcasses of soldiers and their animals. This behavior was remarked upon in antiquity (e.g. Aristotle History of Animals 563a5–12, and Aelian On Animals 2.46).

Vultures in flight.

An extraordinary limestone artifact made more than 4,000 years ago is a striking testament of the timeless, intimate link between vultures and war. Found in southern Iraq, the famous Vulture Stele is an early artistic example of a victorious army using imagery of vultures to celebrate their triumph over an enemy. Erected by the Sumerian ruler Eannatum of Lagash in about 2450 BC to commemorate his victory over Umma, the stele’s reliefs illustrate the decisive battle described in cuneiform inscriptions.

We see the king in his chariot leading his army in violent fighting, crushing the foe, leaving heaps of bodies. Above these scenes, the top register of the stele shows a thick throng of flying vultures, carrying away enemy heads and limbs. The vivid image suggests that the vultures were the allies of Lagash.

More than two millennia later, a special relationship between Roman soldiers and vultures was recorded by historians – and this event actually resulted in a historic milestone. The account was originally reported in the 1st century AD by Alexander of Myndus (fr. 26), whose works on animals are now lost except for fragments. Plutarch (AD 46–119) recounted “the marvelous affair of the vultures” in his Life of Marius (17.3).

Between 113 and 103 BC, hordes of Celtic and Germanic tribes (the Cimbri, Teutones, and Ambrones) of northern Europe were moving relentlessly south toward the Alps, destroying, plundering, and threatening to invade Italy itself. The Roman legions sent to stop them were demolished. In a battle near Arausio in 105 BC, Teutons and Cimbri forces annihilated more than 80,000 legionaries and auxiliaries, marking the worst military disaster of the Roman Republic.

Map of the Cimbrian War: red X marks Cimbri and Teuton defeats, the blue X Cimbri and Teuton victories.

Amid rising panic in Rome, in 102 BC, the great commander Marius (157–86 BC) was elected to take charge of the Roman army. His radical reforms allowed poor, landless men to serve in the military for the first time, and promises of good pay attracted numerous eager recruits. Marius won the affection of his men by sharing their hardships. His rigorous new training of disciplines forged a tough, loyal force that ultimately turned the tide against the Germanic onslaught.

Plutarch reports that at some point during the Cimbrian War campaign, Marius’ soldiers noticed that a certain pair of vultures were seen hovering over his armies before their victories and this same pair made a habit of accompanying them on their marches:

τὸ δὲ περὶ τοὺς γῦπας θαύματος ἄξιον Ἀλέξανδρος ὁ Μύνδιος ἱστόρη κε. δύο γὰρ ἐφαίνοντο πρὸ τῶν κατορθωμάτων ἀεὶ περὶ τὰς στρατιὰς καὶ παρηκολούθουν, γνωριζόμενοι χαλκοῖς περιδεραίοις. (Plutarch Marius 17.3)

The affair of the vultures, however, which Alexander of Myndus relates, is certainly wonderful. Two vultures were always seen hovering about the armies of Marius before their victories, and accompanied them on their journeys, being recognized by bronze rings on their necks.

The “Marius” bust, 1st century BC (Musei Vaticani, Vatican).

Since Rome’s earliest beginnings, the Romans had set great store by bird auguries, predicting the future by observing the auspices. Avian flight patterns and behavior were interpreted by an augur or auspex, one who looks at birds. It was natural for Marius’ soldiers to view the consistent sight of the vulture pair as a portent. Everyone knew that vultures (gyps) were a key omen in Rome’s mythic foundation.

Romulus and Remus, sons of the war god Mars, had disagreed about the hill on which to build their new city: Remus favored the Aventine, while Romulus insisted on the Palatine. The brothers agreed to decide the matter by augury, each staying the night on his chosen hill. At dawn, Remus spotted six vultures, but Romulus counted twelve from his post on the Palatine. Romulus declared that the superior number of vultures gave him divine approval (Livy 1.6-7; Plutarch Romulus 9.4; Aelian On Animals 10.22; Dionysius of Halicarnassus Roman Antiquities 1.85).

“The brothers [Romulus and Remus], disagreeing about the founding of the city, solve their dispute by taking auguries”, Giovanni Battista Fontana, 1573–5.

In Roman mythology, the vulture was associated with military strategy, the god of war Mars, and Hercules, the popular hero of Roman soldiers. The vulture’s magnificent cousin, the eagle, was sacred to Jupiter, and stood for military courage and strength.

According to Plutarch, Marius often told the story that as a boy he had rescued seven baby eaglets from a fallen nest. Soothsayers had interpreted this as a divine sign of his illustrious future (Plutarch Marius 31.4-6). Notably, among his reforms of the Roman army, Marius had established the Aquila, the iconic silver or bronze eagle standard to be carried in battle, cherished as a symbol of Roman pride and valor.

The return of the Aquila standard to Augustus in 20 BC, previously lost to the Parthians in 53 BC (detail of the central breastplate relief on the statue of Augustus of Prima Porta, carved during his lifetime and now in the Musei Vaticani, Vatican).

On his campaign against the Germanic marauders, Marius was accompanied by a covey of Etruscan augurs who read the portents. Powerful leaders understood the importance of creating positive omens and neutralizing ominous signs for their followers. The sight of vultures circling over an army on the march in enemy territory, or roosting expectantly in trees around a battlefield, surely evoked uneasy emotions in soldiers. Who was doomed to be devoured by the lurking birds? After all, to the carrion-eaters, all corpses were the same.

Like the Lagash king of Sumeria who appropriated the vultures as participants in his victory over Umma, Marius’ men hoped to be the victors who would provide a banquet of dead Cimbri and Teutons for the ravenous vultures. But the Roman soldiers took this natural desire a step further. It seemed clear to the men that the familiar pair of vultures had chosen sides by favoring Marius’ army. It is not recorded whether Marius or his augurs were involved, but Plutarch says that the soldiers conceived of a plan to mark the two vultures as their own mascots.

The Battle of Vercellae (101 BC), Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, 1725–9 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA).

ταῦτα δ’ οἱ στρατιῶται συλλαβόντες αὐτοὺς περιῆψαν, εἶτ’ ἀφῆκαν· ἐκ δὲ τούτου γνωρίζοντες ἠσπάζοντό θ’ ὡς συστρατιώτας, καὶ φανέντων ἐπὶ ταῖς ἐξόδοις ἔχαιρον ὡς ἀγαθόν τι πράξοντες. (Plutarch Marius 17.3)

For the soldiers had caught them, put these rings on, and let them go again; and after this, on recognizing the birds, the soldiers greeted them, and they were glad to see them when they set out upon a march, feeling sure in such cases that they would be successful.

The troop’s blacksmith forged two bronze collars to fasten around the vultures’ necks. The legionnaires managed to capture the pair of vultures. They probably used nets, cast over the carrion-birds while they were feeding. Vultures are not dangerous or aggressive but they would have defended themselves with hooked beaks and talons – and vomiting, a defense mechanism of these birds. Vulture vomit is notoriously putrid and acidic enough to burn skin and corrode metal. So the Romans were very careful and respectful as they subdued the large birds. They placed metal rings around the vultures’ necks and then released their new aerial escorts.

Cinereous or Black vulture pair with bronze collars; it is not known whether the collars were inscribed (drawing by Michele Angel).

Thus an inauspicious omen was made auspicious. The vultures boosted the army’s morale, for their sighting was taken as a sure sign that the Romans would triumph and their mascots would soon be consuming the corpses of the enemy. Thereafter, wrote Plutarch, whenever the Roman soldiers caught sight of the vulture pair’s bronze collars flashing in the sun, the men’s spirits rose and they would raise a cheer to their airborne auxiliaries.

What did the Romans’ adversaries think of these two vultures? We have little information from before the later Norse epic poems to tell us what ancient Germanic tribes thought about vultures (Valgammr, corpse-buzzards). But many ancient cultures appreciated – even revered – the carrion-birds for fulfilling an important role in the balance of life and death. Their ability to flourish by eating the dead was eerie (Homer Iliad 4.237, 11.162, 16.836, 22.42; Odyssey 11.578–9).

This gruesome task of vultures purified the miasma of death and the butchery of battle. A few vultures could pick a fallen warrior’s bones clean in less than an hour. Understandably, the sight of vultures before battle made any soldier uncomfortably aware of what could lie ahead for him personally. Did a glimpse of the mysterious, glinting circlets on the necks of two of the wheeling vultures amplify the anxiety of the Teutones, Cimbri, and Ambrones? It would be especially jolting if survivors were to come upon a wake of vultures ravaging their comrades’ corpses and notice that two of the birds wore bronze collars. To whom did the vultures belong?

Bearded vulture (Gypaetus barbatus), chromolithograph by W. Greve after Archibald Thorburn, 1885.

What kind of vultures wore the Roman collar? Vultures belong to the Accipiditrae family of birds of prey, which includes eagles, hawks, and kites. Several species of Old World vultures flourished in Europe at that time. Possibilities include the griffon vulture (Gyps fulvus), the lammergeier (Gypaetus barbatus), and the cinereous or black vulture (Aegypius monachus). Vultures can live forty years; their wingspans range from seven to ten feet, and they can weigh up to 30 pounds. The birds are quite intelligent, although truly tame or domesticated vultures are unknown. Some European vultures are solitary loners, but others are monogamous pairs, mating for life as equal companions. The vultures captured by Marius’ men were probably a male and female couple. The legion’s raptors were not described as pets, but it is plausible that the Roman soldiers set out food near camp and also while on the march in order to seal a strong bond between their army and the two vultures.

The soldiers serving Marius would have been familiar with pigeons and crows delivering letters, requests for reinforcements, and military intelligence, via messages tied to a foot or neck during sieges and between armies. One of the earliest examples of sending an avian message had occurred during the Second Punic War (218–201 BC), when a swallow was fitted with a string knotted to indicate how many days until help would arrive to aid a besieged Roman position (Pliny 10.34.71). There were also many Roman anecdotes about swallows, pigeons, and ravens conveying news about sports victories, by knotted threads or dyed cloth attached to their feet or dabs of paint signifying the colors of the winning team (e.g. Pliny 10.34.71, 10.53). Such accounts of the temporary use of birds for communicating messages can be traced back to the 5th century BC.

In 102–101 BC, on the march against fearsome enemies, Marius’ soldiers actively transformed a terrifying natural consequence of warfare into an omen of victory for themselves. Remarkably, in wresting a propitious augury from the behavior of vultures, the Romans also achieved a historic event. This is the earliest documented account of permanent bird banding (also known as “ringing”). Marius’ mascot vultures were thus the first wild birds to be fitted with collars, allowing Romans not just to identify them but also to track their movements over extended time.

Adrienne Mayor is a historian of ancient science and a classical folklorist at Stanford University. She is the author of The Amazons (2014) and Flying Snakes and Griffin Claws (2022). She has previously written for Antigone about Plato and the Amazons and Camilla, Queen of the Volscians.