What was the werewolf myth in Ancient Rome?

Dr Miles Russell investigates... 

King Lycaon is transformed into a wolf. © Mary Evans Picture Library / Alamy

It’s difficult to say precisely when the story of the werewolf first developed. The twins Romulus and Remus had been suckled by a she-wolf, and so the idea of the human/wolf hybrid was ingrained in the Roman psyche from an early date.

Shape shifters were quite common in Greek and Roman mythology – the metamorphosis from human to animal form often occured as a direct result of divine punishment; the gods condemning an individual on the basis of pride, boastfulness or blasphemy.

Pliny the elder described the lycanthropic shape shifting of a man into a wolf by the gods following an act of cannibalism. Early in the 1st century AD, the Roman poet Ovid wrote Metamorphoses in which King Lycaon (from whom we get the term ‘Lycanthrope’) offended the gods by serving them human flesh. His punishment was being transformed into a wolf so he could continue his disgusting eating habits.

Dr Miles Russell is a senior lecturer in prehistoric and Roman archaeology, with more than 25 years experience of archaeological fieldwork and publication.

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