The Ancient Balearic Islands War Against Rabbits


During the lifetime of the geographer, Strabo (c. 64 BCE-23 CE), the people of the Balearic Islands were undergoing a life-and-death war with a prolific foe. The invaders targeted the islands’ food supply, destroying harvests, harming trees, and causing famine. Even though the people of the Balearic Islands were renowned for their slingshot prowess, the islanders were not able to drive off the pillagers. According to Strabo and Pliny the Elder (c. 23-79), the Balearic Islanders were desperate enough to turn the tide of war against their foe that they sent representatives to Rome in order to beg Augustus (r. 27 BCE-14 CE) for military aid. It might have been an awkward conversation, for the foes that were giving the islanders so much trouble were not pirates or hostile neighbors—instead, the bane of the Balearic Islands was a populous horde of hungry rabbits.

Augustus’ exact response to the plea of the islanders is vague in our existent sources, but he evidently did decide to help the Balearic Islands with their rabbit problem. Part of his solution was apparently to send hunters and trappers to help contain the rabbit population and to teach the islanders better ways to hunt the hopping pests. A key component of the war on rabbits, according to Strabo and Pliny, was to send ferrets to the Balearic island. These “wild cats from Africa,” as Strabo oddly called the ferrets (Geography, I.2.6), were unleashed into the rabbit burrows, forcing the animals up to the surface and into the hands of the awaiting hunters. According to Strabo, Augustus’ efforts succeeded and the rabbit population was eventually brought down to a safe and manageable level. By the time Pliny the Elder finished his Natural History in the year 77, the fortune of the rabbits on the Baleric Island had completely changed, as the animals had by then become a culinary delicacy.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Floor mosaic representing a centaur, from the Acropolis of Rhodes, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).


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