We tend to think that game management, as well as breeding of deer and other wild animals in farms, is a very recent phenomenon, but if fact it is not. The success and growth of humans led in prehistoric times to the scarcity of hunting and even extinction of some wild species. The response to this was, on one hand, the start of agriculture and cattle farming. On the other, because kings, pharaohs, and nobles liked hunting, this also led to the most primitive game management: forbid hunting to all except the owners of land, and hunt the excess of game, but not hunt so much as to finish all deer, wild boar, etc. in land, or ducks and other game birds in water.
Farming of wild deer is not much more recent. There is a picture dated 5,000-6,000 years ago, found in Alta, Finnmark, in Norway, which shows something like a fence where deer were captured (some killed, and probably some were tamed as it is known that Laps tamed deer in this land centuries ago).
Deer and history: the tale of the white coloured deer hind and Roman general Quintus Sertorius.
Readers of IDUBA newsletter that like history probably liked to read our section “Facts and history of deer breeding”. One of the curious things there relate to the fact that some red deer are born white (they are not albino, as eyes are not red, and this variety affects only the colour of the fur). The story there shows that, among emperors and tsars, it was a much better gift of 6 precious rare white colour red deer than jewels or gold. However, there is a much better story dated 1800 years earlier than the gift of Tsar Peter the Great to Charles VI, it is the history of one of the brightest (and forgotten) generals of the Roman Empire, Quintus Sertorius, a white coloured hind, and a rebellion against the elites of Rome that took place in Hispania, the province that today is Portugal and Spain.
The life of Quintus Sertorius deserves a film even if you do not include this story of the white coloured hind. At the age of 16, he forged a letter and lied about his age in order to be accepted in the Roman army. He fought in the toughest battles of his time. The Roman army had created a series of awards/crowns for the best soldiers and generals. Among these, the most difficult to achieve as the grass crown (corona graminea). This was awarded to a person who saved a whole army, and only 10 officers or soldiers obtained it in the history of Rome. Julius Caesar, Escipion and other great generals could not get it despite their quality in the battle field, but Quintus Sertorius got one for saving an army fighting against an Iberian king (Spanish pre-Roman inhabitants) in the city of Castulo (today Linares, Jaen, in Andalusia) in 93 b.C. The story was apparently like this: he volunteered to enter the enemy’s territory and get information about the strategy of the Iberian armies. When he was near the tent of the enemy high command, he realized he had a big problem: he could not get close enough to understand what they said because none spoke Latin! Immediatedly, he designed a crazy plan that was almost impossible to succeed. When one of the enemy generals came out to the “toilet” in the wild, he stroke him in the head and ran with him on his back as fast as he could chased by enemy archers. Against all odds, he reached the Roman army with his hostage intact. However, he was not so lucky: he had been running with two arrows in his legs.
His partnership with a white coloured hind started around the year 90 b.C. A civil war, which would turn the Roman republic into its well known Empire, had started in the capital. The uncle of Sertorius, Gaius Marius, was one of the greatest generals of Rome and defended the people’s party. Another general, Sulla, defended the rich elites of the city. Not surprisingly, Quintus Sertorius took party for his uncle to defend the popular classes. He was sent to Hispania to prevent the party of Sulla taking power of this strategic region (which produced rivers of silver, food, and olive oil for Rome). The beginning of the battles of Sertorius could hardly be worse: Rome sent an army 20,000 of his famous legionaries to cross the Pyrenees, and they succeeded halving Sertorius’ army. With only 3,000 men, Sertorius’ end seemed close. He left to the sea and north of Africa.
The “miracle” of the white deer hind. In the year 80 b.C. Sertorius landed near Cadiz (Southermost point in Hispania), and started to win battles. At some stage, he was told that a shepherd in his territories had a hind who had given birth to a white hind. Sertorius knew that the Hispanians and Lusitanians (living mostly in what today is Portugal) believed that deer symbolized fertility and good luck. He tamed the white hind and told his armies that this was a signal that Gods were on their side, and that, as long as they fought alongside the white hind, they would never be defeated.
And his promise worked! 4,000 Lusitanians soldiers and 700 horsemen joined him. Rome sent an army 10 times bigger, but Sertorius not only had fairy tales among his abilities. He won battle after battle despite his smaller army because he was intelligent and very good strategist. When he had conquered nearly all Iberian peninsula, he showed that his charisma and kindness added to his military brain: he got the favour of one after another tribe by reducing taxes, treating with dignity the local tribes, he created a university in the north, and even a senate similar to that of Rome. A new Rome was being born in Spain. At some stage, even Roman armies started to turn to his side and 20,000 soliders and 1500 horsemen joined him at the same time. By year 76 b.C., he had an army of “romanized” Iberians and Romans formed by 60,000 men and 8,000 horsemen. The white coloured hind seemed to have made a miracle. Furious in Rome, Sulla sent an army of 50,000 men and 1,500 horsemen. Sulla had heard the story of the white deer hind, but when, Sertorius and his white coloured deer won a battle during the day near today’s city of Valencia, killing 2 legions (10,000 men), and another one at night that day, killing further 10,000 legionaries of the Roman army (in fact, 12% of the Roman army), Sulla understood that somewhere in Spain, a white coloured deer had become Rome’s most important problem. On one hand, Rome sent more and more soldiers, whereas Sertorius was losing men without being able to compensate with new soldiers. On the other hand, at that time all the Roman army knew that the white hind was nearly as precious as the head of Sertorius himself. Good history tales often end sadly, and the beginning of Sertorius’ decline again had to do with the white coloured deer (although this may be more a tale than true history). The white hind disappeared before one decisive battle and Sertorius nearly had a heart attack when he found what happened. His army was very pessimistic towards the battle. The Roman army claimed to have killed the hind to decrease further their morale, but they certainly did not show the skin of the hind as a trophy. The Roman historian Suetonio wrote that, at some stage, both armies forgot totally the fight and used all their forces to find the white hind, crossing with each other, with no interest in other business than being the first to grasp alive (or, for the Romans, to kill) the magical hind. At some stage, the white hind appeared in the battle field on the side of Sertorius, and all the Iberio-Roman army raged against the army sent by Rome: the victory seemed at hand. Apparently at that moment, the army and the white hind crossed a river. For the surprise of all, the hind who entered the river white, came out in brown fur (showing that it was not the real one), and the battle (and several ones after this) were won by the armies sent by Rome.
Although this is not the only appearance of white coloured deer in the history of mankind, the story of Sertorius and the white hind is by far the most important (and the least known), as Sertorius nearly succeeded in creating a new Rome after 5 years if the poor hind had not been killed. Nowadays, you can see this curious variety of red deer in farms like that of IDUBA vice-president, Dainis Paeglitis, in Saulstari (50 km from Riga, Latvia: www.safariparks.lv).
Left: White coloured red deer in Saulstari deer farm, Sigulda, Latvia.
Right: Roman general Quintus Sertorius.