Pets in Ancient Rome
Question by: Tiberius Dionysius Draco
Info: Aldus Marius Peregrinus and Marcus Horatius Piscinus

Draco: Animals have always been part of daily life in every culture and society. But how was it conceived in the Roman Empire? Was it just to be treated as a beast of burden, or was it considered part of the family? And what kind of pets were most commonly held by Romans? Are there any reports left of certain emperors keeping a jaguar as a pet in their palace, or are these just rumors kept alive by comic books and movies?

The Romans did indeed keep all sorts of animals as pets, and many of them would be familiar today. They were great dog-lovers and had several distinct breeds to choose from, whose functions varied from hunting game to keeping the master warm under the covers. (More on Roman dog breeds in a bit; some of them still exist today.)

Besides dogs, Romans were very partial to birds. One need only consider Lesbia's sparrow to appreciate the possibilities; other avian companions might be anything from a child's pet chicken to the Ringneck Parakeets imported from India for the nobility. Geese, doves, quail, finches for color, and starlings for mimicry all found their way into Roman homes of even the humbler sort.

Mosaics and bas-reliefs show pet goats hitched to miniature carts; some literature mentions mice being harnessed to wagons the size of matchboxes in the same manner. That the Romans loved these animals rather than merely considering them useful can be deduced from the number of sculptures, especially, showing children and their winged or four-footed playmates. Other figures show animals at play or grooming one another, and the sensitivity of the artwork belies the old stereotype of the Roman as a harsh, unfeeling master.

Monkeys are mentioned sometimes; I doubt they were very long-lived, as even today they are considered very delicate.

One familiar creature that does not turn up often, surprisingly, is the cat. Cats were really only kept extensively in Egypt and lands influenced by Egyptian culture. I suppose one made it to Rome every once in a while, but cats in general never really caught on with the Latins. Romans were dog people and bird people; a cat was more likely to be seen as a nuisance at best, or at worst as a threat. Indeed, the famous mosaic showing a cat pouncing on a dove was more than likely not a tribute to the feline, but a commemoration of the tragic death of a beloved bird!

M Horatius:
There are two pieces of cat evidence regarding the Romans. First: A mosaic from the House of the Faun in Pompeii, showing a cat taking some fowl. It is a spotted gray tabby cat. The cat's expression is rather well done. Another one is a piece from Britannia. The artifact was a construction piece. There are some cat footprints and a pebble that impacted and stuck to the surface. The cat was walking across the not-yet-set-up surface and someone threw a stone at it to get it off. Typical cat-human interaction: A cat wandering around a construction site in Britannia. Cats were probably widespread. They don't need that much human aid in spreading.

And what of Libertas? The goddess was said to be especially fond of cats, or was it endearing to them? But anyway a Roman goddess associated with cats would be another indication that they were around more than is generally let on.

Roman dog breeds have been mentioned in passing. Most of them fell into easily-recognizeable types. Each breed had its uses, but any dog could also become a pet with house privileges. Here are some of them, and their modern equivalents if any:

For the hunt there were kinds of hounds; sighthounds are well-documented, scent-hounds less so. The greyhound was often represented in sculpture; then as now his sleek lines were appreciated. Oddly enough, one of the first true toy breeds was descended from the greyhound; this "Italian Greyhound" was used as a hot-water bottle when a family member was sick, keeping his master warm by tunnelling under the covers of the bed. To this day their body temperature is higher than that of an ordinary dog...and you can't keep them off the furniture. <g>

Another famous breed was the Molossus. This hulking beast came from the mastiff family, and was used for guard and protection work. He must have been very effective in that position; mosaics of chained Molossi over the words Cave Canem maintained their deterrent effect even when the house was dogless. In short, if the neighbors even thought you had a Molossus, you were probably safe! Sadly, these good animals were also used in the arena. Their modern descendent is the Neapolitan Mastiff.

The Maltese and similar small dogs already existed in Roman times; then as now, they were kept strictly as women's companions.

After the conquest of Britain, the Romans began importing the ancestors of the Irish Wolfhound. Some of these were pitted against wolves or Molossi on the sands of the arena; others were allowed to serve their intended function as chasers of wolves and deer. Wolf-hunting on horseback, with the aid of large hounds, was a popular sport on many a frontier.

Not a dog and not quite a pet, the trained hawk or falcon still deserves a mention. Falconry only became established very late in the Roman Empire; yet a stele survives of a Roman cavalryman with a hawk on his wrist, and I am left to wonder what methods were used to train birds of prey four hundred years before the spread of Islam--for the falconry we know today is an Arab innovation.

M Horatius:
Fish were also kept by Romans, who must often have made real pets of them. The first person to build a piscina was a former Consul who upon the death of his fish went into mourning well beyond what was considered appropriate for a child or wife. Some think his own death the following year was because he was so heartbroken over the loss of his fish. Beginning in the second century, piscinae began to appear among the wealthy homes and later became a regular feature in Roman houses.

There is also a tale about a woman who raised snakes; she was often seen about the house with one or two draped about her shoulders and hips, and her neighbors were getting a little nervous... Snakes being associated with health, especially women's health, there may have been more to this than just petkeeping.

For anecdotal information, Valerius Maximus and Pliny the Elder are good sources. Pliny especially well describes the Romans' attitudes towards specific animals.

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