6 things you (probably) didn’t know about animals in ancient Rome

Did the citizens of ancient Rome keep pets? How were animals used for entertainment? Iain Ferris, author of a new book on the role of animals in ancient Rome, explains more

Roman mosaic of a dog, bearing the legend 'Cave Canem' underneath, from Pompeii, from Naples National Museum's collection, 1st century. (Photo by CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Writing for History Extra, Dr Iain Ferris shares what is known about the roles of animals in ancient Roman society, from the keeping of animals as pets to the use of exotic species of imported animals as fodder for entertainment in the bloody Roman arenas…

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My newly-published book analyses the place and role of animals in ancient Roman society and of their meaning and great significance in cultural terms. Most obviously, there would have been working animals on most Roman farms and animals were commonly kept as household pets. Meat and fish were highly important ingredients in Roman cookery. Animals were also commonly employed in warfare in the Roman period. The extraordinary slaughter of animals in the Roman arena for entertainment and by organised hunting inevitably hung heavily over my study. Again, animal sacrifice was considered as central to the practice and rites of Roman religion.

Of course, there were animals in the Roman countryside, both wild and farmed, but there was not a complete split between town and country. In cities, animals were ever-present, providing a kind of murmuring undercurrent to Roman urban life: from nits in creatures’ hair and intestinal worms, to mosquitoes in the marshes in and around Rome; from thrips [small insects] in milled grain to mice in kitchens; from passerine birds in gardens, to scavenging, opportunistic foxes in the back alleys of houses and on the fringes of the cities. Throw guard dogs and other working animals and pets into the mix and then suddenly, the Roman city seems to have been a natural host to animal life.

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Caged birds were popular pets

There is a considerable amount of evidence for the keeping of animals as pets in the Roman world and the most commonly attested pets in the Roman world were caged birds, particularly favoured by Roman women.

The popularity of caged birds is clearly demonstrated in Latin love poetry. In total, it has been estimated that in Roman poetry there are over 700 individual references to birds both wild and tame, most to wild species. The catching of birds often was used as a metaphor for human pursuit and seduction, caged birds for a ‘captured’ lover, and dying or dead birds for the withering of love or the end of an affair. There is perhaps no more famous pet bird from the ancient world than Lesbia’s pet ‘sparrow’, whose life and death was described by the poet Catullus in two poems. In two of what are known to academics as the Lesbia Poems, Catullus paints a picture of a Roman matron playing with her pet bird as a displacement activity from thinking passionately about her lover. It is likely that the ‘sparrow’ in question was actually a blue rock thrush, a passer solitarius, a more decorative and tameable bird than the common sparrow. However, if found as an abandoned fledgling, sparrows can be tamed and domesticated.

A 19th-century depiction shows Roman women feeding birds
A 19th-century depiction shows Roman women feeding birds. From the collection of the Museum of Architecture and Art, Alupka. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

It would appear that domestic caged birds were very much a specifically Roman cultural phenomenon, a cultural artefact of sorts. Caged birds did not feature particularly in either Greek or Egyptian cultures and therefore some explanation needs to be sought for this. Bird-keeping can be thought of as having been part of a much wider phenomenon of display and the acquisition of luxury goods. However, it would not appear that the keeping of caged birds was an exclusively aristocratic interest, but most evidence relates to this class. Bird keeping in cages or in aviaries was a fashion, part of an arena of competition, from the time of the late Republic onwards into imperial times, that encompassed the collecting of Greek statues, architectural munificence and benefaction, the design and laying out of great gardens, and the creation of menageries, aviaries, and fishponds.

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Some pets were sacrificed upon the death of their owners

Perhaps the most extraordinary contemporary reference to pet-keeping in Roman times is a letter written by Pliny the Younger in AD 104 to his friend Attius Clemens, describing the violent and disturbing events that had occurred at the funeral of the teenage son of Marcus Aquilius Regulus.

Regulus, in his hysterical grief, is said to have sacrificed his son’s pet animals and birds by the funeral pyre, slaughtering two Gallic ponies and a number of dogs, as well as pet nightingales, parrots, and blackbirds. The number of pet animals kept by Regulus’s son, or probably more properly looked after by slaves on the son’s behalf, attests to his father’s wealth and status, or rather it would appear to his aspirations towards high social status and his ostentatious indulgence of his son.

Regulus’s seeming lack of any scruples in having the pets killed may have reflected not the madness of incalculable grief but rather the cold, calculating machinations of a schemer, out to draw attention to himself in all probability and to gain public sympathy.

Statues of Roman Molossian hounds
Statues of Roman Molossian hounds. (Photo by I Ferris)
3

Dogs would have been domesticated, both as guard dogs and as pets

In towns and cities in the Roman period, large dogs would have been kept principally as guard dogs, but this does not necessarily mean that they were not also regarded at the same time as pets by their owners. The same dual role may also have been played by hunting dogs and dogs used to herd animals. There would not though appear to have been the same social cachet involved in keeping dogs as pets as with the keeping of birds in Rome and Italy.

There are a number of black-and-white threshold mosaic panels from houses in Pompeii depicting guard dogs/pet dogs, including the most famous example: the Cave Canem [beware of the dog] pavement from the House of the Tragic Poet, which gives my book its name. The large shaggy black dog depicted there, with white on its limbs and head, is chained up, but is caught barking and snapping at someone at the door. Another chained dog on a mosaic protects the House of Paquius Proculus, while a dog with a studded collar secured by a rope appears on a portion of pavement now on display in the Archaeological Museum in Naples.

A fourth Pompeiian dog mosaic comes from the House of Caecilius Iucundus, though in this case the hound lies curled up sleeping. An attentive guard dog, sat up ready on his haunches, was also painted on a pillar at the entrance to the bakery of Sotericus. A dog lies sleeping in a busy metalworking shop on a relief from the town. If we project the common use of guard dogs at Pompeii to cover their use in Rome and in cities and towns throughout the Roman empire, then it can be argued that dogs played a crucial and highly significant role in household and urban security in the absence of organised police forces at this time.

4

Dog’s remains were found during the excavations of Pompeii

Of course, we cannot leave the topic of dogs at Pompeii without making mention of the skeletal remains of dogs excavated at the site over the years and particularly the very well-known plaster cast of a dying dog found during excavations in 1874 at the House of Marcus Vesonius Primus. The poor creature, restrained by a bronze studded collar on a leash, lies on its back, doubled up in evident agony, its legs in the air as it doubtless writhed on the ground gasping for air in its death throes.

A dog’s remains were found during the excavations at Pompeii. (Photo by Giorgio Sommer/Alinari Archives, Florence/Alinari via Getty Images)
A cast of a dog’s remains which were found during the excavations at Pompeii. (Photo by Giorgio Sommer/Alinari Archives, Florence/Alinari via Getty Images)

This is a pathetic relic of the tragedy which overtook Pompeii in AD 79 and killed its human inhabitants as well as pets and resident wildlife. Further skeletal remains of dogs have been recorded at a number of other locations within Pompeii, the most interesting of which would appear to be the bones of a large dog lying on its side, shut inside the House of Menander. The creature seems to have survived being buried by ash, but sadly then would have died from asphyxiation.

Roman statues of dogs, tombstones of pet dogs, inscriptions or epitaphs naming pet dogs, and depictions of dogs on their owners’ funerary monuments occur in sufficiently large numbers to suggest that they were popular pets at this time. The dog breeds include huge Molossian hounds, dogs like Irish wolf hounds, greyhound or lurcher type dogs, smaller Maltese like dogs, and tiny lap dogs.

5

Domesticated cats came to Rome from ancient Egypt

It is generally accepted that cats were first domesticated in Egypt and Mesopotamia and that they would have come to Europe through trade or accompanying travellers to Rome from those regions.

At Pompeii, the number of cat bones from excavated deposits is very small indeed – literally a handful – and no cats are among the casts of creatures killed in the town. It has been suggested that in this provincial town before AD 79, there was not yet a fashion for keeping cats as pets, though it may have already started in Rome. Certainly, much greater numbers of cat bones are found in later archaeological deposits in Roman Naples. And yet by the mid to late 4th century AD, the presence of cat bones from excavated sites throughout the empire shows how common cats had become.

Just as with guard dogs and hunting dogs, it may have been the case that cats were viewed by the Romans principally as killers of mice and rats in houses, shops, and public buildings, and that they came to be regarded as pets as a secondary consideration.

While we know the names of many pet dogs of the Roman period from inscriptions, as far as I am aware not a single cat name is known, perhaps indicating their respective popularity as pets at the time. Pictorial representations of cats in domestic settings are relatively rare. When they do occur, they generally reference the cat’s natural hunting and stalking instincts rather than its more peaceable and loving qualities. Perhaps the most famous of these images appears on a mosaic pavement from Santa Maria Capua Vetere (now in the Archaeological Museum in Naples) and takes the form of a stalking cat down on all fours at the foot of a bird bath or fountain. It hisses at its prey, two parrots and a dove, with one clawed paw extended as if ready to move to strike.

Another well-known mosaic panel from the House of the Faun in Pompeii carries a depiction of a cat holding a dead game bird, perhaps a quail, in its mouth. Below the scene with the cat are two ducks, other birds and seafood. 

Roman mosaic depicting a cat and birds
A cat waits to strike in this mosaic depicting birds on basin and panther from Italy, Bay of Naples. (Photo By DEA PICTURE LIBRARY/De Agostini/Getty Images)
6

Animals were used in the arena as a way for the rich and powerful of Rome to display their wealth

Contrasting starkly with the evidence for Roman pet-keeping is the evidence for the astonishing cruelty of animal spectacles in the arena that appear to have begun in Rome in the 3rd century BC.

Many early arena shows were simply displays of exotic animals for the general public, allowing them sight of creatures that otherwise at the time might have been only been seen by their elite contemporaries and those Roman aristocrats who had used their wealth and connections to stock their own vivaria, or animal enclosures, in Rome and its environs. Exotic animals like elephants were sometimes trained to dance, walk on a tightrope, or pick up items, according to Pliny the Elder and other ancient writers.

Animal shows involving violence and combat, known to the Romans as venationes or hunts, possibly began in 186 BC when lions and leopards featured in a show sponsored by Marcus Fulvus Nobilior. Whether the animals fought each other on this occasion or fought against human performers is unknown. Certainly, it would appear that bloody venatio shows developed out of the culture of gladiatorial spectacles. The last recorded venationes in Rome took place as late as AD 523.

A Roman relief portraying gladiators and lions fighting
A Roman relief portraying gladiators and lions fighting in the circus. (Photo By DEA / A. DAGLI ORTI/De Agostini/Getty Images)

The sponsorship of public gladiatorial and animal shows became a way for the rich and powerful of Rome to display their wealth and enhance their status, influence and power. Sponsorship itself became a locus of political competition in the late Republic and was to become a facet of Roman imperial largesse. In his Res Gestae, a quantified justification of his reign and achievements, the first emperor Augustus proudly claimed that at 26 venationes held during his reign, a total of 3,500 African animals had been slain, setting a high bar for those emperors that followed.

When the Roman poet Juvenal complained about the political apathy of his fellow citizens of the late 1st and early 2nd century AD and their failing to react against the unreasonable or eccentric behaviour of autocratic emperors, he coined a famous phrase that would resonate down the years. These citizens craved and were satisfied with panem et circenses – bread and circuses – he wrote.

Many emperors too found that the provision of mass entertainment and the occasional public distribution of free grain easily diverted critical attention away from the more negative aspects of their reigns. The provision of such spectacles became a necessary strategy for making imperial power visible in Rome.

A mosaic panel of tiger fighting in the Roman arena
A mosaic panel of tiger fighting in the Roman arena. (Photo by I Ferris)

A history of animals in Roman times such as that presented in my book is not parallel to the history of Roman imperialism or of Roman culture; rather, it is part of the same study, and certainly should be. The book proposes a way to understand ancient Roman culture through analysing the society’s relationship with animals. If negative Roman and animal relationships resulted in some form of psychological damage, at least my account hopefully takes something from the discussion of its once-living subjects, almost their very flesh, skin, and breath, and looks at how they were woven into the complex tissue of historical memory that constituted Roman culture, so that these animals may live again conceptually for us through consideration of their existence.

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Dr Iain Ferris is the author of Cave Canem: Animals and Roman Society (Amberley Publishing, February 2018. Hardback, £20).