Pets

Facets of everyday Roman life, from food to travel to petkeeping. "How did the Romans...?" answered here!

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Pets

Postby Tiberius Dionysius Draco on Fri May 02, 2003 5:03 pm

Avete Romani,

what was the purpose of pets in a Romans daily life?

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?

Valete,

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Oh, Boy!

Postby Aldus Marius on Sun May 04, 2003 4:32 am

** Marius is gonna have a field day with this one... ** [fierce wolfish grin]

More Later!!
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Postby Aldus Marius on Wed May 07, 2003 1:39 am

Salvete amici...

As promised, I return with information about Romans and their pets. I'd been tempted to write an article right off the cuff the other day--as a Roman pet-lover myself, it is certainly a topic I've done some reading on. But I decided I'd rather check my sources first, just to make sure I haven't misremembered anything. >({|:-)

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!

I have mentioned Roman dog breeds 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 one off the furniture! (I have one.)

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 womens' companions.

After the conquest of Britain, the Romans began importing the ancestors of the Irish Wolfhound. Some of these were pitted agains 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.

This, I hope, has been an adequate survey of pets in the Roman world. Most books on Roman daily life mention pets in some capacity, though not always in detail. Books on specific animals may describe that pet's role in Roman times. Be very cautious around dog breed books, however, as almost every single one of them will claim an ancient origin for their breed. (Imagine gundogs existing thousands of years before there were guns!)

If any Romani have questions on this article or want to see some aspect of it in more detail, don't hesitate to ask here. And if I don't know either, we can both do my favorite thing: Go look it up!! >({|:-D

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Postby Horatius Piscinus on Wed May 07, 2003 12:21 pm

Salve Mari

What about the piscinae? I noticed at Amazon that there is a book devoted to these fishponds. Fish merit some mention among Roman pets. 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. Anyway, beginning in the second century I think it was, piscinae began to appear among the wealthy homes and later became a regular feature in Roman houses.

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Oversight Committee

Postby Aldus Marius on Fri May 09, 2003 3:32 am

Salve, mi Piscine, and thank you...

Yes, I did forget the fish. My apologies. My research on this was a hit-and-run, and none of my sources mentioned fish...but of course the Romans kept fish, and must often have made real pets of them. I did read a similar 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...

Details like this are one reason why I enjoy having this forum to post things to. A member throws out his best, others chip in missing pieces from their own stores of knowledge, and we all learn together--to the increase and betterment of our Romanitas. >({|:-)

Bettering all the time...
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Postby Horatius Piscinus on Fri May 09, 2003 3:22 pm

Salve Mari

Snakes!? Great horny-toads, that sounds like my little Rita. Snakes being associate with health, especially women's health, there may have been more to a Roman woman draping herself in snakes than just that they were pets. If you come upon the reference again I would like to learn its source.

For anectodal information good sources are Valerius Maximus and Pliny the Elder. Animals, probably Pliny is the place to begin looking. And what about those people in India with no mouths, they take in all their nourishment from scents, and strong scents tend to knock them out. Pliny may have some fantastic pets to tell you about, too.

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Felis

Postby C.AeliusEricius on Thu Jun 05, 2003 11:21 pm

In his long post Marius repeated the common thought that cats were not a common Roman pet, well... It has been said that people don't have cats, cats have people. There are two pieces of cat evidence regarding Roman cats that always spring first to my mind. #2 first: A picture, 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. The first item that comes to my mind whenever I read/hear that domestic cats weren't really around the Empire much is a piece from Britannia. (If I was at home I might be able to find the book and give better details, but it is not to be.) The artifact was a contruction piece, I cna't place just what but I keep thinking it was some sort of roofing material. There are some cat foot prints 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. I think cats were wide spread. They don't need that much human aid in spreading. Remember how well rabbits spread in Australia? If there had been natural enemies for the rabbits they still would have spread across the continent, they just (maybe) wouldn't have become a plague.

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Postby Horatius Piscinus on Fri Jun 06, 2003 5:05 am

Salvete

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

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Postby Tiberius Dionysius Draco on Fri Jul 25, 2003 11:47 pm

Salvete Romani,

I remember that the ancient Egyptians were quite fond of cats (they even mummified them to be buried with their masters!). Perhaps the love for cats spread from Eypte to Rome? Or maybe having a cat was considered a status symbol of some sort?

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Postby Gnaeus Dionysius Draco on Sun Aug 31, 2003 5:57 pm

I wonder about something: it's known that Egyptians sometimes mummified cats. What did Romans do to dead pets? I imagine that they were sometimes buried or cremated too. But where? Were they buried in the garden or at a real cemetary outside the city walls?

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Postby Tiberius Dionysius Draco on Thu Sep 04, 2003 8:42 pm

Salve Draco,

to know if pets were buried, we first need to know how a normal Roman burial is performed.

The deceased would first of all be put on public display to give the mourners a chance to pay their final respects. The higher the statues of the deceased, the longer the display. After that a funerary procession followed. Hired musicians led the parade, followed by mourners and relatives who often carried portrait sculptures or wax masks of other deceased family members. The procession would end outside of town (it was forbidden to bury anyone within the city limits) and a pyre, or cremation fire, was built. As the fire burned, a eulogy was given in honor of the deceased. After the pyre was extinguished, a family member (usually the deceased's mother or wife) would gather the ashes and place them in an urn.

Okay, now that we all know this, I can safely assure you that it would be highly unlikely for any pet to be buried this way. Probably they weren't buried in the garden of the house (it was forbidden!) but buried or cremated outside the city walls.

Draco, you are talking about Egyptian cats here and that they were mummified. This is true, but the Egyptians did not do this with other pets.

The reason why cats a re buried is because of this:

The Egyptians believed that at sunset, Ra, the Sun God, would die and descend through the underworld in the West, to be born again in the East, at sunrise. During the night, however Ra was always in great danger, as his enemies, headed by the great serpent Apophis would not hesitate to attack him, thus putting the whole Universe in danger.

However, the lions would look unto the setting sun, and keep its rays in their eyes, for they, like domestic felines, have eyes that reflect in the dark. With that fire burning in their eyes, the lions would go forth and kill the serpents of the night, as we were going to do afterwards, when the domestic cat was bred in the temples of the Black Land (Kemet, the name applied by the Ancient Egyptians to their country).


Because the cat was responsible for the safekeeping of the entire universe, they were probably considered worthy enough to be mummified. But it could also be because the owner of the cat wanted to take his pet with him to the afterlife.

Vale bene

[Helpful links: Catmyths, Roman funerals
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Postby Gnaeus Dionysius Draco on Thu Sep 04, 2003 8:59 pm

Tiberius Dionysius Draco wrote:to know if pets were buried, we first need to know how a normal Roman burial is performed.

The deceased would first of all be put on public display to give the mourners a chance to pay their final respects. The higher the statues of the deceased, the longer the display. After that a funerary procession followed. Hired musicians led the parade, followed by mourners and relatives who often carried portrait sculptures or wax masks of other deceased family members. The procession would end outside of town (it was forbidden to bury anyone within the city limits) and a pyre, or cremation fire, was built. As the fire burned, a eulogy was given in honor of the deceased. After the pyre was extinguished, a family member (usually the deceased's mother or wife) would gather the ashes and place them in an urn.

Okay, now that we all know this, I can safely assure you that it would be highly unlikely for any pet to be buried this way. Probably they weren't buried in the garden of the house (it was forbidden!) but buried or cremated outside the city walls.


Erm, I know this. That's why I asked ;). But thanks anyway :p.

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Postby Tiberius Dionysius Draco on Thu Sep 04, 2003 10:51 pm

Gnæus Dionysius Draco wrote:
Tiberius Dionysius Draco wrote:to know if pets were buried, we first need to know how a normal Roman burial is performed.

The deceased would first of all be put on public display to give the mourners a chance to pay their final respects. The higher the statues of the deceased, the longer the display. After that a funerary procession followed. Hired musicians led the parade, followed by mourners and relatives who often carried portrait sculptures or wax masks of other deceased family members. The procession would end outside of town (it was forbidden to bury anyone within the city limits) and a pyre, or cremation fire, was built. As the fire burned, a eulogy was given in honor of the deceased. After the pyre was extinguished, a family member (usually the deceased's mother or wife) would gather the ashes and place them in an urn.

Okay, now that we all know this, I can safely assure you that it would be highly unlikely for any pet to be buried this way. Probably they weren't buried in the garden of the house (it was forbidden!) but buried or cremated outside the city walls.


Erm, I know this. That's why I asked ;). But thanks anyway :p.


I wrote it for those that didn't know that :P :wink:

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Postby Horatius Piscinus on Fri Sep 05, 2003 12:18 pm

Salve Tiberi

The funerary ceremonies you describe were for public figures and the wealthy. The common people were often carried out in the night and deposited in a private ceremony. The lowest classes were dumped in trash pits meant for just that purpose, and the detested were dumped into the Tiber. Where pets would be placed would likely depend on their owner's wealth. I would think most were taken out with the other garbage left on the streets.

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"Hadrian's Travels": Pets Update (of sorts)

Postby Aldus Marius on Fri Aug 12, 2005 9:32 am

Salvete Romani!

I've been collecting everything I've seen on any of the Lists that I've been on, related to pet-keeping in Roman times. Most of this info came to me at least a few years ago, so I can't call it new...maybe 'supplemental' is a better term. I'll just summarize who said what, as I didn't get a chance to ask permissions for actual quotes. Here we go...

First off, and not surprisingly, right after I wrote my article I was inundated with info about Roman cats.

http://www.arts.usyd.edu.au/departs/cla ... ds/cat.htm is an impression of a cat's paw made on a tile while it was drying. This comes from neither Egypt nor Rome, as I would have thought back then, but from Cyprus.

Ericius also sent me the link to an article about how cats spread throughout the Mediterranean world and beyond...

http://www.catclub.net/cat_facts/featur ... s.asp?id=9

[An excerpt:]
The Spread of the Cat


In a very short period of time the cat has spread from Near East and Africa to all the
continents of the world (except Antarctica). This is primarily due to its role as a vermin
controller. However trading and curiosity of humans has also played an important part in
the spread of the cat. [snip]


Also mentioned in this article was the discovery, in Cyprus again, of a fairly important individual who, around 5000 BC, was buried with his cat. (I'd read independent, more scholarly reports of the same find.) The article calls it a 'domestic' cat, though it was the same size as a wild one; which meant I had my own questions about the animal:


Contrary to my reputation on the [RomanOutpost] List, I am rather fond of cats, and 'tis only a series of
roommate circumstances that has kept me from having more of them than I have.

> the spread of the cat
> this seems based on hard archeological evidence

Looks good; it's more on the subject than I knew; but...

> Cyprus
> An important find, at a tomb in Cyprus, is believed to be the
> remains of an imported African Wildcat dating from 5000 BC. This
> domesticated cat is as large as a wildcat.

Archaeologically/anthropologically-speaking, there is a rather narrow definition of the term "domesticated".
Long-term use by mankind tends to bring on structural changes, ones that may be observed in animal
skeletons or the seed-heads of grasses. For small carnivores, telltale signs include shorter muzzles,
weaker jaws and teeth, and the appearance of piebald coloration (we can tell this from mummies or live
critters). Behaviorally, the species becomes tamer (of course); basic drives like conspecific aggression
and migration are greatly reduced or bred out altogether; and the 'childhood' imprinting/socialization
period is lengthened.

Tha' much being said: Are the Cypriots looking at a *domestic* cat...or merely a tame one? Individual people
tame individual wild animals all the time, and the four-legger can become very important to the human group he's
with--even, as with Sertorius' deer, being regarded as a personal or tribal totem. It makes sense that this
man's tame wildcat (if that's what it was) should be buried with him. Other members of the community may
have believed that its power died when its keeper did, or that the man needed the cat-totem in the afterlife.
Conjectures, yes. But we have to start with accurate terms.


And Prima Silvania, wife of our co-founder Silvanius Florus, reports that the Greeks, in their days of pre-felinicity, kept weasels for rodent control and, presumably, for jumping up on chairs and sitting on papyri while their owner was trying to read them. >({|;-)

Hopefully that sheds a little light on the cat issue. On to other critters...

Horatius Piscinus has mentioned two incidents regarding pet animals. In the first, a Roman house had caught fire and the family was salvaging their most valued possessions...which were their pets. Chickens, small cagebirds, and a rabbit were rescued.

In the other, we hear a conflicting account about who was the first Magistrate to establish a public piscina or fishpond. Supposedly a Licinius Crassus had a private one built between 95 and 91 BC; but whether this was Crassus the Triumvir or somebody else, Cicero doesn't say. Then Livy writes that there was a Piscina Publica outside the Porta Capena waaaayy back in 216 BC. Also uncertain is whether either piscina was an ornamental fishpond of the kind we are used to today, or whether it was a stocked fishing-hole instead. I rather suspect the fish in the private one were pets, as Crassus was said to have gone into deep mourning when one of them died.

Bene, that's what I've got up to now; and as it's been Friday for most of you for quite a while already, I'd better get this thing out!

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