Our Ancient Love of Pets
By Saul Cardona-Luciano
Keeping pets is often considered to be an invention of modern society. The indoor dog who lounges most of the day and faithfully brings the master’s slippers is a scene taken right out of a 1950’s family sitcom. But, in fact, our penchant for keeping pets as loyal companions stretches back into antiquity; indeed, the vast majority of settled ancient civilizations kept one form of pet or another.
In Egypt during the time of the pharaohs, for example, cats were a regular staple of domestic life. Undoubtedly they were useful for catching pesky mice who might otherwise pilfer the family cupboard, yet they also appear to have had an emotional significance to the Egyptians, who often brought their pets with them in their journey to the afterlife. More extravagant still were the cheetahs of the royal court. Paintings show that they were brought from Sub-Saharan Africa as gifts or tribute from distant kingdoms and were used for sport hunting, rather like modern day falconry.
While the Egyptians had pets primarily for utilitarian purposes, the Greeks viewed their pets as companions and even classified them. The philosopher Aristotle names numerous breeds of dogs, including the Laconian hunting hound, the Molossian sheepdog, and a small Maltese terrier. He comments on their loyalty and their “spirited…affectionate and fawning” character. He also takes the time to comment on the “remarkable courage and endurance of hard labor” of mixed breed dogs, which anybody who has lived with mutts and strays will readily agree.
Dogs were so important to the ancients that the wealthy decorated their gardens with statues of various breeds. Many of them look almost life-like and have been identified as the ancestors of many modern breeds. Even within the house, artwork demonstrates the affinity the ancients had for their pets. A famous mosaic from Pompeii advises visitors to CAVE CANEM, “beware of the dog,” and is accompanied by the image of a black-coated hound who appears to be in a “let’s play” posture. Perhaps the owners meant it as a joke, the same way we put up signs that say “Beware of the Guard Beagle” or “Guard Bichon on Duty”?
This demonstrates the great esteem and affection the ancients felt towards their pets. They were even considered worthy of immortalization. Funerary stele (burial markers decorated with sculpture) from across the Classical world show the loyalty of man’s best friend. One particularly poignant example in the Acropolis Museum in Athens shows the heroicized deceased looking out at the viewer. At his feet a small boy rests his head on his knees mournfully; alongside stands the master’s dog, who likewise lowers his head in mourning.
But dogs and cats were not the only pets kept by ancients. The emperor Tiberius, according to the biographer Suetonius, reportedly kept a snake as a pet, which he fed by hand. Julius Caesar, before his assassination in 44 BCE, allegedly acquired a pet giraffe from Cleopatra. The oddest pet, however, must certainly be the eel. The Roman politician Crassus kept numerous eels as pets and was so infatuated with one that he adorned it with earrings! And this was apparently not unusual. Antonia, niece of the emperor Augustus, likewise adorned her pet eels with earrings. How exactly they put earrings on earless eels is anybody’s guess.
Birds held a particularly special place among the ancients as they were thought to be harbingers of fortune and fate. Perhaps for that reason they were usually considered lucky and were a favorite pet for children. A funerary stele from the Greek island of Paros shows the love children had for their pet birds. It shows a little girl holding her pet doves, one of which she adoringly kisses on the beak.
Whereas the Greeks made their pets ancillary characters in the drama of their own lives, the Romans took the love of their pets a step further, setting up elaborate and incredibly touching funerary monuments for their beloved companions. Their epitaphs are as moving today as they were two thousand years ago. One from the town of Salernum (modern Salerno) in Italy is dedicated to a dog named Patricus; the epitaph conveys the depth of his master’s grief:
My eyes were wet with tears, our little dog, when I bore you (to the grave)… So, Patricus, never again shall you give me a thousand kisses. Never again can you sit contentedly in my lap. In sadness have I buried you… In a resting place of marble, I have put you for all time by the side of my shade. In your qualities, perceptive you were like a human being. Woe, me! What a loved companion have we lost!
A shorter one from southern Italy is no less poignant:
I am in tears, while carrying you to your last resting place as much as I rejoiced when bringing you home in my own hands fifteen years ago.
So rest assured, fellow pet-parents, the love you feel for your pet is not at all unusual—it is as ancient as history itself!
Saúl is a Ph.D. student in Ancient Mediterranean History at the University of Maryland. He has worked for DoggyWalker.com since November 2014. He and his wife have a lovable mutt.