The Roman Family Pet
By Paul Chrystal
The book from which this extract is taken, How to be A Roman – A Day in the Life of a Roman Family (details at foot of article), offers a one day snapshot of day-to-day life in early empire ancient Rome, as seen through the eyes of a typical Roman household: husband, wife, son, daughter and various slaves. It takes you on an exciting journey through the Roman’s daily routine from early morning to the middle of the night.
The facts are the facts, so the information in the book is based on and taken from real evidence found in the extensive literature, inscriptions, archaeology, visual arts and graffiti.
One of the paradoxes in Roman society is how the Romans showed great affection towards their family pets but, at the same, time clamoured to watch other animals butchered by gladiators or ripping one another to bits in the arena. It seems that on one day Romans could grieve over and bury their deceased pets with fondness, and the very next day would go to the games and watch scores of lions, rhinos, and other such magnificent beasts massacred before their eyes, baying for their blood.
Perhaps the most famous family pet is the guard dog on the cave canem (‘beware of the dog’) mosaic from Pompeii; similar notices would have been displayed all over Rome and the Roman empire. This, and Catullus’ passer, sparrow (or bullfinch), poems (Carmen 2 and 3) and a number of epigraphs and other literary references to companion animals tell us that the family pet was always alive and well in ancient Rome.
Not all pets were cute. Some were brutes – kept more for reasons of security than mutual affection. That mosaic, from the entrance to the House of the Tragic Poet, warns us that a dangerous dog is on guard within, even though it is clearly chained up. Petronius describes a similar scene: ‘There on the left as you go in … was a huge dog with a chain round its neck. It was painted on the wall and over it, in block capitals, was written: Beware of the Dog’ (Petronius, Satyricon 29). Some archaeologists have, contrarily, argued that the warning was for visitors to be careful not to tread on the small dogs within, possibly Italian greyhounds.
Elsewhere, Molossian hounds are described as baying, terrifying guard dogs in Horace’s tale of the town and country mice (Satires 2, 6), while Spartan hounds run amok in Trimalchio’s dinner party (Petronius, Satyricon 40). Lucretius describes Molossian guard dogs in his De Rerum Natura (5, 1063-72) while Petronius introduces his huge, chained guard dog Scylax to his dinner guests as guardian of home and slaves (Satyricon 64). The beast reappears when Trimalchio’s guests try to escape, its terrifying barking sending two of them headlong into the fish pool. Meanwhile, Croesus, Trimalchio’s boyfriend, has foolishly encouraged his obese black pet puppy, Margarita, to attack Scylax—who responds by ripping the puppy almost to shreds.
A century or so before that dog was prowling around the House of the Tragic Poet, the love poet Catullus composed his poems, with distinct erotic undertones, celebrating his mistresses’ pet sparrow (passer): Catullus’ passer poems, and the keeping of birds as pets, were influential with poets over the next hundred or so years. Ovid wrote an elegy on the death of Corinna’s parrot (psittacus):
Parrot, the mimic, the winged one from India’s East,
is dead—Go, birds, form a flock and follow him to the grave! …
A burial mound holds his bones—a burial mound that is just the right size –
whose little stone carries a fitting epitaph for him:
‘His grave holds one who gave pleasure to his mistress:
his speech to me was cleverer than the speech of other birds’.
Ovid Amores 2, 6, 1-2; 59-62
Martial tells us all about Publius’ over-indulged and fawning Issa:
Issa is naughtier than Catullus’s sparrow. Issa is purer than the kiss of a dove. Issa is more loving than any young girl. Issa is dearer than Indian jewels. The little dog Issa is the pet of Publius. If she complains, you would think she was speaking. She feels both her master’s sorrow and the joy. She lies reclined upon his neck, and sleeps, so that not a breath is heard from her… So that her final hour may not carry her off completely, Publius has had her portrayed in a picture, in which you will see an Issa so life-like, that not even she is so like herself. In a word, place Issa and the picture side by side, and you will imagine either both real, or both painted.
Martial 1, 109
We can add a number of other popular avian pet species to the passer and the psittacus: nightingales, starlings, ravens, and magpies, for example. Looking back over centuries of the pet ‘talking’ nightingales Clement of Alexandria was forced to chastise those people who kept them as pets, along with parrots and curlews, rather than discharging their responsibility to look after their fellow humans. Indeed, Seneca the Younger was no less intolerant when he referred to those who ‘thought nothing of raising puppies and birds and other silly pets’.1
Sentimentality and affection, however, probably typified the average Roman’s attitude to the household pet. This is evidenced by Petronius when he tells of a father who kills his son’s pet gold finches—his son who is ‘mad on birds’—but it is, nevertheless, a pointless hobby according to the father who lies that a weasel killed them.2 Martial’s menagerie of pets indulged by his acquaintances perhaps indicates their general popularity, and Martial’s contempt for such people. We have a long-eared fox or lynx (lagalopex); a gazelle (dorcas); Publius’s lapdog (as above); an ugly long-tailed monkey just as ugly as Comius, its owner; a mischievous Egyptian rat; a garrulous magpie, a neck-curling cold skinned serpent; and Telesilla’s deceased nightingale for which she was sufficiently bereaved to erect a burial mound. To Martial, they are all just monsters (monstra) 3.
By the early empire, spoiled pets were getting their own solemn funeral epithets, a practice which began with the Greeks in the Hellenistic age.4 The popular green Indian parrot answered a desire for talking birds, and, according to Pliny the Elder, even greeted emperors; they were, he adds, particularly talkative after a sip of wine: in vino psittacus.5 Pliny tells the story of the shoemaker who owned a raven which was in the habit of greeting Tiberius, Germanicus, and Drusus Caesar; whether the bird ever succeeded in cheering up the notoriously gloomy Tiberius is not recorded, but we do know that on its death the raven was buried with great ceremony and many a floral tribute. The bier was carried by two Ethiopians preceded by a flautist along the Appian Way. A neighbouring cobbler had killed the bird out of angry jealousy, claiming that its droppings had splattered his shoes; he was lynched for his troubles by the even angrier mob. Pliny draws an amusing comparison when he acidly points out that no one ever bothered to avenge the death of Scipio Aemilianus – even after he had gone to the trouble of eliminating enemies Carthage and Numantia for Rome.
The novelist Apuleius reveals that teaching a parrot to swear is pointless: it simply results in an endless repertoire of expletives; the only remedy then is to cut out its tongue or return it to the wild.6 Pliny the Younger writes of the bonfire of family pets made by Regulus on the funeral pyre of his young son to ensure he enjoyed the pets in the afterlife:
The boy had a few ponies, some in harness and others not broken in, dogs both big and small, nightingales, parrots and blackbirds—Regulus slew all of these at his pyre.
Pliny, Letters 4, 2, 3
Excavations around Roman camps in Britannia have yielded up the bones of ravens—soldiers’ pets, no doubt. Persius, Statius, Petronius, and Pliny all mention magpies that kept sentinel on thresholds to greet visitors.7 He also tells us that Nero’s mother, Agrippina, owned a talking pet thrush—the first of its kind at Rome. Britannicus and Nero, as young boys, had a starling and nightingales that spoke Latin and Greek; the birds practiced every day and added constantly to their vocabulary. ‘Tuition’ took place in a private room with a (human) teacher and nothing to disturb the intensive wrote learning (‘parrot fashion’ ?) that was encouraged and motivated by tit-bits. 8 Sometimes parrots, some of which may have been originally kept as pets, ended up on the dinner plate, as suggested by Apicius’ recipe 9. We also hear of a saluting crow and a loquacious magpie 10. Columella recommends keeping peacocks as pets because of their beauty. He is also a devotee of geese, which make excellent guards, better even than dogs; the legend of the cackling geese that famously alerted the Romans during the 390 BC attack by the Gauls is called to mind; the guard dogs disappointingly remaining silent 11. Julius Caesar tells us that the Britons did not eat hare, goose or chicken but did keep them for pleasure 12. Pet hares feature in wall paintings: one from Trastevere depicts the endearing scene of a woman musician being presented with a baby hare; two paintings from Rome show hares on their haunches on the knees of girls, while a tombstone (now in Lincoln cathedral) has the scene of a boy cuddling his pet hare.
Cats too made popular pets. The first evidence of domestic cats in Italy comes from silver coins from the 5th century BC minted in Tarentum and Rhegium on which, for example, a boy plays with a cat, teasing it with either a bird or a morsel of food, or where the cat plays with a ball. Cats also star on Apulian and Campanian vases, examples of which are in the British Museum and depict cats either playing with balls or, in one case, confronting a goose. The most celebrated images of cats come, of course, from two mosaics found in Pompeii. One shows a cat pawing a partridge with two ducks and other potential feasts; the other depicts a cat threatening two parrots and a dove perched precariously close to danger on the rim of a bowl.
Diodorus Siculus tells us how a Roman soldier serving in Egypt in the reign of Ptolemy XI Alexander II (r. 80 BC) was attacked by an angry mob when he killed a cat by mistake (1, 71) – cats, of course, were treated as kings and gods in Egypt; Herodotus had famously written that if a cat died in the house then the occupants shaved off their eyebrows 13. The ‘Egyptian’ for a cat was ‘maou’—the last word in onomatopoeia. Cicero, Ovid, Seneca, and Pliny all refer to house cats.14
The Romans enjoyed many other pets . Paintings on vases and reliefs show goats yoked to children’s carts while a Pompeian wall painting depicts a woman feeding a branch to a goat in her bedroom. Cicadas competed with songbirds to provide musical entertainment; eleven epigrams describe these pets chirruping away in their specially made reed and osier cages.15 Pliny, Plutarch, Aulus Gellius, Appian, and Frontinus all refer to Sertorius’ pet white fawn.16 A Dresden terracotta shows a boy with a bowl and a mouse sitting on the rim.
Evidence for pet monkeys go back to the 3rd century BC and Plautus when he refers to one in the Miles Gloriousus: old Periplectomonos from Ephesus commands his slaves to remove anyone found on his roof pretending to be up there to catch the monkey (160–163); in the Mercato, Demipho describes a dream in which he gives a nanny goat to a tame monkey to look after (229–233). A Carthaginian boy is bitten on the hand by his pet monkey in the Poenulus (1,073). Pliny describes the pride shown by tame monkeys for their young which were born in the house, showing them off, encouraging people to stroke them and hugging them, indeed sometimes hugging them too tightly and cuddling them to death. 17
Tame, trained and bejewelled fish were all the rage. Cicero sneers at the people who think they have died and gone to heaven when the bearded mullet they keep in their ponds feed from their hands 18; Martial delights in the myriad fish at balmy Formiae, which swim obediently towards their master who is enjoying some leisurely, effortless fishing 19; Pliny tells how Antonia Minor adorned her lamprey with gold and earrings and how they were passed down to Claudius and then to Agrippina, mother of Nero, after Antonia’s death as an heirloom 20.
- Seneca, Ad Marciam 12, 2.
- Petronius, Satyricon 46, 5.
- Martial 7, 87.
- See, for example, IG 14, 56 (Sicilia) and CIG
- Pliny, NH 10, 42; 10, 121-2.
- Apuleius, Florida
- Persius Prologus 8-14; Pliny NH 10, 42, 118-9; Petronius, cit. 28, 9; Statius, Silvae 2, 4, 19.
- Pliny, cit. 10, 120
- Apicius 5, 6, 1.
- Martial 3, 95; 14, 74; 14, 76.
- De Re Rustica 8, 11.
- De Bello Gallico 5, 12.
- Herodotus 2, 66.
- Ovid, Metamorphoses 5, 33; Seneca, Epistles 121; Pliny,cit. 10, 73; 11, 37. Palladius (fl. AD 350) is the first to use the word cattus in his Opus Agriculturae (20, 8) when he bizarrely recommends them for catching moles in artichoke beds.
- AP 7, 189; 190, 192-8, 200, 201.
- Pliny, cit. 3, 82; Plutarch, Sertorius 11; Aulus Gellius 15, 32; Appian, Bellum Civile 1, 13, 110; Frontinus, Strategematon 1, 11, 13.
- Pliny, cit. 8, 80.
- Ad Atticum 2,1,7.
- 10, 30, 22-4.
- cit. 9, 55.
Extracted from How to be a Roman: A Day in the Life of a Roman Family by Paul Chrystal; published by Amberley Publishing, 2017