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Pets of ancient Romans

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Fresco depicting a bird, Villa of the Empress Poppea, Torre Annunziata, Italy
Fresco depicting a bird, Villa of the Empress Poppea, Torre Annunziata, Italy

Almost everyone likes animals. Most of us probably once had or currently have a pet. In this matter, we are almost no different from the ancient Romans, who also had their animal friends, not only those that are most popular today, such as dogs or cats, but also parrots, snakes, lions, bears, and even monkeys.

The favorite animals of both ancient Romans and most ancient people were dogs. The Romans valued powerful mastiffs and the so-called Indian dogs which were believed to be a cross between a tiger and a dog. Smaller but equally popular dogs included Laconian dogs, which were great for hunting deer and hares. However, over time they were replaced by the better-conditioned Vertragus, the ancestors of modern greyhounds.
The Maltese, which is not related to the current Maltese breed, was a small lap dog owned mainly by elite women who kept it in the folds of their tunics.

Even though cats were considered sacred animals1 and their mouse-catching abilities were appreciated, they were not very popular in ancient Rome, at least not as much as dogs. This is explained by the fact that ferrets and snakes were used as pest hunters, and by the fact that the Romans were very fond of birds. Indian parrots were particularly fond of them because they could be taught to speak and made drunk during feasts so that they could repeat bad words. However, this was associated with the risk that when such a parrot – as the Roman writer and philosopher Apuleius warned – started swearing, it was difficult to stop it later2.

Some notables also kept monkeys in their homes, even though they were rather undesirable pets. The Roman historian Cassius Dio even recorded that once a monkey entered the temple of the goddess Ceres and destroyed everything in it, and did it during the service3.

Roman emperors also had their favorite animals. The emperor Tiberius loved snakes, Domitian and Caracalla loved lions, Valentinian I had two she-bears named after him. Golden Crumb and Innocence, one of them he loved so much that he decided to release it into the wild. And EmperorNerolet both tame and wild animals roam freely within the grounds of his Golden House.

Author: Piotr Szuba (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)
  1. The Roman goddess of freedom, Libertas was often depicted with a cat at her feet
  2. Apuleius, Florida, 12
  3. Cassius Dio, Roman History, L.8
  • Garrett Ryan, Nagie posągi, brzuchaci gladiatorzy i słonie bojowe, Poznań 2023

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