Animal House: Pets of the Ancient World

“Human sacrifice, dogs and cats, living together…mass hysteria!” – Dr. Peter Venkman, Ghostbusters

I thought this week we’d talk about something relatable, especially in a pandemic world where we’ve still barely left the house: our non-human cohabiting partners.

[Mine are asleep]

As long as people have been able to convince animals to let us touch them, we’ve had pets and the people of the ancient world were no different. I’m going to expand the definition of “pet” to include some working animals, but really, that’s to give you a better idea of the kinds of animals that made their home among people at this time. Many will be familiar, but there are some more exotic candidates as well. But let’s start with Man’s Best Friend.

[A Sumerian tablet a scribe’s dog found before it dried…]

Currently, we believe dogs were domesticated about 15,000 years ago, meaning we figured out how to get dogs to hang out with us before we’d figured out agriculture. And dogs are truly universal: the guilty-looking canine in the mosaic above is from Egypt, but dogs were popular in Greece, Rome, and the East as both companion animals and hunting partners. They were also guardians, as they are today.

[This mosaic is from Pompeii. Cave canem is Latin for Beware of Dog!]

And like today, there were different breeds for different purposes. Because of the popularity of hunting, sight hounds remained very present in all of these cultures. In Egypt, this began with the tesem, originally a long-legged dog with pricked ears and a curled tail. However, tesem is simply the Egyptian word for “hunting dog”, and it would eventually embrace floppy-eared dogs much like the modern Saluki and Greyhound. But the drawing below also shows a short-legged burrowing hound that likely served a similar hunting purpose as a modern Dachshund or Corgi.

The tesem is also one of several animals associated with the sha, the Set-Beast. The god’s animal form shares the traditional tesem’s pricked ears and long legs, the forked tail of the sha meant to distinguish him from an ordinary dog.

[The sha]

Greyhound-type dogs were to be found in Greece and Rome as well, but Greece also had the Molossus, a mastiff ancestor that would find its way to Rome. These huge dogs were used for protection and as war hounds. The Roman army regularly used trained dog packs in its legions that would attack in formation.

[A copy of a Greek statue of a Molossus]

Companion dogs were often smaller. In Rome, society ladies loved their little purse dogs, forerunners to the modern Maltese, even if they didn’t have purses. The Greeks called these dogs Μελιταιε (Melitaie). Ancient writers weren’t in agreement if this meant the dogs originally came from one of two islands called Melita, or as the Greek geographer Strabo claimed, the Sicilian town of Melita. Either way, the “Malta” in Maltese is an English gloss of an old name (Melite) for former capital of Malta, Mdina. But they were very popular — the Roman poet Martial wrote a poem to his friend Publius’ Melitaie, Issa.

But now it’s time to get to the heart of the matter and talk about the other favorite ancient pet…

Cats don’t really have a domestication timeline in the same way dogs do. We have evidence of human-cat cohabitation going back about 7,500 years ago, but cats domesticated themselves more than humans chose to tame cats. As people became more settled and less nomadic, cats moved into human villages and towns because they liked the steady supply of rodents our house and barns attracted, and humans over time found cats to be less destructive than weasels, stoats, and other similar animals we’d previously relied on for pest control. But unlike dogs, which we’ve selectively bred to have biological differences from wolves, domestic cats are still very genetically similar to their wild relatives, which is one of many reasons cats become feral so easily.

Since cats like our villages and cities, you might have guessed that nomadic cultures like, say, the Scythians, didn’t have much use for cats. But honestly, the Greeks weren’t overly fond of them, either. They, unlike dogs, are rarely mentioned in Greek literature, and we don’t have any Greek artistic depictions of cats as pets until the 5th century BC. The Greeks were just fine with weasels as their rodent control and called cats ailouros, meaning ‘the thing with the waving tail.’ The Romans were also fans of weasels as pets, and therefore also not a big cat people, but they do crop up in their art more frequently.

But that’s ok, as everyone knows, the Egyptians loved cats enough for everyone else. This is most obvious in the cat’s place in Egyptian religion, where in addition to the dozen or so lioness goddesses, cats are one of Ra’s forms, especially when he fights the snake demon, Apep.

[Pro tip: don’t give your cat a knife]

And of course, there’s the cat goddess Bastet (or Bast), the Egyptian goddess of protection, fertility, children, the arts, and (obviously) cats. Bastet began her life as another lioness war goddess like Sekhmet, but gradually she became domesticated and took on the cat instead of its wild cousin. But this fiercer side of Bastet also explains the cat’s higher status in Egypt as compared to in Greece or Rome. Yes, the Egyptians had plenty of rodents they needed to be dealt with, but more so than their Mediterranean neighbors, they also had lots of snakes. When your house is potentially full of cobras and vipers, the Egyptians knew to be grateful to their cats who hunted these deadly interlopers as eagerly as mice and rats. That’s in part why Bastet was the protectress of children — Egyptians relied on their cats to keep their families safe from the many animals that could hurt them.

But Egyptians didn’t just use cats for hunting around the house. A very famous fresco currently housed in the British Museum shows a man hunting waterfowl with a striped cat leaping into the fray. Much like the earlier Roman mosaic shows, cats have always been wildly effective murder bots.

Bastet’s home city was Bubastis, in the Nile Delta, near the modern city of Zagazig (about an hour north of Cairo). Bubastis is the Greek name the Ptolemies would have called it by, the Egyptians called it Per-Bastet, literally the House of Bastet. This was her main cult center and a principal center of professional cat mummification in Egypt. The death of a cat in the family was greeted with great sorrow (Herodotus talks of family members shaving their eyebrows to demonstrate their grief), and families who could afford to do so would have the cat fully embalmed as they would a human relative. The cat would then either be interred in a Bastet temple, or buried in the family tomb. Excavations in Bubastis have shown that often people would choose to be buried with their cat in Bastet’s house above their own plots.

[A cat mummy in its own little sarcophagus]

While cat-centric, the Egyptians kept many other animals as well. We’ve talked about dogs, but another animal they, like the Romans, were fond of were monkeys. Smaller monkeys likely came from Asia, but the Egyptians were known to keep baboons (specifically hamadryas baboons from the south), which is impressive if only because baboons are fairly large and often unpredictable. This, too, likely has a sacred source, as the god Thoth was known to take the form of a baboon when he wasn’t an ibis.

Something the more nomadic Parthians and proto-Iranians could agree on with the Egyptians was the use of tame cheetahs to hunt bigger game. Cheetahs are generally less aggressive toward humans than most of the other big cats, and they’ve been tamed by humans as early as 3100 BC. There’s some evidence of tame cheetahs from both Sumer (Iraq/ Iran) and Egypt during this timeframe, but no one knows who was first. The picture below from Deir el-Bahari calls the large cats in it “panthers”, but their build is distinctly cheetah-like, and Egyptian isn’t exactly known for its exhaustive animal vocabulary (for example, there is no separate word for bee in Egyptian, despite the insect’s importance in the culture; only afibi-t: literally “honey-fly”). “Panther” might be a catch-all name for large, non-lion cats.

Egyptians, and their Eastern counterparts, would use cheetahs in tandem with their sight hounds. Dogs would be used to spot prey and flush it out, while the cheetahs could use their explosive speed to catch it. As you might expect, cheetahs were a rich man’s game, and the royal houses of Egypt routinely kept them as pets, dressing them (like their small cats) in ornate collars. But because, unlike their tiny cousins, cheetahs are tame-able, not domesticated, it was still an arduous process to train one — often as long as a year or more. But the results were remarkable: hunters in the Middle East and North Africa were known for having their cheetahs ride with them on their horses upon special saddles, to better conserve the cat’s energy for later.

[The pharaoh Hatshepsut supposedly received these cheetahs from Punt, an empire south of Egypt]

Cheetahs were known to the Romans as leontopardos (in Greek: λεοντόπαρδος), the Romans believing cheetahs to be some sort of lion/ leopard hybrid. This was because of the mane-like fur cheetah cubs have when they’re young, and because of the difficulty of mating cheetahs in captivity (a common hybrid problem). They might have been incorrect, but it shows that the Romans had many of the breeding issues that continue to plague zoos and conservation groups trying to boost the modern cheetah population.

[A cheetah cub with its infant “mane”]

Also in this tame-not-domesticated category are elephants. The various cultural groups of India have used the Indian elephant since time immemorial as both a working animal (hauling timber, etc.), and as a war auxiliary. There is mention of war elephants in the Mahabharata (written 4th century BC, depicting the 8th-11th century BC), but the heroes are known more as horse charioteers. But as we saw earlier, by the time Alexander the Great arrives in India in the 4th century BC, elephantine warfare is alive and well and used to great effect against the Macedonian army, at least initially because the Greeks had never seen war elephants. One of the major inducements to turn back and refuse to go deeper into the subcontinent would the army’s fear that they would find even larger elephant armies further in. They might not have been wrong — Mauryan raaja Chandragupta was said to have been able to field 9,000 elephants in his armies.

When the Diadochi returned west, Ptolemy Soter had gotten a taste of what elephants could do and regularly employed native (now extinct) North African elephants in his armies, which led to a sort of Mediterranean war elephant arms race. The Numidians and the Carthaginians would build their own elephant armies, and the Greek king Pyrrhus would attempt to march elephants on Rome in 280 BC, some sixty years before Carthaginian Hannibal would try to hoist his elephants over the Alps.

[A Roman mosaic of a North African elephant in Ostia, Italy]

Rome never really bought into elephant warfare. After they pushed back Pyrrhus, and defeated Hannibal at Zama in 202 BC, the Roman army decided it was easier to strategize against elephants than to go through the effort to maintain an elephant corps. This makes sense if you recall that Rome defeated the Greek phalanx because of their superior battle speed and mobility, and in the end, that’s how they got around the elephant in the room. The end of the Roman civil wars would see the last gasp of Latin elephant warfare; Pompey partisan Metellus Scipio, using the elephants of Numidian king Juba I, would try to use an elephant assault on Caesar’s troops in North Africa at the Battle of Thapsus, but the maneuver proved so complicated and time-consuming that it was hardly worth the effort. Julius sent his fifth legion (Legio V Alaudae) armed with axes against the elephants and the legion pushed back the advance. For the rest of its existence, the Alaudae legion would be known by the elephant insignia it adopted from this victory.

[A Roman figurine of a war elephant]

The Romans’ arch-rivals, the Parthians, generally agreed with them about elephants. They would use them occasionally, but being a similarly built-for-speed military, they never favored them, and once these two powers become the dominant forces in the Mediterranean, war elephant fall out of favor again in the West. The Romans would primarily use their elephants for gladiatorial bouts, forcing men to fight them during games and festivals.

[Which sounds harsh, but the raajas of India used their elephants as a mode of execution at the same time.]

Lastly, one can hardly talk about pets in the ancient world without touching on birds. Aside from domesticated fowl like ducks, chickens, and geese, a wide variety of birds were kept in households for pleasure. Doves and pigeons were common, and once Alexander had visited India, peafowl arrived to decorate palaces from Ctesiphon to Iol. Hawks, falcons, and kites were used for hunting, especially among more nomadic cultures like those of ancient Thrace. Back in the home, songbirds and parrots were also perennially popular. Pliny the Elder mentions a parrot that matches the description of a rose-ringed parakeet; a description echoed by Ovid, who writes a funerary poem to the parrot he had given to his Corinna (“So green his feathers, they dimmed the cut emerald; scarlet/ His beak, with saffron spots… That talkative devotee of peace…”)

[A rose-ringed parakeet]

And there you have it — a brief look at pets familiar and exotic in the ancient world. People of the past kept animals for many of the same reasons we do today: protection, utility, and companionship. Animals might serve a functional purpose, like a Molossus helping to put dinner on the table, but more often than not, they were simply a part of the family. She might not have been shaving her eyebrows à la Egyptian, and as usual Ovid has his own tongue firmly in cheek, but Corinna is clearly heartbroken over the death of her parrot. Look one more time at that “Beware of Dog” mosaic from Pompeii: mosaics take a lot of effort and you just know that the dog in the mosaic was a portrait of that house’s actual dog. Look at any cat mummy, with their elaborate linen wrappings and decorations, and one can see the importance of these animals to their owners. Egyptians believed that they needed to be fully preserved to journey to the Duat, and the fact that they did the same for their pets speaks to the idea that they would be there in the afterlife as well. These creatures were loved. 

[We didn’t even mention Caligula’s horse, Incitatus, whom he allegedly tried to elect Consul. Horses were pretty special to their owners, too.]

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