What Pets Did the Ancient Romans Have?

Animals played an important role in ancient Rome. But how close were they to home? Here is an overview of different animals kept as pets in some of the Roman households.

Mar 6, 2024By Marijana Bakic
what pets ancient romans have

 

When thinking about animals in ancient Rome, the first image that may come to mind might involve a gladiatorial arena. In an attempt to broaden the animal imagery, perhaps you think of animal sacrifices, cattle being sold in marketplaces, horses as means of transportation and part of warfare, or some rare delicacy occupying the center of the table at a lavish convivium. But what about pets? Did the ancient Romans even have pets? And if they did, what kind of pets did they have?

 

Dogs

cave canem dog mosaic
Roman mosaic at the House of the Tragic Poet, 1st century BCE, Pompeii, National Archaeological Museum in Naples. Source: Mitch Barrie / Flickr

 

Even if one would allow for the image of a dog in an ancient Roman setting, considering how the Romans are usually viewed mostly as soldiers and rigid politicians, one would suppose dogs were used for hunting, tracking, and guarding property or cattle. And one would be right. Dogs were, in fact, used in wars and for hunting purposes, in warfare, as well as for guarding, as the most famous mosaic from Pompeii (Cave canem that is) attests, but they were also present in the role of man’s best friend! What is more, Toynbee, a notable English historian, comments that “love for canine pets in particular was one of the most attractive features of the ancient Roman character.”

 

We can even talk about different breeds of dogs, as the Romans did. For example, the Laconian and the Molossian were used for hunting and guarding livestock, and these types of dogs are discussed in great detail by authors dealing with agriculture. As for pet dogs, a famous breed was the Melitan: a lap dog. This long-haired dog with short legs and a pointy nose can be seen in sculpture and is known to have been popular among the higher-class citizens.

 

helena dog stella
Grave Stele for Helena 150–200 CE. Source: the Getty Museum

 

However, not much is known about the lives of pet dogs in their owners’ homes. Written sources do not usually deal with such topics, but we can say as much on the basis of many surviving dogs’ tombstones and epitaphs: they were loved and cherished and missed, not at all differently than we feel about our pets today, as this epitaph for a beloved dog called Myia will attest:

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“How sweet was she, how kind, the one who lay in lap while alive, always a friend in sleep and bed. Oh, what a shame, Myia, that you have died… You barked only if some rival lay with the mistress, unrestrained. Oh, what a shame, Myia, that you have died! The deep grave already holds you unaware, you cannot go whild, nor spring at me, nor cheer me up with your pleasant bites.”

 

Cats

cat with a quail
Cat attacking a quail, 1st century BCE, Pompeii, National Archaeological Museum in Naples. Source: Carole Raddato / Flickr

 

Perhaps unexpectedly, cats were not popular pets among the Romans. Yes, there were cats in Rome, many of them actually, and they were probably brought there on ships by the Greek colonists. Osteological evidence places the earliest finds in the 5th century BCE. There are not so many skeletons from the Republican Era, but the numbers grow towards the imperial period.

 

Cats in Rome were mostly seen as mouse-catchers and pest-repellers. They even had to compete with weasels and ferrets for the title of rodent controller, as these animals were kept in Roman houses for that purpose. One look at Pompeian mosaic depictions of cats might be enough to show how some (or most?) Romans viewed cats.

 

Aside from towns and villas, cat remains have been found in military forts and outposts. Cats were valuable companions to soldiers because the helped preserve food by exterminating mice and rats. According to Donald Engels, the author of Classical Cats, the Latin word cattus in the meaning of cat was first used in military context (as a name for a century).

 

girl rooster cat
Funerary stele of a girl with her pets, a rooster and a cat, 2nd century. Source: Museum of Aquitane, Bordeaux

 

Although no cats seem to have earned an epitaph like many dogs, they can be found on some funerary stelae, mostly as companions to children. Even though they were perhaps not seen as close companions, they were sacred to the goddess Diana and respected for their independence, autonomy, and freedom.

 

Birds

cage viridarium villa livia
Birdcage, a detail from a wall painting in Livia’s villa at Prima Porta, 1st century BCE National Roman Museum. Source: Finestre Sull’ Arte

 

The widely known poems of Catullus about his girlfriend’s sparrow and its death (Catullus 2 and 3), might, if read literally, lead us to the wrong impression that birds were widely cherished pets in ancient Rome. Birds were indeed kept as pets and were rather popular, but seemingly more as a status symbol. Quality birds, such as lovely singing nightingales, were expensive, and if we were to trust Pliny, they could reach the price of a human slave! This is not to say that pet birds were not loved by their owners, only that literary and artistic evidence shows birds caged in a household setting or as a form of entertainment (talking birds). They were certainly not the object of many epitaphs, as were dogs. Moreover, Martial wrote an epigram ridiculing bird burials.

 

The birdcage as an artifact seems to be a distinctive Roman feature. According to Pliny, the first man to invent the aviary was a Roman as well. Although no physical evidence remains, written sources mention cages made of silver, gold, ivory, and tortoise shell.

 

Birds outside of cages were present in the gardens of Roman villas due to the adequate scenery: trees, bushes, and fountains, but obviously, these could not be construed as pets. So, what kinds of birds were kept as pets?

 

ancient roman bird
Ancient Roman fresco depicting a bird, 70 CE. Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

Nero and Brittanicus are said to have had talking nightingales, Agrippina a talking thrush and a nightingale, some Roman equestrians a talking crow, and the parrot was not uncommon among the Romans either. The latter was brought in from India and was a common pet to many Romans, including emperors. Sparrows, quails, ducks, doves, and pigeons were also kept as pets, while doves and pigeons were used to carry mail. The peacock was a favorite for its extravagant looks and was allowed to walk freely throughout its master’s property. Hens are mentioned as beloved to some (Emperor Honorius), while cock fights were popular as well.

 

A reminder that when talking about the distant past, the extant sources can possibly lead us to wrong impressions on a global scale serves a surprising find from Pompeii: a poor man’s aviary. Obviously, it did not contain any exotic show-off specimens, but it shows that it was possible for a bird lover to possess a small aviary on the balcony of a second-floor apartment. The content of the aviary was probably small songbirds like nightingales and finches. On the other hand, in the same town, there was an enormous aviary which was large enough to keep a pet bird supply for the entire town.

 

Fish

tiberius grotto aerial
An aerial view of Tiberius’ Grotto in Sperlonga. Source: HeritageDaily.com

 

If we broaden the definition of the word pet, which we should, considering the somewhat different attitude of the Romans toward their pets (in comparison to us today), we can also talk about fish kept in Roman households. In Pompeii alone, over 70 aquatic structures were found inside villas, many of which contained fish. Still, even though they served as status symbols similar to birds, fish could have ended up as their master’s supper. So, they were kept as decoration as well as food. There have been rumors that some have lamented the death of their fish and that some have adorned their pet fishes with earrings and necklaces (Pliny about the orator Hortensius and Antonia, grandmother of Caligula), but this is rather an exception.

 

Another interesting topic concerning fish are the fish ponds built adjacent to some Roman villas. This was a step up on the high-class scale, even compared to the internal piscinae of wealthy Roman homes. Columella, a classical author from the 1st century CE, in his piece De re rustica, discusses the architecture of these constructions and offers advice on their position so that the sea tide can work its part in cleaning the water, suggests equipping the piscinae with contents familiar to fish kept there so that they would feel like home. Even more interesting is the fact that Tiberius’ villa in Sperlonga has a section known as Tiberius’ Grotto —- a saltwater piscina that still exists and contains fish and can be visited today. These places, aside from being glorious themselves, often featured works of art inside and outside the ponds, some of which can also be seen in Sperlonga, in the museum on site.

 

As for the species of fish kept in Roman ponds and pools, there were fish, and there were fish. Some were intended for display, others for food. Breams, flounders, brill, sole, and others were popular as food. Wrasses were edible as well as interesting because of their behavior, and mullets were also kept for fun as they tend to jump out of water. Different types of eels are heard to have been sold for vast amounts of money.

 

All this aquatic extravagance was at its highest during the imperial era, and afterward, it diminished, mostly due to emperors’ greed and confiscation of land from aristocratic landowners.

 

Miscellanea and Monkeys

monkeys shopkeeper ostia
A relief shopkeeper showing pet monkeys and caged hares, Ostia Museum, second half of 2nd century CE. Source: ostiaantica.beniculturali.it

 

According to the Scriptores Historiae Augustae, Emperor Elagabalus possessed some bears, lions, and leopards which were exarmati: void of teeth and claws. They were also trained and used as commodities while ordered to lay on couches during feasts in order to inspire awe and fear among unsuspecting guests who had no clue the animals were “disarmed”.

 

Other emperors are also known to have kept tamed lions as pets. Lions were otherwise quite common among the Romans, used as theatre performers and gladiatorial fighters.

 

The emperor Valerian was famous for his bears, Mica Aurea and Innocentia, who were untamed, though, and actually used to slaughter humans.

 

Snakes are also attested as part of some households, and the most famous snake pet owner was the emperor Tiberius, who supposedly hand-fed his snake.

 

Some tortoise shells are found in the gardens of Pompeii, and monkey skeletons are found throughout the Mediterranean. Monkeys seem to have been popular pets among the Romans, macaques to be exact, although skeletons of other species also appear as archaeological evidence. It even seems that they were not an indicator of social status.

 

Humans

chloe delicium stella
Funerary stella dedicated to a Chloe delicia, among other family members. 1st century CE. Source: AncientRome.ru

 

This is an extremely uncomfortable notion, a topic most modern-day people would rather not even hear about. Still, considering the topic of pets in ancient Rome, and this being a known fact, it should be mentioned that humans, young children actually, were in fact treated as deliciahuman pets. As many types of pets mentioned earlier, delicia were also a rich people’s commodity. Enslaved children, acquired from all parts of the Empire, were traded with this concrete role in mind because of their beauty, playfulness, and not yet-discouraged freedom of speech. Having grown out of their role, they were either sold as ordinary slaves or kept in the household and given other duties.

 

Pet children are mostly associated with emperors and in an unsettling context (although not as a rule), but these pet children could also be loved and fostered and lamented upon death, as can well be read in Statius’s poems (Silvae), and attested in other sources including funerary inscriptions. As with words in general, the term delicium is also multi-layered. Yes, it can suggest a relationship between the slave and his master where the slave is entirely objectified and seen as nothing more than a pet, but it also describes the role of a substitute child who was treated as a part of the family. This is a complicated subject and research about the status of children in ancient Rome is still ongoing, but the fact is that some of them were definitely seen and treated as pets.

 

Pets in Ancient Rome and Beyond

little dog statue
Terracotta figure of a pet dog. 1st century CE. Unknown artist. Source: the British Museum

 

As we have seen, there were many animals, and more of them still that did not find their place in this article, which were kept as pets, and their owners’ sentiments toward them varied greatly. This really is not much different than it is today. Some still view their pets as ornaments, some as part of the family, and many see themselves as mommies and daddies to their babies, be it cats, dogs, or iguanas. This last bit also has a parallel in the ancient world:

 

“According to Ptolemy in book VII of the Commentaries, Massanassa, the king of Mauritania, offered a response that was appropriate for the people and others like them, when they tried to buy monkeys: “Hey — don’t the women in your country produce children?” (Athenaeus, The Learned Banqueters, 12, 518, trans. Olson, Loeb, London: 2010.)