The people of Ancient Rome were very fond of animals. Pets were highly valued. Horses, dogs, fish, and birds were often kept as companion animals. One Emporer of Rome adored his horse so much that he fed his horse grain mixed with flakes of gold and promised to make him a high ranking government official. Cats too would make it into the hearts of the people of Ancient Rome.

Making an Entrance to Ancient Rome

Cats in Ancient Rome

Photo Credit: Deb Collins via Flickr

Cats were relative new comers to the menagerie of  pets that were kept by the people of Ancient Rome. It is believed that they were domestic cats were first brought to Rome as trade with Egypt was opened up in the 5th century B.C. It was no small task to get a cat from Egypt! Cats were so highly regarded in Egypt that organized attempts to reclaim them would be made if they were smuggled out. However, as Christianity began to spread throughout the Roman Empire into Egypt, the Egyptians began to loosen their grip on the cats. Evidence of  cats as pets can be found in Italy as early as the 1st century A.D. A grave marker of the era depicts a cat and bears the name Calpurnia Felicla (which could be translate “pussy”). Other works of art including pottery and reliefs depicted cats as well. At that time pet cats were very rare. They didn’t begin to gain in  popularity with the people of Ancient Rome until around the 2nd century A.D. As in many other cultures, cats were desired for their ability to control the rodent population. Before cats arrived in Rome, snakes and weasels were commonly kept as pets to keep rats at bay. In fact, some of the words that the Ancient Romans used for cat (such as “gale”)could mean both “cat” and “weasel.” By the 5th century A.D., the Romans realized that cats were much easier to live with than snakes and weasels (they certainly smell better than weasels) and house cats became more commonplace.

Cats and the Roman Legions

cat in ancient Rome Dennis Hamilton

Photo Credit: Dennis Hamilton via Flickr

Foods was serious business for the Roman Legions. Rations could be very tight for the large traveling army. Traveling far away from home meant soldiers either needed to be able to carry their food or find it on the road. Soldiers were often paid for their work in grain. Rodents were a serious threat to the food supply and thus survival. Therefore, cats became good friends with the Roman Legions and traveled with them wherever they would go. The cats were hansomly rewarded with human companionship and all of the mice they could possibly eat. One of the ways cats made their way across Europe was with the Roman Legions. An excavation of the Ancient Roman Fort Bothwellhaugh in Scottland gave solid evidence of domestic cats cohabiting with the Roman soldiers. Paw prints from domestic cats were found pressed into at least 4 tiles. Various dog paw prints were found at the site as well. The fort was likely to have been built around 142 A.D.

The Cat Goddesses of Ancient Rome

Much of the pantheon of Ancient Rome was borrowed from the Greeks. The stories of the gods and goddesses were pretty much the same, only the names were changed. Just like in Greek mythology, cats were associated with the goddess of the hunt, Diana (Artemis in Greek mythology). Diana was also the goddess of fertility and childbearing (much like Ancient Egypt’s Bastet). A version of one myth says that she escaped the monsterous god Typhon by transforming into a cat. Unlike the Greeks, the people of Ancient Rome associated cats with liberty and divinity. A goddess unique to the Roman pantheon, Libertas, could sometimes be seen with cats at her feet. Libertas was the goddess of  freedom. Freed slaves looked to Libertas.Sometimes her persona would become mixed with the chief god – Jupiter (who would then be called Jupiter Libertas). Her likeness was used for the Statue of Liberty in New York.

What do you think, should a cat be added to the Statue of Liberty?