Thursday, October 14, 2010

Ancient Pets

Ancients kept pets, just like we do, though perhaps the line between working animals and pets wasn't always as clear as it is today. For the best documented civilizations, such as Egypt, Greece and Rome – we have quite a bit of info about the ancient pets – especially those of the rich and famous.

Pets in Ancient Egypt

Ancient Egypt is the best source of research, though we're still far from fully understanding how many of the mummified animals found were pets and how many were ceremonial offerings for the gods. It's probably safe to assume that animals buried alone or with their owner, who were treated with special attention, were kept as pets when they lived.

Based on the paintings found on walls in tombs and temples, cats seem to be the most popular pets in Egypt – which is rather weird, as dogs were domesticated thousands of years before. Cats are often painted as standing next to the owner's feet or under the chair, a clear indication that they were kept as pets and not just for the obvious purpose of catching rodents.

The Egyptian goddess Bastet had the head of a domestic cat and the body of a woman. She was a benevolent deity, protector of children, mothers and, well, cats, and many cities organized yearly festivals in her honor.

Numerous cat statues and figurines were recovered by archaeologists, as well all sorts of other items depicting cats – amulets, earrings, pendants and so on. It seems at some point the ancient Egyptians introduced the death penalty for anybody who killed a cat.

Dogs were also extremely common in Ancient Egypt, but it seems they were used mostly for hunting and guarding, rather than kept as pets. Anubis, by the way, does not have a dog-head, but a jackal-head. However, part of a cemetery in Abydos was reserved for dogs, and there are also many inscriptions that indicate the names of the dogs, such as The Brave, The Trustworthy or even Blackie.

Trying to trace the origins of our contemporary pets, archaeologists concluded that ancient Egyptians had at least one breed of dogs that was very similar to the modern greyhound.

Paintings also indicate the monkeys were relatively common pets, though it's difficult to say for how long they could survive in captivity. Pliny the Elder mentions that, during the Ptolemaic dynasty, the baboons kept in Egyptian palaces could play dice and even understand written words.

There's also evidence that Egyptians kept various birds as pets, and even gazelles.

Pets in Ancient Greece

Ancient Greeks, unlike Egyptians, were not at all fond of cats. Dogs and birds were the most common pets, with an occasional mouse and goat here and there.

In the 5th century BC, Athenian statesman Alcibiades is reported to have purchased a wonderful dog for the price of 7,000 drachmas. By comparison, a regular worker could expect to receive 1 drachma in return for a full day's work.

Stories of faithful dogs abound in Greek tales. We all know how Odysseus' dog waited to see his master return home before passing its last breath (which, by the way, means the dog was at least 20 years old when passing away). There's also a story about Xantipus, Pericles' father, who once left Athens to go to the island of Salamis, almost 2 km away, but forgot to take his trusted dog with him. The desperate animal jumped into the water and swam the entire distance, following his master's boat.

A breathtaking mosaic of a parrot, from Pergamon. 
On display in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin

Pets in Ancient Rome

Like Greeks, Romans favored birds and dogs as pets, and ignored cats, though it is said that Spartacus chose cats as a symbol of his rebellion, since they were associated with the goddess of freedom, Libertas, for their independent spirit.

Same as Egyptians, Romans had various breeds of dogs, including the one that resembled today's greyhound. Another popular breed was called Molossus, a huge animal, probably the ancestor of the modern mastiff, used for guarding, and probably for dog fights. Same as today, smaller breeds were mostly kept for company, especially by ladies.

Similar to the Greek literature, there are many stories of faithful dogs. In 28 AD, a dog jumped into the river Tiber to rescue his master, senator Sabinus, who had been pushed in the river by an angry mob. Unfortunately, his master was already dead before the body was thrown away. It's also said that the soldiers who killed Emperor Galba had to kill his dog too, as it wouldn't leave his master's side for anything in the world.

And speaking of faithful animals, ancient Romans had their version of Flipper. During the time of Emperor Augustus, a boy named Hyacinthus, who lived in Baiae, found a wounded dolphin and nursed it back to health. The dolphin would then return everyday, and accompany the boy on his way to school. The boy, however, caught a cold and died. The dolphin waited for him for many more days, until he died too, of grief and sorrow, according to Pliny.

Horses were rarely kept as pets (Caligula's favorite, Incitatus, was still a racing horse, albeit a luxury one, as I've pointed out in the post about Ancient Horses). Emperor Trajan, however, received a pet horse, which was useless for anything except bow down and make pretty pirouettes.

Ancient Romans were especially fond of birds that could be taught to speak. Siblings Britannicus and Nero (who went on to become the famous mad emperor) had several nightingales and starlings who could speak Latin as well as Greek. Pliny claims to have seen these precursors of Google Translate with his own eyes.

Augustus launched the fashion of parakeets and ravens who could speak, and used to pay large amounts for such birds. A poor Roman citizen managed to get his hands on a raven, and tried to teach the bird a few words, hoping the emperor would reward him handsomely. However, the bird was stubborn, and the man kept saying to it “Oh, you're such a waste of time and money!”. Eventually, the bird managed to learn to utter “Ave, Caesar”, or something similar, and was brought before Augustus, only to hear the emperor say that he had enough of such birds already and was not interested in purchasing more. At that point, the bird showed that education always pays off, and said to the emperor “Oh, you're such a waste of time and money!”. Augustus had enough sense of humor to purchase the bird on the spot.

There's also a story about a man who paid an amount that would've fetched a vineyard with slaves and wine-making devices in place for just one white nightingale, which he presented as a gift to Caligula's sister, Agrippina.

Fish make unlikely pets, but the Romans were weird. Of course, fish ponds were generally created and maintained to insure a steady supply of fish for the owner's meals, and were immensely expensive. A certain Publius Vedius Pollio, however, friend of Emperor Augustus and famous for his wealth and cruelty towards his slaves, managed to keep moray eels as pets. Some of the older and bigger specimens were fitted with jewelry and gems, and they were fed with human slaves who had misbehaved, in their master's opinion. It has been reported that one of the moray eels in his ponds lived to reach the venerable age of 60. Probably none of his slaves managed that.