Some examples of pets in ancient Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Persian, Greek, and Roman art.
By Arienne King
The history of mankind is interwoven with the domestication of animals. Dogs may have been domesticated in prehistoric Europe perhaps as long as 36,000 years ago. The first cats are thought to have been domesticated in Egypt, while the invention of the dog collar is traced to ancient Mesopotamia.
Most pets in the ancient world filled important roles in their households, often as guards, hunting companions, or pest control. Familiar animals, like cats, birds, and dogs were common pets in antiquity, but more unusual animals such as cheetahs, crocodiles, and monkeys were also kept as exotic pets. In this gallery of 25 images, we showcase some of the finest examples of pets in ancient Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Persian, Greek, and Roman art.
Dogs are one of humanity’s oldest domesticates and have often worked alongside their human companions.
In the Near East, dogs were often employed as guards and hunting companions.
Dogs were also highly regarded in Egypt, where they were household pets. Much like today, dogs often had roles in the military and law enforcement.
The Greeks loved the dog perhaps more than any other animal. As companions, the Greeks found dogs to be loyal and courageous, and it is no surprise that they were praised for their skill as hunters.
Dogs protected Greek and Roman homes from both practical and supernatural threats. “Cave Canem” (Latin: “Beware of dog”) was a common sign outside of residences in Pompeii, warning intruders that a guard dog was about.
Romans enthusiastically kept dogs as pets. Most were used for hunting or guarding livestock, but some smaller breeds were kept as lapdogs.
Cats held a high status in ancient Egypt. Egyptians often kept cats as housepets as they kept harmful snakes and rodents away.
Cats were closely associated with feline goddesses like Bastet and the leonine Sekhmet.
Like many sacred animals, cats were often mummified. Some cats appear to have been mummified so that they could join their deceased owners in the afterlife.
Cats had been introduced to Greece by the Phoenicians by the 5th century BCE. However, cats were never as popular in Greece as they were in Egypt, as the Greeks preferred to keep weasels and mongooses to keep rodents and other pests at bay.
Cats were similarly uncommon pets when they were first introduced to Italy, due to the long-standing practice of keeping weasels.
Due to their friendly and relatively docile nature, cheetahs are easily domesticated. Cheetahs were first tamed in Egypt, where they were frequently given collars and leashes, much like dogs.
Cheetahs, likely imported from Egypt, were also adopted by some aristocratic Greeks as a status symbol during the Classical period.
Birds were common pets, especially for women and children who spent much of their time indoors. Numerous artworks depict women and children at home with pet birds, such as quails, songbirds, doves, and geese.
Doves were especially well-loved in ancient Greece and were sacred to the goddess Aphrodite.
Roosters were popular pets among aristocratic Greek youths. Some of these animals were used for sport, as cock-fighting was immensely popular in ancient Greece. Ganymede, the Trojan prince and cup-bearer to the gods, was often depicted with a rooster.
People took great pride in their roosters, although the treatment of game-cocks would be considered cruel in many places today.
Geese and swans were also popular birds in ancient Greece and made numerous appearances in Greek mythology.
Geese were likely never kept for companionship alone, as they produced eggs and meat.
Tame hares and rabbits were favoured pets, often given as gifts during courtship as a token of affection.
Monkeys and baboons were trained and kept as pets in ancient Egypt, often exported from regions like Kush and Punt. In Egyptian iconography, baboons, apes, and monkeys were associated with gods like Thoth, Babi, and Hapy, son of Horus.
From Egypt and Asia, monkeys and apes were exported to other parts of the world, including Assyria and Greece.
Monkeys, particularly macaques, are known to have been trained as pets in the Roman Empire. By the Late Roman or Early Byzantine period, monkeys had become increasingly popular.
Crocodiles were feared predators in ancient Egypt, but they were also associated with certain deities, mainly Sobek. Because of this, tame crocodiles were raised in luxurious conditions in some Egyptian temples. Mummified crocodiles have been found in Egyptian tombs and temples.
Wealthy Romans kept ornamental eels and fish in constructed fishponds.