Pets in the Ancient Mediterranean

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.

Clay plaque of a striding man who leads a large dog. From Sippar (modern-day Tell Abu Hubba, Babel Governorate, Iraq), Mesopotamia. Old-Babylonian period, 2000-1600 BCE. / Photo by Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin, The British Museum, WHE, Creative Commons

Dogs are one of humanity’s oldest domesticates and have often worked alongside their human companions.

Gypsum wall panel relief depicting Assyrian huntsmen with hounds under palm trees. Panel 13, Room E of the North Palace at Nineveh (Kouyunjik), Northern Mesopotamia, modern-day Iraq. Neo-Assyrian Period, reign of Ashurbanipal II, 645-635 BCE. / Photo by Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin, The British Museum, WHE, Creative Commons

In the Near East, dogs were often employed as guards and hunting companions.

Seated Dog, Tomb of Nebamun: Wall painting in the Tomb of Nebamun showing a dog seated beneath its master’s chair. Facsimile, Thebes, Egypt, 18th Dynasty, 1479-1458 BCE. / Metropolitan Museum of Art, Creative Commons

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.

Attic amphora depicting a warrior with a large mastiff. 510-500 BCE. / British Museum, Creative Commons

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.

Guard dog mosaic from Pompeii. Archaeological Museum of Naples. / Photo by Robin Dawes, Flickr, Creative Commons

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.

Roman statue group of two sighthounds playing, once nicknamed “The Townley Greyhounds”, after their owner Charles Townley. However, the dogs depicted are not proper greyhounds. Made in the 2nd century CE, discovered in 1774 CE in Monte Cagniolo, Italy. / British Museum, Creative Commons

Romans enthusiastically kept dogs as pets. Most were used for hunting or guarding livestock, but some smaller breeds were kept as lapdogs.

The Gayer-Anderson Cat: Hollow cast bronze statue of a seated cat wearing golden earrings, a nose-ring, and a silver wedjat (Eye of Horus) pectoral. Possibly from Saqqara, Egypt, c. 600 BCE. Bequest of Major Robert Gayer-Anderson, 1939 CE. / Photo by sama Shukir Muhammed Amin, British Museum, Creative Commons

Cats held a high status in ancient Egypt. Egyptians often kept cats as housepets as they kept harmful snakes and rodents away.

Collection of Egyptian Bastets and Sekhmets illustrating the importance of cat iconography in Egyptian culture. Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. / Photo by Kotomi Yamamura, Flickr, Creative Commons

Cats were closely associated with feline goddesses like Bastet and the leonine Sekhmet.

A mummified cat from Egypt, late Ptolemaic Period. Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum. / Photo by Mary Haarsch, Flickr, Creative Commons

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.

Close-up of a red-figure vase painting depicting a music lesson, two men playing music while a boy and cat (alternately identified as a young panther) sit on the side. Attributed to “The Agrigento Painter”. Produced in Attica, c. 470-460 BCE. Found in Rhodes. / British Museum, Creative Commons

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.

Roman mosaic depicting a cat clutching a quail. House of the Faun, Pompeii, late 2nd century BCE. Archaeological Museum of Naples. / Photo by Carole Raddato, Flickr, Creative Commons

Cats were similarly uncommon pets when they were first introduced to Italy, due to the long-standing practice of keeping weasels.

Painting of foreigners bearing tribute in the form of timber, ebony, ivory, and animals. On the far right, a man carrying ebony leads a cheetah on a leash. Behind him walks a man with timber and an animal (possibly an aardvark), a baboon, and a man with elephant ivory. Tomb of Rekhmire, Thebes. Reign of Thutmose III or Amenhotep II, c. 1479–1425 BCE. Facsimile made by Nina de Garis Davies (1881–1965 CE). / Metropolitan Museum of Art, Creative Commons

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.

Red-figure vase painting depicting a bearded man with his pet cheetah. The man holds a walking stick in one hand, and with the other he leads the cheetah by a red leash connected to its collar. Attributed to the painter Apollodorus. Produced in Attica c. 490 BCE, found in Vulci, Italy. / British Museum, Creative Commons

Cheetahs, likely imported from Egypt, were also adopted by some aristocratic Greeks as a status symbol during the Classical period.

Fresco from the throne room of the Palace of Nestor at Pylos, often referred to as the ‘Orpheus Fresco’, depicting a seated lyre player and a bird in flight, c. 1300 BCE. Watercolour reconstruction by Piet de Jong. Archaeological Museum of Chora. / Photo by Leporello78, Wikimedia Commons

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.

Marble stele depicting a young girl saying farewell to her pet doves as she gently holds them, c. 450-440 BCE, Greece. / Metropolitan Museum of Art, Creative Commons

Doves were especially well-loved in ancient Greece and were sacred to the goddess Aphrodite.

Red-figure vase painting of Ganymede with a hoop and rooster. Attributed to the “Pan Painter”. Attica, c. 470 BCE. / Metropolitan Museum of Art, Creative Commons

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.

Hellenistic statuette of a little boy with a pet rooster. Pontus, 2nd century BCE. / Metropolitan Museum of Art, Creative Commons

People took great pride in their roosters, although the treatment of game-cocks would be considered cruel in many places today.

Red-figure amphora depicting a seated woman playing with a ball while a goose sits at her feet. Attica, c. 470-460 BCE. Found in Nola, Italy. / British Museum, Creative Commons

Geese and swans were also popular birds in ancient Greece and made numerous appearances in Greek mythology.

Reddish painted head of a goose (or duck), part of a larger whole that was broken. Samsun, Black Sea Region, in modern-day Turkey. 5th-4th century BCE. / Photo by Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin, British Museum, Creative Commons

Geese were likely never kept for companionship alone, as they produced eggs and meat.

A red-figure vase painting depicting a Greek man offering a pet hare as a gift. Attributed to “The Kleophrades Painter”. Attica, c. 480 BCE. Found in Cerveteri, Italy. Collection of the Villa Giulia, National Etruscan Museum, Rome. / Photo by Egisto Sani, Flickr, Creative Commons

Tame hares and rabbits were favoured pets, often given as gifts during courtship as a token of affection.

Egyptian limestone plaque depicting a man holding an ibex while a monkey perches on his shoulder. Memphis, Egypt. Ptolemaic Period, 300-27 BCE. Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland. / Photo by Mary Haarsch, Flickr, Creative Commons

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.

The “Monkey Fresco” showing Indian gray langur monkeys climbing rocks in an effort to escape the dogs chasing them. Room B6, Akrotiri, Thera, c. 17th century BCE. Museum of Prehistoric Thera, Santorini. / WHE, Creative Commons

From Egypt and Asia, monkeys and apes were exported to other parts of the world, including Assyria and Greece.

Mosaic of a monkey trying to catch birds with a long stick under a date tree. He has a wooden cage on his back with a bird on it. Constantinople, c. 6th century CE. Great Palace Mosaic Museum, Istanbul. / Photo by Hagia Sophia Research Team, Creative Commons

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.

Copper cult statue of a crocodile. Faiyum, modern-day Egypt, Middle Kingdom, 12th Dynasty, c. 1800 BCE. State Museum of Egyptian Art, Munich. / Photo by Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin, WHE, Creative Commons

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.

Detail of a Roman mosaic showing fish. Tarraco, 3rd century CE. Archaeological Museum, Tarragona. / WHE, Creative Commons

Wealthy Romans kept ornamental eels and fish in constructed fishponds.

Originally published by the World History Encyclopedia, 03.09.2021, under a Creative Commons: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.



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