Cats in the ancient world
Lately, while working on my second Roman Cat statue animation, which is based around responses from visitors to Powis Castle on that particular statue, I have been thinking about cats in Roman times. The doubt about the Roman Cat statue’s 2,000-year old origins partly arise out of the fact that the Romans rarely depicted cats in their art. So I decided to do a little bit of research. And it seems that there are some examples of cats in Roman art, more than I thought.
It is known that the Romans appreciated the cat in their lives but not initially as a means of pest control. Rather than cats, for many years they kept weasels for that job. Both the Greeks and the Romans used snakes and weasels as means of pest control. However, over time these animals were slowly supplanted by the cat. This is thought to have happened sometime between the 2nd and 5th century AD. It seems that over time, the Romans came to realise that the cat was cleaner than the weasel and smelt much more pleasant so perhaps a nicer animal to have around the house. Before this, though, cats were kept as pets by few and were regarded in quite high esteem.
Where they exist, most representations of cats in Roman art are usually depicted as working animals. For a long time Romans didn’t seem to regard cats with much reverence or assign mystical powers to them as other civilizations so obviously did. However, it has been discovered that the cat were in fact viewed by some as housing the spirit of guardian of a domestic dwelling. The Romans saw the cat as a symbol of independence.
In Roman history, the cat was also allegedly often associated with the Roman Goddess Diana, Queen of the Hunt. One story talks of how Diana escaped Typhon (an evil dragon-like creature often connected with the Egyptian God of Storms, Set) by transforming herself into a cat. However, in other versions of the story she is transformed into a dog.
The cat was also a symbol of liberty in Rome. The Roman Army appreciated the value of cats as watchmen. They took cats with them through Gaul and on to Britain as they invaded. The Roman colonial families who settled then became keen pet owners. We know now that there is little doubt that some of these cats strayed and interbred with Felis Silvestris, the wild cat common at that time throughout the higher land of Britain and Western Europe. In the 4th century AD, as the Romans retreated to Rome, they left their cats behind.
There are a few well-known examples of cats in Roman art. On a Roman tombstone of the early Empire (first half of the 1st century AD), a well-delineated domestic cat can be seen. The inscription tells us that the name of the deceased was Calpurnia Felicla (or, ‘pussy’). A relief of the same period, which is in the Capitoline Museum at Rome, shows a woman teaching a cat to dance. A brace of birds is suspended above the cat as a way to persuade the cat to stand on its back legs. The image of the cat also appears on a number of Gallo-Roman reliefs: in the Musée des Antiques at Bordeaux a little girl hols a kitten with both hands, while a cock stands by her and pecks at the kitten’s tail. In Auxerre, there exists a fragment of a stone statuette which shows a cat wearing a collar. So there are a few representations of the cat in Roman times.
So the question remains unanswered: is the ‘Roman Cat’ a genuine Roman Cat?
Mark, J. J., ‘Cats in the Ancient World’, 17 November 2012, Ancient History Encyclopedia. Available from: http://www.ancient.eu/article/466/ [last accessed 1 September 2014]
HDW Enterprises with Foothill Felines Bengales ‘The History of the Domestic Cat’. Available from: http://www.hdw-inc.com/historyofcat.htm [last accessed 1 September 2014]
Lazenby, F., ‘Greek and Roman Household Pets’, Vol 44, No. 4, January 1949. and No. 4 February 1949. The Classical Journal. Available from: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Journals/CJ/44/4/Household_Pets*.html [last accessed 1 September 2014]