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Cats in the Roman world: The big and the small of it

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Feles: a cat, a mouser, but also a thief.

The eyes of nocturnal animals like cats gleam and shine in the dark.
(Pliny, Natural History IX.55)

Excavated cat bones and cat images on vases and coins are proof that cats were padding about southern Italy at the end of the fifth century BC. By the time we get to the Roman Empire, there must have been cats galore.

So let’s start with these small cats and some evidence of their place in the Roman world.

Facts about felines

• Roman provinces might have lost a few cats to Egypt. The Egyptians worshipped their cats and exporting the animal was illegal. There are records of soldiers being dispatched to ‘repatriate’ captive cats smuggled out of Egypt.

• Modern archaeological research into the DNA of cat remains has proven that cats travelled on ships on ancient trade routes, spreading the animal across the Roman world. They would have acted as pest control on board Egyptian ships, and Asian wildcats would have kept rodent numbers down on ships travelling the trade route from India.

• Cats didn’t feature much in Roman literature, but they did leave the tiniest of paw prints in Roman books on farming. They could be a problem (smooth your duck enclosure walls with plaster inside and out to make sure cats can’t get in) and a help: cats won’t eat your grain, they bury their waste and they get rid of vermin.

• Talking of vermin, the Romans used ferrets to get rid of pests, but ferrets are burrowers and everyone knows that climbers are more useful than burrowers. Cats were especially good at getting rid of mice and rats as they could climb a thatched roof in the countryside or stalk across the tiles of city roofs, cleaning up the area while they stuffed themselves with rodents and helped contribute to the state of the city’s public health.

• When we think about a cat’s reaction to fireworks and then imagine the noise from the earth tremors at Pompeii before Vesuvius actually erupted, as well as falling pumice and debris, it is clear that any cats would have scarpered at the first noisy rumbles. It is no wonder, then, that only a few cat bones from the time of the eruption have been found at Pompeii: cat bones in two vineyards and a partial cat skeleton in the Temple of Venus.

• If you want to find a bigger cache of cat remains, you should look to Roman military sites, where archaeologists have found plenty of evidence of feline camp visitors – no doubt keeping the soldiers’ food stores free of mice and rats. As if Roman cats wanted to leave us proof of their hunting abilities, excavations at the site of the Roman sea port of Myos Hormos at Quseir al-Qadim on the Red Sea coast
discovered a first- to second-century ad cat buried inside a Roman administrative building. The cat’s body was wrapped in woollen and linen cloths and was well preserved. The animal was a big one and experts believe it was a domesticated cat rather than a feral one. Apart from the skeleton, there were remains of quite a bit of fur, the stomach and a preserved lower intestinal tract, which showed that the cat had just eaten six rats before its death. (No wonder it was big.)

• Felicula was a Roman cognomen – an additional name similar to a modern-day nickname – for girls and women, meaning ‘Kitty’ or ‘Little Cat’. This name turns up in Roman inscriptions on funerary reliefs, so while the cat didn’t take up anywhere near as much room in Roman literature as the dog did, it appeared here, in the world of inscriptions for real people, across the cities and towns of the Roman Empire. Donald Engels, in his book Classical Cats, tells us there are over 250 cat nicknames surviving on inscriptions in Rome alone.

• Talking of funerals, images of cats appeared on funerary steles and tombstones, often with engravings of children holding cats or a cat sitting at the child’s feet.

• Just as pesky as the dog, cat paw prints have been found imprinted on Roman tiles.

• The Latin for cat, feles, was used for ferrets and polecats too. In certain Roman plays, the word feles was slang for someone who predates on young women: feles virginaria and feles virginalis – translating to ‘virgin cats’. The ‘cat’ part of the phrase had the unpleasant meaning of ‘virgin predators’ or ‘virgin mousers’.

A cautionary tale for ancient cat killers

In 59 BC, when Julius Caesar was a consul, King Ptolemy XII of Egypt was trying to work out an alliance with Rome. Roman envoys arrived in Egypt and amongst the soldiers who accompanied them was one unlucky legionary. Watching events unfold was historian and author Diodorus Siculus. The Egyptians revered cats and the last thing you wanted to do was harm one. But sometimes accidents happen. Diodorus gives us all the details: if a cat dies in Egypt, there is wailing and crying and the cat is wrapped in linen and taken off to be embalmed; if a cat is killed, the perpetrator is put to death. Even if it’s an accident, Diodorus writes that the locals will gather together and kill the cat killer before there’s even been time for a trial. If anyone sees a dead cat, they back off and shout that they had nothing to do with it, but just found the cat in this condition.

So what happened to the unlucky Roman soldier? Diodorus says he witnessed the whole event with his own eyes. The legionary had killed a cat completely by accident. Crowds rushed to his house determined to punish him. Never mind trying to keep on Rome’s good side, never mind trying to keep the envoys sweet. Despite King Ptolemy sending officials to beg for the Roman’s life, neither they, nor any fear of Rome, could save the soldier, who was killed for harming this sacred animal. (Diodorus, Siculus I.83)

Extracted from Battle Elephants and Flaming Foxes by Caroline Freeman-Cuerden

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