Ancient Greece and Rome is called ‘Classical Antiquity’ The era covers the years: 500 B.C.E. (or BC) – 400 C.E. (or AD) That is a period spanning 900 years and up to 2,512 years ago. The ancient Greeks and Romans (‘the ancients’) dominated the Mediterranean.
We know that people of the era kept ‘pets’ of all kinds. When their animal companion died many buried them and left an epitaph. The words of the epitaph provide us with an insight into the kind of relationship people had with their companion animals. There is precious little information about this aspect of pet keeping 2,500 years ago. For that reason the epitaphs are a useful source of information.
As is the case today not everyone thought it suitable to bury their pet and write a epitaph especially a gushing one that was full of sentiment. In one example a person who loved his dog and wanted to leave a epitaph said:
“Do not laugh, I beg you, you passing by, because it is a mere dog’s grave”
Obviously, this person realized that other people where not so attached to their animal companions. That chimes very much with today’s values (2012).
Companion animals were buried like humans. Pet graves and tombstones were open for public view and in various places including human cemeteries. The tombstones were sometimes carved with a portrait of the animal. The pet’s owner might have left an offering on the grave in the same way as happens today.
Epitaphs in prose or verse were carved into the tombstone. The words were also preserved on parchment because they were written by poets and the were poems kept by historians and other poets. The tombstones have long gone, apparently.
The earliest known epitaph is from the fourth century BC. Dogs were the most common animal companion.
People from all walks of life from this era mourned their departed animal companions. Hadrian did as did Alexander the Great. The lowliest working man or woman did too.
The interesting aspect of epitaphs from classical antiquity is that although there are epitaphs to a wide range of domestic and wild animals, including horses, parrots, birds, dolphins, cheetahs etc., cat epitaphs have not been found. This is put down to the fact that in Greece and Rome, the cat was ‘despised for its native sacred status’ given to it by the neighbouring Egyptians.
However, the cat as a companion animal was eventually accepted ‘during the Roman Empire’ (27 BC – AD 476). The cat never became as popular as the dog or parrot at this time.
The sort of thing that people of this era recorded in epitaphs were are follows:
- for lap-dogs: beauty, intelligence, affection and cheerfulness.
- hounds: faithfulness, courage and self-devotion. One epitaph read, “savage in the woods, gentle at home“
- parrot: voice “the loquacious image of the human voice“.
- locust, “singing locust..melodious voice“.
A dog named Helena was remembered with the epitaph below (note: dog companions were often referred to as ‘foster children’ in the ancient Greek language. The word is ‘trophimoi’). It seems that people saw their companion animal as child and their affection for the animal was as a parent to a child.
“To Helena, foster child, soul without comparison and deserving of praise.”
One epitaph for a much loved dog read:
“I am in tears, while carrying you to your last resting place as much as I rejoiced when bringing you home in my own hands fifteen years ago.”
There is an incredibly modern feel about these epitaphs. They could be written today (although there appears to have been a gradual dumbing down over 2,500 years!). To me this indicates that the relationship between companion animal and human was fully developed some 2,500 years ago. The relationship between companion animal and person was one of true friendship that provided the pleasures that we receive from our animal companions today. It may be the case that the relationship between animal and human was even stronger in those days.
There also seems to have been a respect for the animal by the ‘ancients’ that is sometimes lacking today. They believed that the gods cared for animals and hence prayed to the gods for the welfare of cattle and sheep and dog companions. For them, the animal was due the same protection by the gods as people. This extended to the application of justice to protect the animal. This is an early form of animal rights and animal laws. Divine justice should be extended to animals under the control of humans they decided.
The ancients had a deep affection for their animal companions that on occasions, might have been deeper than is present today.
- Reference and source: Companion Animals & US – ISBN-13 978-0-521-01771-8
- Note: I have also added my opinion on occasion.
- Original photo on Flickr (Photo by Abeeeer).