Epitaphs to Pets of Ancient Greece and Rome

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.

Ancient Rome

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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).

3 thoughts on “Epitaphs to Pets of Ancient Greece and Rome”

  1. This comment is by Sylvia and entered by me (Admin) on her behalf:

    The ancient Egyptians’ veneration for cats had a dark side. Though parents shaved their eyebrows in mourning the loss of their housecat, enterprising tradesmen strangled or broke the necks of thousands of cats, then mummified, swaddled in linen and sold them to supplicants as offerings for their deities.

    Has the status of dogs and cats improved over the centuries? Nowadays they’re eaten, vivisected, used to test products and killed with hypodermics. As pampered as many are, how far beneath us are they?

    Several years ago there appeared in a newspaper, in the obits, a tribute to a beloved dog, and an invitation to friends to attend an informal gathering in the dog’s memory, at his parents’ home.

    Readers were aghast, and the editor wrote to apologize for the moral outrage.

    When a crow is overjoyed to mother-hen a kitten, will the day ever come when people understand that reciprocal love spans the abyss of fur, feathers and heaven knows what else, as if it were a puddle? If we ban them from our page, don’t our friends deserve their own, where we’d tell them – if we had the words – what their leave-taking did to our hearts?

    I know well enough that there have been dogs so loving that they have thrown themselves into the same grave with the dead bodies of their masters; others have stayed upon their masters’ graves without stirring a moment from them, and have voluntarily starved themselves to death, refusing to touch the food that was brought them.

    – Miguel de Cervantes –

    George Gordon Byron’s Epitaph to a Dog. Poetryloverspage.com

    The House Dog’s Grave (Haig, an English Bulldog), Robinson Jeffers, http://www.petloss.com/poems

    Crow and Kitten http://www.earthlngs.org

  2. I’m surprised no one else has commented on this article, Michael. I found it very informative and interesting. It’s amazing that all day I’ve felt kind of sad for the person who wrote about how happy he was bringing his dog home the first time and comparing that to the sadness he felt bringing his beloved friend to the cemetery. Amazing how thousands of years don’t really matter when it comes to things like love and grief. Some things don’t change.

    • Thanks Ruth. You are great! I thought you might like this post. I did it with you in mind 🙂

      It was not easy to write, I have to say. I agree with you that this gentleman (I think he has to be a gentleman) writes so tenderly about his dog and you can almost be there. I think it brings the history alive.


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