If You Owned a Dog in Ancient Rome, It Revealed Quite a Lot About You

The pages of history are littered with dogs from all walks of life.

Pub quizzers among you will no doubt have heard about the Russian dog, Laika who became the first animal to orbit the Earth in 1957, but have you heard about a Pug named Pompey who foiled an assassination attempt on the life of William The Silent, Prince of Orange?

From guard dog to confidante, throughout history dogs have played the role we’ve needed.

But a new book written by Dr Iain Ferris takes a fresh look at this subject and explores what dogs meant to Romans and just what owning a dog said to the world outside.

Here’s Iain.

My newly-published Amberley book 'Cave Canem: Animals and Roman Society' presents an analysis of the place and role of animals in ancient Roman society and of their meaning and significance in cultural terms. Animals, including pets, were highly significant and important.

If You Owned a Dog in Ancient Rome, It Revealed Quite a Lot About You
Statues of Molossian hounds in the Vatican Museums, Rome (Photo Credit: I. Ferris)

There is a considerable amount of evidence for the keeping of animals as pets or companion animals in the Roman world in the form of written sources, funerary monuments and their accompanying inscriptions, and statuary.

What’s in a name

In some cases, the names of these pets have come down to us through these channels, the naming of an animal, bird, or another creature, is an important symbolic step towards the breaking down of any culture's self-imposed inter-species barriers.

As very few of the recorded named Roman pets were given human names - Brutus or Livia, for example - we can interpret this as a distancing mechanism while naming being at the same time a bonding exercise between human and animal.

Not surprisingly, the most commonly attested pets in the Roman world were caged birds, dogs, and cats. However, I will concentrate on dogs here.

From guard dog to companion, and in between

In towns and cities in the Roman period, large dogs would have been kept principally as guard dogs, but this does not necessarily mean that they were not also regarded at the same time as pets by their owners.

The same dual role may also have been played by hunting dogs and animal herding dogs. There would not appear to have been the same social cachet involved in keeping dogs as pets as applied to the keeping of birds in Rome and Italy.

If You Owned a Dog in Ancient Rome, It Revealed Quite a Lot About YouA guard dog on leash on a small mosaic panel from Pompeii, on display in Naples Archaeological Museum (Photo Credit: I. Ferris)

In the absence of a police force, dogs provided security

There are a number of black and white threshold mosaic panels from houses in Pompeii depicting guard dogs/pet dogs, including the most famous example, the Cave Canem-Beware of the Dog pavement from the House of the Tragic Poet which gives my book its name. The large shaggy black dog depicted there, with white on its limbs and head, is chained up but is caught barking and snapping at someone at the door.

Another chained dog on a mosaic protects the House of Paquius Proculus and a dog with a studded collar, secured by a rope, appears on a portion of pavement, is now on display in the Archaeological Museum in Naples. A fourth Pompeian dog mosaic comes from the House of Caecilius Iucundus, though in this case, the hound lies curled up sleeping.

If You Owned a Dog in Ancient Rome, It Revealed Quite a Lot About YouStatue of a dog washing in Naples Archaeological Museum (Photo Credit: I. Ferris)

An attentive guard dog, sat up ready on his haunches, was also painted on a pillar at the entrance to the Taverna of Sotericus. A dog lies sleeping in a busy metalworking shop on a stone relief from the town.

If we project the common use of guard dogs at Pompeii to cover their use in Rome and in cities and towns throughout the Roman empire, then it can be argued that dogs played a crucial and highly significant role in the household and urban security in the absence of organised police forces at this time.

The tragedy of the dogs of Pompeii revealed

Of course, we cannot leave the topic of dogs at Pompeii without making mention of the skeletal remains of dogs excavated at the site over the years and particularly of the very well known plaster cast of a dying dog found during excavations in 1874 at the House of Marcus Vesonius Primus. The poor creature, restrained by a bronze studded collar on a leash, lies on its back, doubled up in evident agony, its legs in the air, as it doubtless writhed on the ground gasping for air in its death throes.

This is a pathetic relic of the tragedy which overtook Pompeii and which killed its pets and resident wildlife, as well as its human inhabitants. Further skeletal remains of dogs have been recorded at a number of other locations within Pompeii, the most interesting of which would appear to be the bones of a large dog lying on its side, shut inside the House of Menander, a creature that seems to have survived being buried by ash but which sadly then would have died from asphyxiation.

Touching epitaphs written in ancient Rome reveal popular dog breeds

Roman statues of dogs, tombstones of pet dogs, inscriptions or epitaphs naming pet dogs, and depictions of dogs on their owners' funerary monuments occur in sufficiently large numbers to suggest that they were popular pets at this time. The dog breeds included huge Molossian hounds, dogs like Irish Wolfhounds, Greyhound or Lurcher type dogs, smaller Maltese like dogs, and tiny lap dogs.

A marble grave relief dedicated to Helena, a Greek name very rare in Rome, is in the collection of the Getty Museum, Los Angeles and dates to A.D. 150-200.

On it is depicted a small but plump Maltese dog framed within a small shrine. It is uncertain whether the dog was named Helena and was thus a pet being commemorated here or whether Helena was the dog's proud owner who went undepicted on her own funerary monument for some reason, being represented symbolically by the depiction of her beloved pet dog.

The inscription on the stele reads in translation as 'To Helena, foster child, soul without comparison and well deserving'.

Interpretation of this stone hinges on the inter-relationship between image and text. The depiction of a dog on its own on the stele suggests a pet memorial, yet the word alumna used quite carefully and deliberately in the inscription refers to the Roman system around foster children, sometimes freeborn and sometimes freed slaves, chosen for special treatment and fostering in elite homes.

Totally unequivocal in its being an epitaph for a pet dog is a marble tablet with a lengthy inscription acquired by the British Museum, London in the eighteenth century and otherwise being without precise provenance. However, there is no question of its authenticity as a genuine ancient piece.

The epitaph for Margarita-Pearl-is written in verse, as if penned by the dog herself.

In it can be found a number of clever allusions to well-known lines from the poet Virgil's funerary epitaph and from poems of Ovid in his 'The Art of Love and The Art of Beauty'. The text in full, in translation, reads:

'Gaul gave me my birth and the pearl-oysters from the seas full of treasure
my name, an honour fitting to my beauty.
I was trained to run boldly through strange forests
and to hunt out furry wild beasts in the hills
never accustomed to be held by heavy chains
nor endure cruel beatings on my snow-white body.
I used to lie on the soft lap of my master and mistress
and knew to go bed when tired on my spread mattress
and I did not speak more than allowed as a dog, given a silent mouth
No-one was scared by my barking
but now I have been overcome by death from an ill-fated birth
and earth has covered me beneath this small piece of marble.

Margarita resoundingly represented an animal that played a dual role in its owner's life, principally a trained hunting dog but one that had become pampered and as much a pet as a hunter, and one that was so valued that money was spent on her commemoration and due grieving was displayed over her untimely, early death.

Other lengthy tributes to beloved pet dogs are provided on the inscribed tombstones to Patricus from Salernum in Campania, to Aminnaracus from Rome, to Heuresis or Tracker, again from Rome, and to the female dog Aeolis from Praeneste.

Below the inscription on the first century A.D. funerary altar from Aquileia in northern Italy dedicated to Caius Vitullius Priscus sits a large dog with a collar and bell around its neck. The dog is depicted as if suddenly distracted by a noise, turning its head, pricking up its ears, and rising up off its haunches, with its front legs stretched out.

Had the dog here simply been intended to represent an image of fidelity, a generalised character trait possessed by the recently deceased Priscus, it would seem unlikely that such care would have been taken over the depiction of this particular dog, its stance and its unusual collar with a bell: rather, we are more likely to be seeing here a portrait of Priscus's own pet dog or beloved guard dog.

If You Owned a Dog in Ancient Rome, It Revealed Quite a Lot About YouA large guard dog on the funerary altar of Caius Vitullius Priscus in the Archaeological Museum of Aquileia (Photo Credit: I. Ferris)

A number of stone cinerary urns from Aquileia have lids topped off by a carving of a sleeping dog or lion. In these cases, the animals may simply be a guardian or protective figures, the dogs possibly being linked to a strong local cult of the hunter god Silvanus.

If You Owned a Dog in Ancient Rome, It Revealed Quite a Lot About YouA sleeping dog on the lid of a cinerary urn in the Archaeological Museum of Aquileia (Photo: I. Ferris)

The famous funerary relief from Rome of the Flavian woman Ulpia Epigone in the guise of the goddess Venus is now in the collections of the Vatican Museums in Rome. Lying on a couch, propped up by her left arm, she is accompanied by a tiny lapdog that peers out from under that arm, perhaps a portrait of a cherished pet, though equally the animal could have been somehow symbolic in this context. Many other such portrayals of small dogs such as this are known.

If You Owned a Dog in Ancient Rome, It Revealed Quite a Lot About YouA lapdog on the funerary relief of Ulpia Epigone in the Vatican Museums, Rome (Photo Credit: I. Ferris)

The dog: a symbol of faithfulness

Images of dogs, unaccompanied by gods or humans, could also be employed on Roman tombstones and sarcophagi as symbols of fidelity, a good example being a tombstone from the columbarium of Vigna Codini on the Via Appia in Rome on which appears Synoris, sweet pet, perhaps not a pet dog after all but possibly a favourite slave.

A very specific link between the image of the dog as a symbol both of fidelity or faithfulness in life and at the same time with links to the underworld.

From this short survey then it can be seen that dog keeping played a significant part in Roman life and that guard dogs, hunting dogs, and small lapdogs were common at this time. The names of many Roman dogs have come down to us through funerary inscriptions and dogs featured commonly in Roman art.


About the Author

‘Cave Canem: Animals and Roman Society.’ by Iain Ferris is published by Amberley Publishing. Hardback. £20.

If You Owned a Dog in Ancient Rome, It Revealed Quite a Lot About You

Dr Iain Ferris is an archaeologist and writer living in Pembrey, Carmarthenshire, Wales. He has worked at both Birmingham and Manchester universities and is a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London. He is a trustee of the local charity Animal Lifeline Wales and works one day a week in their charity shop in Burry Port.




  1. The Basenji : This breed is among the best attested to in ancient Egypt. It no doubt came from Nubia where it seems to have been quite common. The name is usually translated as dog of the villagers because it was so commonly associated with communities of people. The Basenji was used in hunting small game and as a companion, family pet, and guard dog. Basenjis could be among the dogs on the funerary stele of Intef II (2112-2063 BCE) of the h Dynasty and possibly his favorite dog, Beha, for whom he had an individual stele carved.

Leave a Reply