What Pets Did the Romans Have?

The Romans were known to be great pet enthusiasts, and ancient sources refer to dogs, cats, songbirds, parrots, monkeys, rabbits, turtles and snakes all being kept as pets. Birds were great favorites, particularly among wealthy Romans who are known to have kept swans, herons, ravens, pigeons, ducks and chickens.

Evidence of Roman pet-keeping is found not only in written accounts but in artistic representations. Roman gravestones often portrayed the departed accompanied by a favorite dog, bird or monkey. Wealthy patrons often posed for portraits with a cherished animal.

The Roman historian Suetonius reported that the emperor Tiberias kept a pet snake. Catullus wrote a famous poem about his lady’s grief over the loss of her pet sparrow. Cats, weasels and snakes were probably originally kept as a way of controlling the mouse and rat population, but Romans often became emotionally attached to these animals. In the same way, chickens and ducks originally kept for their eggs often became favored household pets.

Teaching ravens, nightingales and parrots to imitate human speech was so common that the Roman author Apuleius warned against people teaching their pet birds to curse or they would “curse continually.” Exotic pets including gazelles, peacocks, bears and even lions were kept as a sign of wealth and status.