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Snakes, Apes and Ferrets: The Ancient Greek Love of Pets

ancient greek pets
Ancient Greeks loved their pets. An Archaic Greek statue of a dog, thought to be an Alopekis, and her puppy. Credit: /Wikimedia Commons/ CC BY-SA 3.0

Animals were an important part of life in antiquity, and Ancient Greeks loved their pets. Ancient sources tell us that they kept a wide variety of animals at home, ranging from dogs to snakes.

Paintings, writings, and sculptures from ancient Greece reveal that dogs were, by far, the most common domesticated pet and prized for their hunting abilities.

Breeds, such as the Laconian, were well-regarded for speed and hunting skill while the Molossia was a huge breed used for big game.

The Cretan was a cross-breed of the two above and likely used to find food.
Greeks were also fond of a breed called the Celtic Vertragus, which seemed to be a forerunner to the greyhound.

Their speed and agility were highly valued by the ancient Greeks, and legend has it that one saved the life of Alexander the Great from a charging elephant.

Ancient Greeks loved their dogs

According to Xenophon, the dog names preferred by the ancient Greeks were short, consisting of one, or at most two, syllables. They also paid special attention to the meaning of the name of the dog and no name was ever bestowed at random or on a whim.

After their loyal friend and companion departed from this world, ancient Greeks were not afraid to express their grief for their loss, openly crying and mourning.

Greeks would bury their pets along the roadside in marked graves, and the entire ceremony for this was undertaken in a very solemn manner.

Archaeologists have uncovered countless epitaphs on tombstones that the Greeks dedicated to their furry friends.

“This is the tomb of the dog, Stephanos, who perished/whom Rhodope shed tears for and buried like a human/I am the dog Stephanos, and Rhodope set up a tomb for me” read one gravestone.

Snakes, ferrets, cats, apes, and birds were kept as pets

More unusual was that snakes were also kept as pets since they kept mice and rat numbers down. Ferrets were also kept for pest control.

Although cats were worshiped and prized in ancient Egypt, there are few records of cats in ancient Greek writing.

Yet the existence of the Aegean cat, a native Greek feline breed, may be evidence that the ancient Greeks kept cats as pets, as well.

Believed to be descendants of the ancient cats that inhabited the Greek islands throughout antiquity, Aegean cats have bred naturally without human intervention for thousands of years.

It is thought to be one of the oldest domesticated breeds in the world.

There is archaeological evidence of cats living alongside humans in Cyprus in antiquity, however.

Excavations at a Neolithic site called Shillourokampos in Cyprus showed that ancient people there truly cared for their feline companions and even dug out a grave with care for their pet cat.

Amazingly though, there is written evidence that Greeks kept primates, such as apes and monkeys as pets, with some writers spinning tales of such animals learning how to play musical instruments for entertainment.

Large birds were also a common ancient Greek pet, with herons and peacocks often taking up residence at home. Engravings show ducks and geese being kept as pets—perhaps a noisy alternative to a guard dog!

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