The Roman character was even less inclined than the Greek to truly appreciate the cat’s positive attributes. The very traits of duty, obedience and loyalty that the Romans highly prized were quite obviously non-existent in the domestic cat. In contrast, though, by its very nature, “the (Roman) cat represented freedom, independence, and autonomy” (Engels, 2001) characteristics the Romans clearly admired.
In a temple dedicated to Libertas, the goddess of freedom and independence, erected on Mount Aventine, it was the Roman Tiberius Gracchus who placed a cat at the feet of the goddess adorned in a white robe, holding a scepter in one hand and a Phrygian cap in the other (Repplier, 1901, p.17). The velvet Phrygian cap worn by freed Roman slaves signified liberty and the cat of course symbolized independence, for who can deny the cat’s basic nature of abhorring confinement? Rome honored the cat with the saying, “Libertas sine Labore,” liberty without labor, an apt association to our independent Felis Sylvestris.
One of the first mentions of the cat in Rome is in the 4th century BC when Palladius recommends using cats, referred to officially for the first time as cattus, instead of ferrets to stop moles from eating up the artichoke beds (Turner, Bateson, Bateson, 2000). Pliny the Elder, in his book Natural History (1st century AD), instructs those that want to guard their bread from the voracious appetites of mice by writing, “Mice are kept away by the ashes of the weasel or a cat being steeped in water and then thrown upon the seed, or else by using the water in which one body of a weasel or cat has been boiled. The odour, however, of these animals makes itself perceived in the bread.” (Pliny, 18.45) Pliny also suggested that a fever could be avoided if “the salted liver of a cat killed when the moon is wane” is then mixed in wine and drunk (Pliny, 8.155). As disgusting as it might seem, cat dung was even a remedy for removing a thorn from the throat (Turcan, 1996). We can only imagine that having to endure cat dung in the mouth would surely bring up anything and everything. Of course the Greeks and Romans were not the first to use cats for medicinal purposes. The ancient Egyptians used the fat from tomcats to scare mice away, the placenta in a tonic to keep hair from going gray, and female cat hair was mixed with milk to soothe burns (Malek, 1993, p.70). Some odd medicinal cures still persisted up until about 100 years ago with one stating a cure for Shingles as laying the skin of a freshly killed cat over the infected area (Bergen, 1890).
From what we can tell from the artifacts left to us, the Romans were not keen on capturing the cat in statuary or in bombastic attitudes as they did, for example, horses. However, there are mosaic representations of cats in Roman Pompeii, where the remains of domesticated cats have recently been excavated. The Pompeians had cats, although probably rare, but the detailed mosaics adeptly catch the cat’s innate character. Two mosaics from the House of the Faun show spotted cats, often assumed to be Persians or Angoras because of their long hair. One mosaic depicts the cat grasping a rooster or chicken by the neck, while underneath him are two ducks, four other birds, some sea shells and some fish quietly awaiting their inevitable fate. In the other, an expectant cat looks up at the birds perched around a bird bath, its teeth bared and its paw ready to strike at an opportune moment. Van Vechten (1921) in a footnote in Tiger in the House states, “But there is proof enough that classical antiquity loved the cat. Among the objects unearthed at Pompeii was the skeleton of a woman bearing in her arms the skeleton of a cat, whom perhaps she gave her life to save.” (p. 214)