The Roman Cat Accompanied Roman Legions

In war the cat accompanied Roman legions emblazoned upon their shields and flags (Simpson, 1903).  “The company of soldiers, Ordines Augustei, who marched under the command of the Colonel of Infantry, sub Magistro peditum, bore on their ‘white’ or ‘silver’ shield, with a light green cat the colour of the mineral prase, or sea-green. The cat is seen running while turning its head over its back. Another company of the same regiment, called ‘the happy old men’ (felices seniores) carried a demi-cat, red, on a buckler, (a small shield hung from the belt), with its paws up, as if trying to catch something. Under the same chief, a third red cat with one paw raised and with one eye and one ear, was carried by the soldiers qui Alpini vocabantur.”  Moreover, the Germanic tribes such as the Vandals and the Suevi carried a cat hide as a mantel to protect their shields and armor from the sun (Repplier, 1901 p. 17)(Van Vechten, 2004). Finally, in the 6th century AD, we find a cohort of the Praetorian guards named “Cattiar” or the Cats, and according to inscriptions found, soldiers even had Cattius included in their names (Engels, 2001). Both the Romans and warrior tribes clearly esteemed the cat for its courage and cunning.


Roman Shield Designs

Roman Shield Designs


The Roman Cat Appears on Funerary Stele, Furniture and Mosaics

The cat accompanied the conquering Roman legions not only on banners and in name, but also physically. With the spread of the Roman Empire, the cat too enlarged its world, evidenced by the fact that Gallo-Roman burials included images of cats on funerary steles and sarcophagi.  On funeral steles from Roman Gaul, (southern France) young children are either holding cats, or the cats are seated next to them. The Tombstone of Laetus’s daughter, now in the Museum of Bordeaux, stands as a fine representation of the spread of Roman culture, and we see that young children along with their pets and toys were often forever memorialized on funeral steles and tombstones.  On the tombstone stands a young girl, some think a boy, holding her pet cat and a rooster at her side. 

Tombstone of Laetus's Daughter, 2nd century AD, Musee d'Acquitane, Roman cat history

Tombstone of Laetus’s Daughter
2nd Century AD
Musee d’Acquitane, Bordeaux


In addition, cats appeared on furniture and in mosaics.  For example, in east central France, carved in relief upon part of a table pedestal, a boy holds a cat facing forward wearing a red collar and a bell (Engels, 2001). Furthermore, mosaics of cats can be found from Jordan to Morocco.  On a Roman mosaic found in the Church of the Apostles in Madaba, Jordan, and now housed in the Bardo Museum, Tunis, a brown cat stands erectly facing forward haughtily posing for the artist, while on a mosaic from Volubilis, Morocco, a cat, Vincentius (conqueror), kills a mouse named Luxurius.


cat mosaic bardo museum, tunis, Roman cat history

Roman Cat Mosaic
Bardo Museum, Tunis

Evidence from archaeological digs proves that the cat accompanied the Romans to the far reaches of their empire.  Roman era cat remains, many near ancient military encampments, have been found in North Africa (Libya, Tunisia, and Algeria), and Europe (France, England, Italy, Belgium, The Netherlands, Austria, Germany and Hungary, and Turkey) (Engels, 2001).  The cat even hitched a ride on Roman ships that sailed to meet Chinese merchants in Ceylon where they exchanged goods as early as 166AD, just around the time that the cat was first documented in China (Gibbons, l900, Vol.7 p.392).

Romans Named Their Children after the Roman Cat         

With the coming of the Roman imperial age, the cat grew more popular especially among young women.  The name “Little cat or Kitten” Felicula, Felicla was a common nickname given to women as evidenced by the fact that there are over 250 references to this name in various inscriptions.  A tombstone dedicated to Calpurnia Felicla, “kitten” and her husband includes a small bas-relief of a cat.  The name cattus, first used by Palladius, came to be used as an adjective for someone who was sharp witted.  Since no one can deny the cat’s being “sharp witted,” the reference to the cat is undeniable.

Some historians believe that the name cattus originated from the North African Berbers’ name for cat, kaddiska or from the Nubian name, qadis.  It is interesting to note that many terms for the cat in differing languages begin with a k or g sound, derived from the Roman name cattus.  (Rogers, 2001) The Latin name for cat, felis, precedes that of cattus and was the name for cat, marten, ferret, polecat, and tomcat, so actually there was no differentiation between the various animals in early Roman writing.  Today, the domestic cat is referred to as felis cattus.

Continue reading about the Roman cat in part II.


Want to know more about the cat in literature, art and history? Then Revered and Reviled is the book for  you. Now available on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle formats. 

Revered and Reviled: A Complete History of the Domestic Cat, cat history, cats


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