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  • Jana Paulina Lobe

Terriers in Togas: Exploring the Meaning and History of Latin Dog Epitaphs



It doesn’t make a difference whether paws trotted along next to sandals and played with the hem of a toga or whether they jumped around your sneakers. Whether at the forum or on a jog through Central Park, when suddenly there are no more footsteps of a furry companion next to yours - you painfully feel that something is missing. 


Isn’t it remarkable that there is no expiration date for feelings? When they are preserved in stone and on parchment, a present-day dog owner can readily sympathize with one who grieved his loss millennia ago. 


You still are skeptical, dear reader? Please, reach for your handkerchiefs. It is my privilege to be your tour guide as we embark on a journey to the heartbreaking last words for men’s best friends – all carved in stone some thousand years in the past.


Dogs were (besides horses) the most popular pets in the Greco-Roman world. A wealth of literary and epigraphic evidence shows just how close both Ancient Greeks and Romans held their kynes/canes to their heart. 


It is through poems – either inscribed in stone or transmitted through books - that we are brought immediately to the core of what are anthropological constants, be it undying love or the grief about the death of a loved one. Love and death are closely linked in Latin poetry, even on a formal level. The elegiac couplet is a metre that was used for funeral poems for (human as well as pet) friends before it was adapted by masters of the love elegy such as Ovid or Propertius. Most inscriptions we are going to have a look at are written in such elegiac distichs. 


Let us first take a stroll through some scrolls...


The canines of the classical Canon


It was a dog that was the only animal in Homer’s odyssey to be given a proper name. The hero Odysseus’ faithful old watch dog Argos was the first to recognize his master after his absence of twenty years. He could only die in peace once his dominus had returned home. (If you have cried with Hachiko, brace yourselves when you open book 17 of the Odyssey). We know nothing about the grave Argos received, but through Homer’s verses he was immortalized as a loyal hunting and guard dog. While these practical uses were more important in antiquity than they are today, dogs were also kept for purely decorative purposes. 


In Petronius' Satyricon, we learn that noveau riche Trimalchio wished for a dog to be carved at his feet at his tomb; the statue of his wife Fortunata was to hold her catella on a leash beside him.  Catellae were little lap dogs paraded around by Roman it-girls (just as Paris Hilton carried her Chihuahua puppy in her purse). Juvenal wrote, with his usual sharp tongue, that some women would rather see their husbands in Hades than their beloved dogs. (We better not ask what Trimalchio’s Fortunata thought). 


A breed called the Melitaean, imported to Malta, probably from Carthaginian Africa, was particularly popular. You can picture them as the Maltese of today, which were just as fashionable then as they are in modern times! The ancient Greeks affectionately called them νανούδια, little dwarfs. As early as the third century BC Greek writer Theophrastus reports that after the death of one such Melitaean, some contemporaries would erect a stele to commemorate him. (To be fair, in his account this is seen as rather pretentious, though). Probably Publius' dog lady Issa belonged to this breed as well. She must have been so precious to her wealthy owner that he commissioned a painter to create a memento after her death. While that painting hasn’t survived the test of time, Martial’s poem about his friend’s dog has (even if it drips with mockery about a puppy love that maybe is slightly too intimate). Here Issa, blandior omnibus puellis, more alluring than all the girls, truly seems to be better than any girlfriend could have been… 


During the Hellenistic and the Roman Imperial period, it was in vogue to compose little poems for deceased pets, so-called animal epicedia. This was a literary fad: poets delighted in crafting sentimental verses about seemingly secondary subjects. However, this phenomenon also reflects the growing popularity of keeping household dogs at the time. Some scholars claim that childless Roman women instead got themselves a puppy to play with.


Monumental mourning 


Dogs were given a place in eternity not only by literary geniuses but also by ordinary people, in monuments made of stone. 


I invite you to take a walk down memory lane through antiquity with me. In fact, you can take this literally. In ancient times there were no cemeteries, let alone pet cemeteries, but the deceased were buried outside the city. Along the route we will encounter (among others) honey-sweet Fuscus, Aminnaracus (looking for a cool dog name, anybody?), playful Patrice and pearly-white beauty Margarita.


We start with an inscription that dates to the third century AD, engraved for a small dog (catellus) named Fuscus. We may assume that he had dark brown fur as this is the meaning of the Latin adjective.


Hac in sede iacet post reddita fata catellus

Corpus et eiusdem dulcia mella tegunt;

Nomine Fuscus erat ter senos abstulit annos

Membra que vix poterat iam sua ferre senex

 [- - -] exerit ạ[- - -].


'In this place lies after his accomplished life a little doggie, and sweet honey covers his body. His name was Fuscus, and three times six years he has lived. He was barely able to move his limbs aged as he was.'

The fact that he lived to be 18 dog years old corresponds to a Methuselah age of 126 human years. This longevity may speak for good treatment and makes it easy to understand that he was decrepit in his final days. Unfortunately, we don't know what else was said about this little fellow as the last line is illegible, but he certainly deserved to rest his limbs! 


The interesting thing about this epitaph is that we get a glimpse into the ancient burial rites for household pets. While the offering of honey sacrifices is attested for human burials, this source indicates that this custom was not limited to our species. As Valerius Flaccus and Aelian report, the ancient Greeks and Romans gave burials to their dead pets, a practice corroborated by archaeological excavations. In a dog grave from the 4th century BC, right at the ancient Athenian marketplace, a large beef bone was unearthed - a find just as heart-warming as the discovery of small food bowls placed next to the snouts of canine skeletons. The beloved pooches of course shouldn’t suffer any hunger or thurst in the underworld!


Whereas most dogs were buried there also is evidence that some were cremated. The epitaph of an unnamed cartdog was discovered in Recco-Ricina (Helvia Recina) which is the contemporary Italian region of Marche. About the anonymous doggo who died in the 2nd century AD we learn the following:


Image: ©Heidelinde Autengruber-Thüry


'Raeda[r]um custosnumquam latravitinepte. nuncsilet et cineresvindicat um-bra suos.'


This guard of the coaches never barked unnecessarily. Now he is silent and his ashes are protected by the shade.

One might presume that the dog’s dominus was a cart driver who had to have his dog watch over the goods on his cart during his travels, especially at night. We readers are made aware of the dog’s merit: the barking, which this vigilant guardian only started for good reason has been silenced permanently. This fits in with its current location: the tombstone is now housed in the Biblioteca Mozzi Borgetti in Macerata (and you know, everything has to be quiet in libraries!).


Aminnaracus and Heuresis are dogs whose owners weren’t wordy, but alongside their names we at least have plastic representations of how they looked. Well, partially, as Heuresis sadly lacks a head.




Whereas the name of Heuresis points to the dog’s quality as a tracker (εὑρίσκω means to find in Ancient Greek) no one could tell me what inspired Aminnaracus Roman owners in naming him!


Imagesource: © Amgueddfa Cymru National Museum Wales, Cardiff.


It might be some irony of history that this very epitaph now is kept in Cardiff at the similarly hard-to-pronounce Amgueddfa Cymru National Museum Wales.


We’re heading to the Amalfi coast, to Pogerola (in ancient times Salernum) to get to know pupper Patrice who lived and died in the 2nd century AD. When his tombstone was discovered, it thankfully was complete; now only a third of it remains. The rest of the marble plaque is mounted on a wall of the Chiesa di Santa Marina in Pogerola.



[Portavi lacrimis madid]us te, nostra catella, 

[quod feci lustris lae]tior ante tribus. 

[ergo mihi, Patrice, iam n]on dabis oscula mille 

[nec poteris collo gra]ta cubare meo. 

[tristis marmorea posui] te sede merentem 

[et iunxi semper Man]ib(us) ipse meis 

[morib(us) argutis homine]m simulare paratam,

 [perdidimus quales hei] mihi delicias. 

[tu, dulcis Patrice, nostras a]tt[i]ngere men[sa]s 

[consueras, gremio poscere blanda cibos, 

[lambere tu calicem lingua rapiente solebas, 

quem tibi saepe meae sustinuere manus,

 accipere et lassum cauda gaudente frequenter - -


'Bedewed with tears I have carried you, our little dog, as I did more happily fifteen years ago. So now, Patrice, you will no longer give me a thousand kisses, nor will you be able to lie affectionately round my neck. Sad I have placed you in a marble tomb, good boy that you were, thus having united you forever to myself when I die. With your clever character you readily matched a human; alas, what a charming creature I have lost! You, sweet Patrice, were in the habit of joining us at table fawningly asking for morsels in our lap, you used to to lick with your greedy tongue the cup which my hands often held out for you and you would regularly greet my exhausted self with joyfully wagging tail...'

We are told that Patrice was a much-cherished comrade who accompanied her human for 15 years. Although dog kisses are polarizing, Patrice’s would have been sorely missed by her owner, who dedicated an entire marble tombstone to her. In this poem it is particularly moving how the carrying of the dog’s corpse is juxtaposed with holding the little puppy in his arms. Again, we see how the dog is likened to a human, and apparently, she was a tablemate at mealtimes (so much for strict dog training). One can only imagine how empty Patrice’s master must have felt when there was no overjoyed doggie awaiting him when he returned from work. What might have consoled him a little is the prospect of being reunited with his four-legged friend after his own death. Here, the verse of et iunxi… is likely to be read metaphorically, joint burials of dog and animals were not uncommon, though.




Margarita is a minor celebrity in the realm of Latin dogs known to us - thanks to the exquisite tombstone she was given. The marble slab, of considerable size, measuring 61cm by 50cm, was found near the Villa Borghese in Rome but has been bought to London in the 18th century. Nowadays, the monument is preserved in the British Museum (unfortunately not on display currently, but you can have a look here: https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/G_1756-0101-1126 ). 


The inscription reads as follows:


Gallia me genuit, nomen mihi divitis undaeconcha dedit, formae nominis aptus honos.docta per incertas audax discurrere silvascollibus hirsutas atque agitare ferasnon gravibus vinc(u)lis unquam consueta teneriverbera nec niveo corpore saeva pati:molli namque sinu domini dominaeque iacebamet noram in strato lassa cubare toro.et plus quam licuit muto canis ore loquebar:nulli latratus pertimuere meos.sed iam fata subii partu iactata sinistroquam nunc sub parvo marmore terra tegit -- Margarita.


'Gaul fathered me, the name was given to me by the shell of the sea rich in treasures; the honor of the name is befitting of my beauty. Trained to roam boldly through dangerous forest terrainand to chase down rugged game on the hills, never was I accustomed to wear heavy harnesses nor to suffer cruel beatings to my snow-white body. For I liked to lie on my masters’ and mistress’s soft lap and mastered the art of resting comfortably in my made-up bed. Even though I would express more with my inarticulate dog mouth than anyone thought possible: no one was afraid of my barking. But the fate of death has already befallen me, struck down during an ill-fated birth, me, whom the earth covers now under this small marble plaque -- Margarita (‘Pearl’)'

The precious tombstone that placed over Margarita’s body perhaps even matched the color of her coat. She was probably imported from Gaul which was a costly endeavor: dogs from Gaul were prized for their hunting abilities and as status objects. This is also what little Margarita tells us about her life in first-person perspective. We learn that she was a skilled hunter but never had to lift a paw. Instead, she lived the luxurious life of a lap dog in a aristocratic family. It's likely that her owners were upper-class Romans who were not only lovers of animals but of poetry as well. Their literary education can be seen by the wordplay on Margarita’s name as well as the opening words of the funeral poem. 'Gallia me genuit' is a variation of ‘Mantua me genuit’, which is immediately recognizable to ancient readers immediately as a reference to Virgil’s epitaph. It is noteworthy that the beautiful Margarita is humanized in various ways and with learned allusions to love elegy: her fur coat resembles the ideal white skin of a puella, the attractive girl poets like Ovidius lusted after. The verb loqui (to speak) would never be used for an animal. The cause of death, namely dying in childbirth, is one that was also a sad reality for many Roman women. 


One can see how much intellectual work, effort and money were spent to commemorate a little dog. This particularly elaborate example concludes our little tour...well, almost.


You need not call upon Martial from his grave to commission some lines. You don’t even have to travel to Rome. We can stay right where we were, in the UK. It was on a walk through Chiswick Park that British classicist John Davie stumbled upon a grave for a deceased dog named Lucy. As he realized it was written in refined elegiac verse in Latin, he had a peculiar business idea. He now pens Latin poems for dead pets (with a business name that is a lovely spin on Dead Poet’s Society): https://deadpetssociety.co.uk/.


Being a part time lecturer at Oxford he was called upon his workplace with his new role: he contributed a distich to the memorial of the president’s dog Dido. In the garden of Oxford College, there now is a little bronze epitaph reading: 


Felix sis apud umbras, optima Dido

Semper enim nobis cara canicula eras. 


'May you be happy among the shadows, best Dido, for to us you have always been a precious little dog.'

She sure was treated like a princess, pardon, queen, just like her Virgilian namesake, the Carthaginian queen that Aeneas fell in love with.


As a classicist, you are often confronted with the attitude that you have an excessive interest in dead things per se. Especially with a research focus on sepulchral culture, I initially have very little reason to object. And yet the opposite is true for me. Deciphering touching grave inscriptions gives us the privilege of exclusive access to a conditio humana


Margarita, Fuscus and Patrice were just as beloved then as Bella, Bailey or Dido are now.


And if you want to have your pet memorialized: Do as the Romans do. You have options.


References:

  • Seymour, Thomas D.: Life in the Homeric Age. New York 1908, p. 358.

  • Lazenby, Francis D.: Greek and Roman Household Pets. In: The Classical Journal Vol. 44, No. 4 (Jan. 1949)

  • Busuttil, J.: The Maltese Dog.In: Greece & Rome 16, 2 (1969)

  • Day, Leslie Preston: Dog burials in the Greek World. American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 88, No. 1 (1984)

  • Autengruber-Thüry, Heidelinde: Hunde in Der Römischen Antike: Rassen/Typen - Zucht - Haltung und Verwendung. Archaeopress 2021:


Jana Paulina Lobe B.A. has received her Bachelors in Classics and is currently writing her master's thesis (about sustainability in sepulcral culture) in European Ethnology in Bamberg, Germany. Death and Mourning both in antiquity and modern times belong to her research interests. Follow her work here: https://bamberg.academia.edu/JanaPaulinaLobe 


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