Sian Lewis (University of St Andrews)
animi laxandi causa modo piscabatur hamo, modo talis aut ocellatis nucibusque ludebat cum pueris minutis, quos facie et garrulitate amabilis undique conquirebat, praecipue Mauros et Syros. (Suet. Aug. 83)
The relationship between pet and owner has been much studied in a contemporary context (Tuan 1984, Shell 1986, Haraway 2003), but petkeeping is, as Berger (1980) notes, a specific cultural phenomenon, appearing in its modern Western form only from the sixteenth century onward. Discussions of pets in the Roman context have tended to adopt a contemporary interpretation of the nature and purpose of the pet relationship, with only a few recognising it as a cultural and class-based phenomenon to which modern expectations about the role of the pet are not easily applicable (Bradley 1988, Gilhus 2006, Sorabella 2007).
Any conceptualisation of pet ownership in Imperial Roman society must be complicated by the existence of human pets, the so-called pueri minuti or delicati. It is well-documented that small children were regularly kept as pets by wealthy men and women, either slave children traded for the purpose, or children of house slaves selected in infancy (Slater 1974, Laes 2003, 2010, Mencacci 2010).
The existence of human pets casts a different and somewhat unwelcome light on the pet relationship in Rome, particularly when we consider the qualities which made pet children attractive. Playfulness was their primary quality, allowing the pet owner to create a private space where the rigorous demands of the public persona could be relaxed, and lack of shame, or rather lack of self-consciousness, was also crucial to their appeal – pueri minuti, often kept naked (Dio 48.44.3), were encouraged to speak freely and engage in rude or offensive jokes, because the young child, untroubled by social boundaries, could entertain by being harmlessly transgressive (Mencacci 2010). Finally, and perhaps more disturbingly, pet children were replaceable: as soon as a pet was too old to be an undemanding and childish companion they would be replaced by a younger substitute (Sen. Epist. 83, Athen. 12.581f).
Recognising the qualities valued in a pet child brings into clearer focus some of the underlying structures of the pet-owner relationship as experienced at Rome where the boundary between the animal and the human was contingent on social status and/or ethnic origin. The work demanded of a pet child, taken from their family to perform the facsimile of a carefree childhood for the entertainment of a world-weary senator, is easier for us to see than the emotional labour demanded of a pet dog or bird, yet the training of a child to perform petlike service is paralleled in the demands made on pet animals to act in human-like ways – birds which were trained to speak, or dogs required to demonstrate unfailing obedience, affection and loyalty. The experience of the pet child likewise throws into sharp relief the owners’ indifference to the pet’s interior state, and the role of pets sourced from across the empire as a status-marker among the Roman aristocracy.