Cats of the Roman Legions

An ancient Roman cat mosaic in the National Archaeological Museum in Naples, Italy. (Massimo Finizio/Wikimedia Commmons)
Throughout history, cats have been a mascot for everything from sports teams to railroad lines, and a faithful companion and guardian for we humans. It's no wonder then that cats played a crucial role in the Roman army!

Throughout the territories of the Roman empire, cats were brought to military installations and naval bases by units of the Roman army and navy. These cats served an important purpose to the Empire: To keep mice and especially black rats out of the grain and supply stores of the Roman military units across the Empire. Black rats were a major problem throughout the Roman empire and they had the capacity to inflict heavy damage on food and equipment. Rats can gnaw through leather and wood, which is what a good deal of Roman military equipment was made from. Also, black rats and other rodents had the ability to spread disease among the Legionnaires and their horses, which could easily have caused a deadly epidemic at the time. In order to keep the rat population under control, the Roman commanders recruited the world's most efficient mouse and rat hunter: The cat!

One cat has the ability to catch hundreds of rats a year, which would instantly safeguard many hundreds of tons of grain and equipment in Roman stores and ships per year!

Cats also served another function in the Roman military: As mascots and pets for various army units and ships. A number of Roman army units were reported to have used cats of different colors on their banners, although no pictoral evidence to prove this and the cats could've been other much bigger feline species such as lions or jaguars. However, it is recorded in ancient Roman histories that a unit (or 'century') of the sixth cohort of the Praetorian Guard were known as Catti, or "The Cats" in English!

Most importantly of all, there is plenty of evidence that the Roman Legionnaires and sailors loved the cats that stayed by their side in those faraway lands. At the sites of some of the old Roman military installations, mummified cats and other artifacts such as mosaics (see above) and soldiers' insciptions of cats have been found. These mummified cats were given very elaborate burials and were sometimes buried in coffins in addition to being wrapped. This suggests that cats were adored by their masters and considered sacred by the Romans and by many in the lands they ruled, such as the Egyptians. Also, many Legionnaires had the word Cattus, or "cat" inserted into their names. In this case, cattus most likely meant "to be sharp-witted", but we all know which animal is one of the most wily, cunning, and sharp-witted of all!

To those men who served Rome in some faraway remote outpost or on a ship in a foreign sea, life could be very lonely and the dangers great. The cats who lived at these installations performed the two duties they continue to perform to this very day for anyone who owns a cat: They gave these Legionnaires and soldiers unconditional love and companionship, and protected them from disease and hunger. All evidence shows that these men were forever grateful to Catti for all they did for them.

-Campbell, Brian. The Oxford Handbook of Warfare in the Classical World. New York City: Oxford University Press USA, 2013, pgs. 366-368.
-Engels, Donald W. Classical Cats: The Rise and Fall of the Sacred Cat. London; Routledge Publishing, 1999, pg. 202.

See also:
- (An excellent series of blog posts from The Great Cat about the cats of ancient Rome.)

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