Domestic Cats: The Human Highway

Most of us have a simple picture of Fluffy’s early history.

Ancient Egyptians domesticated cats and then Roman legions carried them out of Egypt and across Europe while expanding the Empire’s borders, right?

Some would also add, almost as an afterthought (since the image of rugged legionaries as cat people is so much fun), that traders also brought some of Fluffy’s ancestors east, along the Silk Road.

And this is all true, based on what little we actually know about those times.

It’s just very, very incomplete.

The early history of domestic cats is still a mystery, but here are some of the highlights.

Early Mediterranean people and cats

We’ve seen that Egypt sprang a cat leak from about the 8th Century BC on.

Two sea-faring civilizations could have picked up cats long before Rome became a regional power:

“Ai no findz deez arts on Intertubes!”
“They’re mostly in museums, kitty.”
“Oh, okey den.”
(Image: Carole Raddato, CC BY-SA 2.0)

  • Ancient Greece. Their colonies stretched from the Black Sea to what are now Spain and France. Artwork from those days shows that they had domestic cats.

    Given their pest control skills and ability to handle enclosed spaces, it seems likely that some of these cats would be aboard ships traveling between mother country and colony, but no solid evidence for it has been reported yet, as far as I know.

  • Phoenicia. This trading civilization is less familiar to us laypeople, though most of us have heard of their great city Carthage and the trouble it gave Rome (long before Roman soldiers crossed the Alps with cats in 9 AD, heading north and west, the south-bound Carthaginian general Hannibal crossed the Alps with elephants — arguably a greater feat, though much less successful overall).

    I can’t find much information about domestic cats and the Phoenicians. However, results of a 1977 study suggest that these people might have helped black cats get established in the Mediterranean world.

Cats and commerce

That is the study’s title, and it’s also where cat fur characteristics come into play.

Geneticist Neil Todd realized that real-world cats fit into a theoretical model that makes it possible to map out the early distribution of some of their coat colors and link those to human migrations (for details, check his article referenced at the end of this post).

Other mutations, like mismatched eye color, haven’t been mapped yet. (Image: 4×4 Blazer 1776, CC BY 2.0)

His maps showed, among other things, that cats with a solid coat color instead of tabby markings may have first appeared in the Near East.

Such cats are usually black, and Todd was able to track them across northern Africa: prime Phoenician colonial territory, as well as where Carthage grew strong enough to eventually challenge that upstart Roman Republic over on the Italian Peninsula.

Todd speculated that Phoenician colonists liked the unusual appearance of these cats — his term for it is “novelty selection” — and brought them along on their moves over Africa’s Mediterranean shores. This “fixed” the new look in cat gene pools.

Per Engels, though, the earliest known documentation of a black cat comes from Roman-era France.

Antics like this had to wait for the invention of photography. (Image: Library of Congress via Wikimedia)

Todd also found other intriguing possibilities, for instance, that Vikings may have been responsible for spreading two feline coat color mutations — orange and “W” (non-albino white cats) — northward from an origin in the Near East.

But that’s all beyond the scope of a single post.

The Temple of the White Horse is still around today. (Image: Gisling via Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0)

And for simplicity’s sake let’s not even try here to unravel the cat’s history in Asia — for instance, the long-term feline consequences of Emperor Ming’s order, at some point between 58 and 76 AD, to import cats from India to guard the new Chinese translations of Buddhist texts he had stored in the Temple of the White Horse. (Del Rio Wang)

How complex the early history of house cats must have been!

Romans and cats

This is incontrovertible fact: Cleopatra killed herself in 30 BC and, three years later, Caesar’s heir Octavian became the emperor Augustus, kickstarting an empire that would last, in one form or another, until 1453 and the fall of Constantinople.

Before then — that is, during the Roman Republic — dogs were the most common pets, while weasels and ferrets were used for pest control (though they tended to wander off and also required care and feeding).

House cats first appear in early Empire records, but only indirectly.

No one back then ever wrote, “Wow! Check out those cats!”, though Pliny the Elder did describe them scientifically for the first time, in his Natural History.

But their popularity was obvious:

  • Before Vesuvius destroyed their city in 79 AD (and killed Pliny the Elder), residents of Pompeii included domestic cats in mosaic art. At least one family even buried a cat in their garden. (I haven’t been able to verify stories that cat remains have been found in the city’s ruins, although dogs were among the victims.)
  • Around 123 AD, an inscription boasting of the Third Legion Cyrenaica’s invincibility shows a cat.

    While this particular unit had another mascot, some legionaries did carry cat emblems on their shields and banners. No one laughed at those cat people!

  • A list of honorably discharged veterans from the Praetorian Guard, made in 144 AD, mentions the unit Catti: the Cats.
  • Multiple nicknames for women — Felicula, Felicia, Catta, and Cattula — all meant “kitten” or “little cat.” (Engels)

Those are just some examples found without much searching.

Cats did accompany the Romans across western Europe. Their remains are often associated with military camps and frontier forts, but they are also found in Roman towns as well as out in the countryside at villas and farm sites.

However, Engels notes that seven cats, including five kittens, were buried in a Dorset fort that dates back to the 3rd Century BC, long before Julius Caesar conquered Britain.

Could these have been descendants of ship cats introduced centuries earlier by Phoenician traders and still hanging on in human-dominated ecosystems, where their local competition — the European wildcat — would not go?

We’ll probably never know.

It’s a good reminder, though, that while Roman soldiers and citizens certainly gave the house cat its biggest success since Egypt, there were earlier important players who could have spread at least a few domestic kitties around before Rome made its world debut.

And the Roman Empire did not last forever. What happened to cats after that?

The independence of a neglected necessity

We look back at history to see the big picture — important things in the past that shaped today’s world.

Only specialists want to know more about the boring stuff like how people earned a living and handled (or failed to handle) problems like garbage, sewage disposal, and common illnesses.

“‘sup?” (Image: Bernard Dupont, CC BY-SA 2.0)

But house cats are found most often amidst the boring stuff because that’s where the mice and rats were.

Even as aristocratic pets and honored legionary mascots, cats always did what came naturally: keeping the rodent population under control.

It’s one reason for their popularity during a time when most military gear and many work and personal items were made out of leather — something that appealed to small, hungry pests.

Nobody had to train them to hunt; cats came programmed and built for it. All that people had to do was pamper the cats a little to keep them around.

It was a win-win situation, but it also meant that cats kept intact a part of their wild nature that wolves lost when they became dogs thousands of years before the first wildcat was domesticated.

Roman legions left Britain and other Imperial possessions in the region when barbarians sacked Rome in 410 AD.

Cats then became even more important during the rough times that followed. Yet cats were ignored except in places like Wales and Cornwall, which were still relatively safe from outside invasions and maintained Roman customs longer.

In that era, the survival of an entire village sometimes depended on a single harvest and the ability to preserve enough food to last through winter. An infestation of mice could be a death sentence.

No wonder Welsh laws required the presence of a village cat before legally recognizing the community! (Engels)

But in most places, cats were just part of the background. Barn cats and village cats helped keep people from starving and improved public health by killing rats and other pests, yet everyone took them for granted and, except for the occasional pet, just let them be.

There were comfy dens, too. (Image: toledota/Shutterstock)

As a result, for tens of centuries cats stayed independent and yet still enjoyed the abundant prey and competitive edge that came from associating with people.

If your cat could speak today, it would probably ask why cats should give up all that just because some people decided to get serious about cat breeding a mere 150 years ago.

Modern cats might also point out that they were once worshipped as gods, hint, hint, wink, wink.

There’s a response to that, though: “How did it work out for you in Western Europe between roughly 1200 and 1700 AD?”

It’s a touchy subject. (Image: Seregraff/Shutterstock)

Featured image: William J. Sisti, CC BY-SA 2.0.


Christensen, A. C. 2000. Cats as an aid to teaching genetics. Genetics, 155(3): 999-1004.

Poemas del Río Wang. 2010. Chinese cats. Last accessed November 25, 2017.

Engels, D. W. 2015. Classical cats: the rise and fall of the sacred cat. Ebook retrieved from

Serpell, J. A. 2014. Domestication and history of the cat, in The Domestic Cat: The Biology of its Behaviour, eds Turner, D. C., and Bateson, P., 83-100. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Todd, N. B. 1977. Cats and Commerce. Scientific American. 237: 100-107.

Vocelle, L. A. The Great Cat website, various posts. Last accessed in the fall of 2017.

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