10 Beloved Animals From Ancient History

Naples National Archeological Museum via The History Blog
Naples National Archeological Museum via The History Blog / Naples National Archeological Museum via The History Blog

Adored pets, faithful allies, best friends, and sometimes the idols of thousands, here are 10 ancient animals who were deeply loved in life and immortalized after death.


Alexander the Great's horse Bucephalus (depicted in the mosaic above) had an unbreakable bond with Alexander long before he was The Great. As a boy of 12 or 13, Alexander tamed the fearsome Bucephalus when neither his father nor any of his men could, simply by understanding that the source of the animal's intractability was his fear of his shadow. With a little consideration and a few gentle words, Alexander was quickly able to mount Bucephalus and ride him. From then on, the two were inseparable. Alexander and Bucephalus conquered much of the world together and their legends grew in tandem.

Depending on which ancient source you read, Bucephalus either died of old age or from wounds inflicted at the Battle of the Hydaspes, now known as the Jhelum River, in modern-day Pakistan in 326 BCE. Whatever the proximate cause of death, Bucephalus was buried where he fell and Alexander founded a city there, Alexandria Bucephala, to honor his memory.


Game of Thrones owes a debt of imagination to 12th Dynasty Pharaoh Amenemhat III (ruled c.1860 BCE to c.1814 BCE). According to 3rd century Roman rhetorician Claudius Aelianus, commonly known as Aelian, Amenemhat III had a tame crow he trained to deliver messages with the intelligence of a border collie and the reliability of a carrier pigeon.

Any despatches that he wished to have delivered anywhere this Crow would speedily carry; and it was the swiftest of messengers: having heard its destination, it knew where it must direct its flight to, which spot it must pass, and where it must pause on arrival.

Amenemhat had a tomb built for his loyal crow friend in the city of Crocodilopolis (modern-day Faiyum, Egypt).


Cats were revered in ancient Egypt, but despite their presence in the pantheon as deities Mafdet, Bastet, and Sekhmet, and the thousands of votive mummies of cats found in tombs and temple precincts, there isn't a great deal of evidence in the archaeological and historical record about pet cats. That's why Ta-Miaut (a.k.a. Ta-Miu or Ta-Mit), the pet cat of Crown Prince Thutmose, stands out.

The eldest son of 18th Dynasty pharaoh Amenhotep III (ruled c.1391—c.1354 BCE) and Queen Tiye, Thutmose predeceased his father. His tomb was found near Memphis in 1892. It contained a small but finely decorated sarcophagus, carved on both sides with the image of a cat in front of an offering table. Inscriptions on the sides and roof of the sarcophagus identified it as the final resting place for the prince's cat Ta-Miaut, meaning she-cat. The hieroglyphic inscriptions associate Ta-Miaut with Osiris and are indistinguishable from inscriptions on the coffins of people from this period. In death, the cat has been deified and embraced by Isis, Nepthys, Nut, and Geb. The first lines of the inscription read:

Words spoken by Osiris, Ta-Miaut I bristle before the Sky, and its parts that are upon (it). I myself am placed among the imperishable ones that are in the Sky, (For) I am Ta-Miaut, the Triumphant.

The text indicates the coffin was made on the order of Prince Thutmose during his lifetime. He arranged for his beloved Ta-Miaut to join him in his tomb, and in the afterlife, after his own death.


Princess Isitemkheb was the daughter of 21st Dynasty pharaoh Psusennes I (ruled 1047-1001 BCE) and would later become the wife of his half-brother Menkheperre, who as High Priest of Amun ruled the south of the kingdom from Thebes (1045 BCE-992 BCE). She was buried in the family tomb at Deir el Bahari in about 945 BCE.

Buried with Isitemkheb was the mummy of a small gazelle. While a gazelle haunch was also found in the tomb, it was packaged as food, a delicacy to enjoy in the afterlife. Princess Isitemkheb's gazelle, however, was not a cut of prime meat. It was mummified whole, wrapped in elegant blue-trimmed linen bandages and placed in a sarcophagus custom-built to fit its body precisely. The lid of the sarcophagus is carved with a profile of the gazelle, the ears, horns, and dignified visage beautifully rendered.


Alexander's opponent in the Battle of the Hydaspes, King Porus, ruler of the Paurava kingdom in what is now the Punjab, had a great steed of his own: a war elephant. Porus's 200-strong elephant cavalry, their tusks covered in iron spikes, was the animal equivalent of the big guns. They were deployed to the front and were too strong a barrier to attack directly, but Alexander attacked Porus's flank and ultimately penned in the elephants, using the wounded and panicked animals against their own army.

Indian kings usually rode a chariot at the head of their armies, but Porus rode his favorite war elephant instead. Plutarch claimed Porus was 6'3" (Arrian and Diodorus Siculus said he was 7'6"), a towering height back then even more than it is now, so it was fitting that his ride should be an elephant. They also shared as strong a bond as Alexander and Bucephalus: With the fight going badly against them, Porus and his elephant were both wounded, but the elephant protected his rider, valiantly fending off attackers until he recognized that Porus, unable any longer to hold himself up, was in danger of sliding off. The elephant kneeled, ensuring that if he fell Porus would not drop from a dangerous height, and then with his trunk gently removed all the spears pincushioning Porus's body.

Alexander was so impressed with Porus's bravery that he made him satrap of his former kingdom. According to at least one ancient source, Roman historian Quintus Curtius Rufus, the elephant died of its wounds. The Battle of the Hydaspes took a heavy toll on loyal mounts.


Roman general Quintus Sertorius went rogue in Spain, using guerrilla warfare tactics to successfully fend off Rome's every attempt to reestablish control for seven years. One of Sertorius's most effective weapons was his pet white fawn. The animal had been captured from its mother and presented to Sertorius as a gift. He tamed the baby so effectively that she followed him everywhere and came whenever he called. She became impervious to crowds and the sounds and smells of an army camp.

Sertorius parlayed his exotic pet into a magical conduit to the gods, claiming she had been sent to him from Diana and had prophetic powers. From Plutarch's Life of Sertorius:

Whenever he had secret intelligence that the enemy had made an incursion into the territory which he commanded, or were trying to bring a city to revolt from him, he would pretend that the doe had conversed with him in his dreams, bidding him hold his forces in readiness. Again, when he got tidings of some victory won by his generals, he would hide the messenger, and bring forth the doe wearing garlands for the receipt of glad tidings, exhorting his men to be of good cheer and to sacrifice to the gods, assured that they were to learn of some good fortune.

Unfortunately for Sertorius, the fawn failed to inform him that his general Marcus Perpenna Vento was going to betray him and assassinate him at a banquet, ending the Sertorian War in 72 BCE.


Muraena, or Mediterranean eels, were a prized delicacy in ancient Rome, kept in ponds and tanks in the villas of the rich. Most of the time they wound up on the plate, although at least one person, wealthy freedman Vedius Pollio, trained his eels to do the eating, namely of slaves who had displeased him.

As the richest man in Rome, triumvir Marcus Licinius Crassus had fishponds of his own. He developed a particular fondness for one of the eels, adorning it, as Aelian describes it, with "earrings and necklaces set with jewels, just like some lovely maiden." The eel recognized Crassus's voice and came when he called, whereupon Crassus would give it treats and the eel equivalent of cuddles.

When it died, Crassus had the eel buried and wept openly. His enemy Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus mocked him about it on the Senate floor,  to which Crassus responded that Domitius “buried three wives and didn't weep.”


Other great Romans of the era developed a fondness for eels that transcended the animal's status as tasty food. Pliny says that orator Quintus Hortensius, who had large fishponds on his country estate at Bauli, loved one of his eels so much that he too wept when it died. Antonia, daughter of Marc Antony and Augustus's sister Octavia, mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother of Roman emperors, had a pet muraena she kept at Hortensius's estate. Like Crassus, she also adorned her eel with gold earrings, making it something of a tourist attraction. People came from all over to see Antonia's bejeweled eel.


The Roman emperor Tiberius reportedly said of his great-nephew and protege in depravity Caligula that he was "rearing a viper for the Roman people." He also had an actual pet snake, which he raised with an affection and tenderness he did not display toward his successor to the throne. Tiberius fed the snake from his own hand and traveled with it on the rare occasions at the end of his life when he left his villa in Capri.

During one of those trips, he was a few miles outside Rome on the Via Appia when he went to feed his snake and found it dead, its corpse covered in ants. Tiberius's soothsayers advised him that this was a potent warning against the power of the mob. He wasn't exactly popular in Rome by this time, so he quickly turned around and hightailed it back down south.


Pliny tells of a raven, one of an unkindness (the collective noun for the bird) bred and hand-reared by the priests of the Temple of Castor in Rome. This raven was a talented public speaker who would perch upon the Rostra facing the Forum every morning and greet the emperor Tiberius and his sons Germanicus and Drusus by name. Then it greeted the Roman people, before flying off to hang out at its favorite shoemaker's shop.

Another shoemaker, bitter that the competition was getting more business because of all this, killed the bird, ostensibly because it crapped on his shoes. The neighborhood rose up in rage, chasing the raven-killer all over town and ultimately killing him.

His murder avenged, the raven was given a final sendoff attended by multitudes vastly outnumbering those at the funeral of one of Rome's greatest generals, Scipio Aemilianus, who (Pliny points out) was also murdered, only nobody bothered to avenge him.

The funeral, too, of the bird was celebrated with almost endless obsequies; the body was placed upon a litter carried upon the shoulders of two Æthiopians, preceded by a piper, and borne to the pile with garlands of every size and description. The pile was erected on the right-hand side of the Appian Way, at the second milestone from the City, in the field generally known as the "field of Rediculus."