In the Ancient Roman and Greek mythologies and cultures, panthers were considered to be the faithful companions of the wine god Bacchus, or his Greek counterpart Dionysus. The panthers were sacred to the god, who is often depicted riding them on sculptures, mosaics and wall paintings. The Dionysian thiasos (procession) was one of the favourite subjects in Ancient Roman art. It featured the god and his wife Ariadne at the centre, surrounded and followed by various animals such as panthers, lions, tigers and creatures such as satyrs and nymphs. Exotic and wild animals were associated with the wild and uncontrolled nature of this god. Panthers were far from a mythological beast, however, and would have been a familiar sight across the Roman Empire. The ‘venationes’ (“hunts”) and other ‘spectacula’ (“shows”) of ancient Rome saw exotic species (including panthers, elephants, and bears) procured from all corners of the Roman Empire – a conscious demonstration in itself of the nation’s extensive reach and authority – and placed in the amphitheatre for gory entertainment.
For more information about the meanings of animals in Roman art, see our relevant blog post: Animal Symbolism in Roman Art.