Domestic animals were common in antiquity, with Homer’s Odyssey telling of dogs that ate from their masters’ tables (XVII, 305). Perhaps the Odyssey is the most famous example of the bond between master and pet; Odysseus goes to Troy and is delayed on his return, thus resulting in his 20 year absence from his home. Upon his return, his son was approaching adulthood, and his wife was fending off greedy suitors. Athena aided Odysseus in entering his palace in disguise as to not alert the dangerous suitors of his return to Ithaca. Only Argos (His faithful dog) recognised Odysseus, despite his disguise, when he re-entered his palace. Upon seeing his beloved master once again, Argos lay down on a heap of dung (for he had no bed in his master’s absence) and died peacefully.
Indeed, dogs tended to be kept for a specific function, such as guard dogs, watch dogs, or hunting dogs, but there is evidence that they were also kept as pets. Dogs were most often seen as household protectors, and it was said that a dog barking at nothing was a warning of the approach of Trivia, the goddess of graveyards and witchcraft, as dog were always able to sense her presence. Perhaps the most famous visual representation of a dog in Ancient Rome is the ‘Cave Canem’ (“Beware of the Dog”) mosaic, at the entrance to the House of the Tragic Poet in Pompeii.
For more information about the meanings of animals in Roman art, see our relevant blog post: Animal Symbolism in Roman Art.