When Cats Killed Men April 18, 2013Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient , trackback
Can a cat kill a human being? In the modern world you would need to invent a rather elaborate scenario involving microbes, extreme allergies or a long flight of stairs to make that one work. But in ancient Egypt cats regularly murdered their human neighbours: though first their human neighbours had to kill them. Diodorus Siculus (Sicilian Diodorus) is our best source here. Diodorus explains how anyone who was responsible for the death of a cat – a holy animal, remember – would suffer the wrath of the multitude were he or she caught. Indeed, when Egyptians saw dead cats they would, DS assures us, back away quickly protesting that they had nothing to do with the murder of the feline deity at their feet.
Of course, this, you might think, would be exaggeration on the part of Diodorus, who took too much on trust: he is often characterized as an ancient cut-and-paster, borrowing uncritically from dozens of works. But it isn’t for Diodorus personally saw how violent the Egyptians could become over a cat death. In the 180 Olympiad (60-56 BC), probably 60 BC or 59 BC Diodorus found himself in Egypt at the time of a Roman embassy to the land of the Phaoroahs. (‘And this incident we relate, not from hearsay, but we saw it with our own eyes on the occasion of the visit we made to Egypt’.)
So deeply implanted also in the hearts of the common [Egyptian] people is their superstitious regard for these animals and so unalterable are the emotions cherished by every man regarding the honour due to them that once… one of the Romans killed a cat and the multitude rushed in a crowd to his house, neither the officials sent by the king to beg the man off nor the fear of Rome which all the people felt were enough to save the man from punishment, even though his act had been an accident.
Diodorus emphasis that the Egyptians were actually at that time trying to court the Romans: we are in the last generation of Egyptian independence. Ptolemy wanted proper recognition from the Senate and certainly didn’t want to give the Romans any reason to raise the eagles: ‘at this time when Ptolemy their king had not as yet been given by the Romans the appellation of ‘friend’ and the people were exercising all zeal in courting the favour of the embassy from Italy which was then visiting Egypt and, in their fear, were intent upon giving no cause for complaint or war’. Diodorus’ point was that the normal rules of war and peace are suspended when cats were involved.
So what happened to the Roman, who had probably tripped over tiddles while going to the market. Diodorus doesn’t go into details but he describes elsewhere how felocides were dealt with, perhaps with this incident in mind: ‘[the killer] is certainly put to death, for the common people gather in crowds and deal with the perpetrator most cruelly, sometimes doing this without waiting for a trial.’ Presumably the crowds were walking away with an arm here, a leg there, a matted bit of hair…
Two misunderstandings in discussion of this passage crop up. First, it is often said that the Roman was a member of the embassy. That seems to be a lazy reading of the English translation: we don’t have the Greek here and it is a long day, sorry. (If anyone wants to check it is 83 drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com: knowing DS it is probably ambiguous there too). However, Beach’s guess is that the victim would have been part of the Roman community in Egypt: see ‘his house’. It is also noted in a couple of places that a chariot killed the cat: Beach suspects that this comes from a rogue Wikipedia page.
By the way if you like this story Beach has a respectable back catalogue of weird cat tales. He’s actually pretty proud of some of them.