Greek Cats

Exotic Cats Kept by Rich Youths in Fifth Century B.C. Athens, as Portrayed on Greek Vases

By: Ann Ashmead

Originally Published in 1978

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Some years ago a Greek vase (Figs. 1, 2) that the University Museum had lent to Bryn Mawr College aroused my curiosity about cheetahs in antiquity, starting me on a long trail of Classical cats.

The vase, a two-handled pear-shaped oil container named `pelike’ by archaeologists, was covered with a black glaze, now pitted and flaking. It was painted on each side with the unusual theme of a young man with a `cat.’ On side A the youth is drawn walking a spotted feline which trots jauntily along in front, head up, tail slightly raised. The youth is naked except for a short cloak that is wrapped around his right shoulder and flutters out behind. His right hand grips a hooked staff tied round with a ribbon; his left hand is held out, palm down.

The subject of the reverse is unique in vase painting: here the youth looks down at the animal which, tail extended for balance, climbs up a knobby staff. The youth braces himself against the staff; his right hand rests on his hip. He wears a long cloak draped to expose his right shoulder. Both youths have short curly hair.

The picture panels are framed above by a lotus pattern (bounded by single glazed lines) and at the sides by a net pattern (bounded by double glazed lines) and below by a reserved band.

The animals appearing in both scenes are not ordinary cats; this can be determined by comparing them with the cat on the kylix in Switzerland by the Cat and Dog Painter (Fig. 8) where the cat, unlike the pelike felines, is unspotted, has a shorter tail and heavier body. The animals on the pelike are leopards since they are spotted, and hunting leopards, or cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus) because of their body proportions, their tong tails (approximately half the length of head and body) and tame behavior. Alfred Brehm, writing of the domestication of the cheetah, says “Good nature is the essential trait of the cheetah’s character. A cheetah when tied will never think of biting through the slender cord which holds him. A tame cheetah never attempts to harm anybody and it is perfectly safe to walk boldly up to him. He accepts caresses with indifference, or at best only acknowledges them by purring a little louder than usual.” Both animals on this vase are small, so probably cubs. There is no trace of a leash in either scene.

The University Museum’s pelike should be added to a small group of seven vases listed by W. L. Brown showing aristocratic Athenian youths with cheetahs. The pelike emphasizes this exotic theme by painting the animal on both sides (none of the others shows two cheetahs). The scene may be out­doors because of the cloaks and staffs, but this is not necesarily so. The other listed vases depict cheetahs at a music lesson (Figs. 5, 6), being petted on the lap of a youth (Fig. 9), being walked (Fig. 10), or rearing up at the sight of a dog (Figs. 12, 13). The latter scene illustrates Alfred Brehm’s observation that a “passing dog immediately excites him [the cheetah]: he ceases purring and turns a keen glance upon the intruder, who usually looks somewhat sheepish at such a moment, and the cheetah pricks up his ears and some­times tries to overtake the dog in a few bounds.”

In addition to this University Museum pelike I would like to add a second vase to Brown’s list, Acropolis Museum No. 778 (Fig. 14), where a playful cheetah crouches on a stool between two men. A third addition to the list would be a squat lekythos in the collection of Bowdoin College, Brunswick, Maine, No. 1915.41 (Fig. 17), where a cloaked man is looking at a young man who is restraining a cheetah on a leash. The cloaked man is leaning on a staff, in a pose closely paralleling that of the man on side B of the University Museum’s pelike. A fourth addition to the list is a cup in the Agora Museum (Figs. 15, 16), where a cheetah stands under the cup handle; youths occupy both sides. This Agora cheetah is in the tradition of leopards as sub-handle decoration; it is not )art of the major scene. A fifth addition called to my attention by Dietrich von Bothmer is an unpublished cup by Douris, formerly Geneva market, “that shows on A a dog snarling at a full grown cheetah that has climbed on a chair. Here the pelt is especially carefully rendered.”

Brown’s listed vases and the five addi­tions date from the first half of the fifth century; all depict men, not women; and the cheetahs, with the exception of the Agora cup, play an important role in the scene. The scenes are less conventional and the cheetahs are lifelike, suggesting the actual presence in Athens of a cheetah cub as the pet of certain upper-class young men. The cheetah’s body is always rendered in profile and the head, with the exception of the Agora cup and Boulogne-sur-mer pelike, is in profile, too.

The cover of the 1975 Summer issue of Expedition illustrates the earliest representa­tion of the hunting leopard in vase painting: a cheetah sits under the chair of the seated man of this Laconian Arcesilas cup (Cabinet des Médailles No, 189) dated ca 565/560 B.C. (Fig. 18). Between this cup and the Uni­versity Museum’s pelike is a gap of some eighty years or more. The type of picture shown on the pelike is not continued into the later fifth century, for later ‘cats’ are shown by themselves, and not as being admired by young men.

The leopard as pet, perhaps the cheetah (it is impossible to say which), became ex­tremely popular on small vases, such as askoi and squat lekythoi. There is an example of each type in the University Museum. ❑n these two the animal is less precisely drawn, apparently not from life. One vase, L-64-190 (Fig. 19), is a deep askos with a small verti­cal spout at one side, an over-arching handle and a hollow tube through the center. The askos is a shape which served for pouring liquids slowly and may once have held honey, oil or perfume. Side A is painted with a lion; side B with a running (?) leopard (Fig. 20]. Below is a reserved band. The leopard’s expression is foxy as he glances back at the pursuing lion. Distinctive are his small tri­angular head, the angular contours of tail and belly, the very delicate, neatly drawn, double arc of the shoulders and the unusual straight strokes diagonally across the back legs, The spots are rendered by heavy vertical strokes, the body spots are lighter along the spine but along the body are angular and unusual in being loops which are arranged in neat rows; solid strokes represent spots on legs and feet; fine dots spot the forehead. The strokes along the back and the open circles are artistic license and conventions. The confusing black area below the animal’s right eye is actually

the last in the top line of open spots; indicat­ing that the animal was first spotted and then the face marking applied.

This leopard is unlike the mass of late fifth century askoi hastily painted with leopards. Accurate observations are the swell of the forehead, the upstanding ears, the curl of the tail and the narrow hip area. The askos leopard is more closely related to the earlier types than is the leopard on a second small vase in the University Museum. This latter is a squat lekythos, an oil container, L-64-189 (Figs. 21, 22), with fat, bulbous body and broad ring foot. The leopard here is squatting with left paw raised, its head turned to the viewer. The leopard is much more carelessly drawn: its body is lumpy, the legs are cruder and lack detail, the tail is too short, thick at the top and, unlike the finely curled tail of the other leopard, is unrealistically bent; the ears, with their black centers, are too large and bat-like. The rows of strokes between the ears form an arbitrary, unreal pattern. The spotting of this cat is achieved by thinly scattered pairs of fine dots arranged rather at random on the body, and by dots running roughly along the spine. The body lines are less fine than those of the askos leopard. The face is different: here the nose is narrow between the eyes and the nose lines spread far apart as they approach the muzzle; these latter lines are partly lost.

There are many lekythoi and askoi decorated with felines and it is a thankless task to identify painters of these hasty products. One can say that the artists spent a limited time on some while others can be execrable. These small vases can also be arranged according to certain basic traits such as the contours of the body, the curve of the shoulders and the manner of dotting, which reveal the artist’s individuality.

The University Museum’s lekythos leopard was drawn rapidly; the toes were barely indicated, the paws are sketchy, the spots hurried. Parallels for the long shoulder curve and arc above the right forepaw, the dots along the back, the quite small pairs of dots randomly set on the body, are to be found with a leopard on a squat lekythos in the British Museum, F-30 (Fig. 24). For these details as well as the large bat-like ears, fore­head dots, face, and the blacked-in back­ground below the stomach, compare British Museum lekythos E 641 (Fig. 23).

To return once more to the University Museum pelike with which we started—the vase is not attributed to an artist. Parallels in shape and border pattern occur in the work of the Eucharides Painter, but his lotus buds in the black-figure pelikai borders seem thicker than those on the Philadelphia pelike. Dietrich von Bothmer points out in a letter that the “schema of decoration is typical for Myson and his group,” and also refers to “Boston 61.384 (ARV2 1638) which Beazley has put near the Goettingen Painter.” Myson was a mannered painter whose work leads on to such mannerist artists as the Pig and Agrigento Painters. Close parallels can be drawn among his pelikai. One in Syracuse (No. 15709), nearly identical in height to the University Museum vase, shows his charac­teristic heavy-thighed men with down-turned gazes. Comparable among the Syracuse athletes are the manner of holding a stick with hand loosely on top, the long spread-apart fingers of the left youth, narrow biceps; also note the long firm continuous lines of cloth and curve of the drapery across the mid-torso of the trainer at the right.

On a pelike of the Dewing Collection (Fig. 25), with similar border schema, a draped athletic trainer leans on his staff; similar general and specific parallels occur. Characteristic is the manner in which the contour of the leg bends into the hip. A column krater in Wurzburg (No. 526) and one in Copenhagen (No. 3836) afford further parallels. On the latter the round, heavy dot spotting of the leopard pelt worn by a satyr parallels the cheetah spots. Among Myson’s followers it is the Pig Painter not the Agrigento Painter who continues this pelt rendering. The date of the University Museum pelike is about the end of the first quarter of the fifth century.

In these three University Museum vases, pelike, askos, lekythos, it is possible in one collection to see a continuous interest in leopards but with a shift away from the unique drawn-from-life cheetahs on the pots of the early fifth century to the less accurate, hastily-drawn leopards on later mass-produced cheaper small vases. The pelike scene also provides an insight into life in ancient Athens, namely the popularity of the cheetah cub as a pet and status symbol for certain sophisticated Athenian young men.

Cite This Article

Ashmead, Ann. "Greek Cats." Expedition Magazine 20, no. 3 (April, 1978): -. Accessed February 24, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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