Around the year 59 BCE, a Greek historian from Sicily witnessed a dramatic incident of crime and vengeance in the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt. The scholar that observed these events was Diodorus Siculus, and he recorded the tale in his bulky Library of History. As told by the ancient historian, the odd episode took place just before King Ptolemy XII (r. 80-51 BCE) paid a large sum of money to Julius Caesar, who was then a consul of Rome. This money, paid in 59 BCE, would convince the Roman Senate (which wanted to annex Egypt) to formally acknowledge Ptolemy XII’s status as king of the Egyptians, and also to recognize him as a friend and ally to Rome. Diodorus’ odd tale featured here, however, occurred “when Ptolemy had not as of yet been given by the Romans the appellation of ‘friend’” (Diodorus Siculus, Library of History, 1.83). As such, the relationship of Egypt and Rome at the time of this tale is one of two states negotiating an alliance. Unfortunately for Ptolemy XII, the Roman envoys in Egypt did a poor job of garnering the respect of the local population. In fact, a Roman visitor present in the Kingdom of Egypt at that time made one of the worst mistakes that could be committed—he killed a cat.
Ancient Egyptians loved cats, and were diligent in feeding and protecting them. From big cats to small cats, the Egyptians revered them, and certain Egyptian deities, such as the goddesses Bastet and Sekhmet, were depicted with feline features. As such, cats were considered sacred animals in ancient Egypt, worth protecting to the best of human ability.
Unfortunately, the Roman visitor mentioned before did not take the lesson to heart. Acting carelessly and without caution, this Roman was said to have accidentally killed one of Egypt’s beloved cats. News of the killing spread quickly through the local community, and a mob of angry Egyptians soon congregated together, united by their passionate urge to avenge the slain cat. Diodorus Siculus’ report about the chaotic episode that unfolded was as follows:
“One of the Romans killed a cat and the multitudes rushed in a crowd to his house, neither the officials sent by the king [Ptolemy] 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. 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” (Diodorus Siculus, Library of History, 1.83).
Such, then, was the fate of the Roman cat-killer. This untimely incident, however, did not derail the agreement between Ptolemy XII and Rome. On the other hand, it likely contributed to the growing Egyptian animosity against their own king. By 58 BCE, Ptolemy’s increasing dependence on, and indebtedness to, Rome caused the king to be expelled from Egypt. His wife and daughter stayed behind with the king’s opposition to rule the kingdom. Ptolemy XII returned to power in 55 BCE, however, with the aid of a Roman army.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Two cats surmounting a box for an animal mummy, dated between 664–30 BCE, [Public Domain] and The Metropolitan Museum of Art).
- The Histories by Herodotus, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt and revised by John Marincola. New York: Penguin Classics, 2002.
- The Library of History, by Diodorus Siculus, edited by Giles Laurén (Sophron Editor, 2014).