Donald ENGELS, Classical Cats. The Rise and Fall of the Sacred Cat. London: Routledge, 1999. Pp. 227. ISBN 0-415-21251-0.
Review by Thomas Harrison
University of St. Andrews
Recent decades have seen the rise and rise within classical studies of a number of groups deemed marginal or ?other? in the ancient world women, slaves, or foreigners. Now it is the time for the cat. Classical Cats sets out to collect together all the scarce material on cats in the ancient world, ?so that the role of the cat in our civilisation may be better appreciated? (p. 3), and so as to redress the ?bias in our literary sources? (p. 94).
Engels covers a vast range. Though the book?s heart is a series of chapters on Egypt, Greece, Rome and the early Middle Ages, he carries the story forward to the cat massacres of the high Middle Ages, and back some thirty million years to the evolution of the cat?s ?lynx-like ancestor, Proailurus of the Oligocene?. His work is peppered not only with cute references to cats from all ages, and with some charming illustrations, but also with some pretty weighty detail on the varieties of cat (and rat), their population and their geographical distribution at different stages in history. (At the time of writing, the ?blotched tabby is becoming increasingly dominant?, p. 86.) But his research has also been performed closer to home: for the insights they have given him, he graciously acknowledges the help of generations of his family cats (Harvey, Katie, Daphne, and Zsa Zsa all of whose exploits enliven the endnotes).
Classical Cats is full of interesting facts. Did you know that even the well-fed house cat kills on average 14 small animals a year, compared to a figure of 1,100 (or 3 a day) for feral cats (pp. 1-2)? (With 5 million house cats in England alone, we are still talking a lot of dead rodents.) Did you know that ?the most fecund female cat ever recorded produced some 420 offspring, and the largest litter ever produced was thirteen? (p. 8)? Or that in some North American states (California is one) the ferret is prohibited as a pet (because of the threat that it represents to children and wildlife, p. 66 and p. 197 n. 33)? Unfortunately, however, Engels is in earnest. The real contribution of the cat is not as our ?familiar hearthside companion and ? mischievous playmate?, but as the ?bulwark of Western societies? defence against the rodents and their diseases? (p. 1).
Left to its own business, the cat would happily have done this work. Alas, this is a history into which humans have bungled with disastrous consequences. The Egyptians (like the Muslims and Jews after them) were basically pro-cat. The religious beliefs of the Greeks and Romans (their holding of nature as divine, their rejection of fatalism) meant that they gave a high value to public health (pp. 108-10) and consequently to the cat even if ?the values associated with the cat, freedom, independence and autonomy, were not particularly suited to Roman tastes? (p. 92; the cat had ?more ?Greek? values?, p. 93). ?No hatred of cats ? can be found in the New Testament? (p. 130), and for about three hundred years, we are told, ?the early church remained faithful to the teachings of Christ?. But from the moment that Constantine ?put military and police power at the disposal of the Catholic Church? (p. 131), it was only a matter of time before the cat felt the consequences. The rise of asceticism led to a falling off in public hygiene to such a marked degree that Engels claims that the concentration of the Justinianic plague in Syria was a result of the concentration of holy men there (pp. 144-5). Augustine?s ?successionist theology? of innate evil, then fulfilled (according to Engels) with the declaration of the First Crusade, ?doomed the cats and hundreds of thousands of their female owners? (p. 154).
Engels abhors fanaticism. But, as his extraordinary traducing of a series of religions demonstrates, he is clearly a fanatic himself and his fanaticism can (for example, in his association of Augustine with Nazism, p. 207 n. 2) appear quite nasty. At any rate, this is not a history written ?sine ira et studio? (?free from anger and bias?). Cats are courageous and self-sacrificing; they have lightning-fast reflexes; their marvellous fecundity is celebrated (p. 8) while that of the mouse or rat is regretted (pp. 14-17). Cats, he acknowledges, may spread diseases, but not as often as dogs or rodents (p. 9). And do not listen to those who say that they deter (or kill?) songbirds; indeed, by killing rats and mice (who themselves apparently prey on birds) they may even do songbirds a favour (p. 7). The rat, meanwhile, is described with disarming frankness as ?the greatest enemy of the human race?.
Engels? cat?s-eye view colours his narrative to the point that he actually fills in the blanks. ?Before long, the [Egyptians] began to recognize the benefits of having the cat in the house. Households with cats had more food, less sickness, and fewer deaths? (p. 21). The appearance on two series of coins from western Greece of cats at the feet of city founders leads him to the conclusion that ?the Greeks may well have taken their cats with them on their journeys to found colonies? (p. 55). There are also sentimental streaks in this book which remind me of nothing so much as Walt Disney animal adventures. ?New predators, as well as some older ones, will be encountered?, Engels introduces Chapter 2 on Greece. ?There are lions, foxes, lynxes and wolves?? (p. 48). Though he traces great historical shifts in human attitudes to the cat, somehow they are always also the pets of today. One reason why they may have become popular in Egypt is their therapeutic qualities (they lower your blood pressure if you stroke them, p. 32). Many Egyptians also ?fondly hoped that their pets would accompany them into the afterlife? (p. 35). Of course, Engels acknowledges a variety of possible responses to the cat: during the Roman empire, for example, some ?owners? gave them the deserved religious adoration; ?to others they were probably a nuisance, especially their caterwauling at night and occasional piddles on the rug? (p. 96).
If you are crazy about cats, you will like this book. If, like me, you can see cats for what they are (I prefer rabbits, minor enemies of the cat), then you may think that it is crazy. Even I, however, was seduced by the story of Captain Scott?s cat (his name has been lost to history), who accompanied him to the Antarctic, was the first recorded cat to disembark and winter there, and was then blown overboard in a gale. You can see him, looking judiciously out from his hammock, on p. 13.