Roman Cat Sanctuary

Dylan Thuras is a guest blogger on Boing Boing. Dylan is a travel blogger and the co-founder of the Atlas Obscura: A Compendium of the World's Wonders, Curiosities, and Esoterica, with Joshua Foer.


From Atlas Obscura's newest team member, the terrific Annetta Black.

In Rome the cats have an ancient temple all to themselves. The site is known as Torre Argentina and was excavated under Mussolini's re-building efforts in 1929, revealing extensive multi-level temple grounds about 20 feet below modern street level. The site is actually composed of several temples as well as part of the famous Pompey's theatre, where in 44 BC Caesar was betrayed and killed on the theatre steps.

Today volunteers care for approximately 250 cats. After the site was excavated, Rome's feral cats moved in immediately, as they do all over the city. The gattare, or cat ladies began feeding and caring for them. Since the mid 1990s the population has grown from about 90 to the current nearly 250, and the organization has ramped up with care for sick or wounded cats, and an extensive spay & neuter program to try to keep the feral population in check. Most of the permanent residents have special needs - they are blind or missing legs or came from abusive homes.

On any given afternoon a small crowd gathers to watch the cats sunbathe on ancient pillars and steps.

Whether the cats rule themselves via Republic or recognize a cat Emperor is, as of yet, undetermined. More on Torre Argentina here.


  1. I was there a few years ago, staring at a bunch of cats lazing around where they killed Caesar. A fitting monument to the Romans.

  2. A friend of mine recorded a short documentary film about this place a while ago, you can watch it online here:

    Piazza dei Gatti

    English & Italian spoken, the Italian parts are subbed.

  3. I was there in May of 2006 and you can smell the cat feces a block away. I can’t imagine the stench in August.

  4. I forgot to add:
    …then head towards the rear, till you’re about at the middle of the Center Block, some 40M..

    I haven’t been there in years.

  5. Wow – this is bizarre. My family and I were talking about this at lunch today – and then here it is. Oooooo-weeeee-oooooooo!

  6. You can smell the cat feces a block away? Must give the ruins a touch of Authenticity. Between the smell and Julius’ death I bet Juvenal would have loved to know this.

  7. Hmmm, Roman graves for cats, Roma was infiltrated by the Egytian empire, Egytians liked cats…. omg its the old rule still at is, runnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn

  8. The cats are certainly not gone. It’s a historic and famous cat shelter, and it would cause an uproar.

    By the way, I’ve never smelled the catshit, even leaning right over the balcony of the ruins. I wonder if you were smelling some other cats?

    One nice fact: most of the stray cats in Rome, both on the streets and in the shelter, are fed bulk-made spaghetti with sauce (and seem perfectly happy). I wonder if the rest of our cats are all spoiled with all their canned cat food.


  9. Cats make the perfect Romans. They understand that they have been chosen by the gods to be in charge of any situation. They only ask that we accept that divine judgment, feed them and clean up their messes.

    Come to think of it, cats make the perfect Americans.

  10. I’ve been there. A lot of the Roman monuments felt…exploited…either by the tourist market, or by long dead popes (The Pantheon is a perfect example of this).

    The cat santuary? Grass covered, sub-street level excavations with traffic on all 4 sides, with cats scattered all over the place. And it felt more authentic than almost any of the other historical sites in Rome.

    Interestingly, the people there said it’s mostly staffed & run by ex-pats, and a lot of the local Romans wouldn’t be upset if they were removed. They rely on tourist donations as the City doesn’t support them.

  11. “Whether the cats rule themselves via Republic or recognize a cat Emperor is, as of yet, undetermined. ”

    All cats consider themselves royalty. It’s the humans who need to recognize that.

  12. I was there this May and they are definitely still there, although I didn’t notice any smell. I actually didn’t realize it was a cat sanctuary at first and just thought it was the ruins until I saw more and more of them laying in the shade of the rocks.

  13. How about the dogs at Pompeii? Not 250, to be sure, but there were quite a lot running around when I was there last year.

  14. When I was in Rome last year I constantly found myself wandering back to this place. The staff are great and they do a wonderful thing for those animals. I still remember a little black cat who would run to see me every time I visited, and who would nip at any other cat I tried to pet.

  15. I was standing across the street barely a month ago and had no idea it was there. I suppose that’s what you get for rushing through Rome in a day and a half.

  16. I was there a few years ago, staring at a bunch of cats lazing around where they killed Caesar. A fitting monument to the Romans.

    Wait a minute…CATS killed Caesar!?!

    Someone notify Shakespeare!

  17. I was there a couple of years ago and can definitely attest to the smell. It was high summer but a short downpour had caught us.

    I can’t recall whether we found the place by accident or on a map proclaiming it as ruins, but I do remember we were surprised at the number of cats in the ruins.

    The smell didn’t reach a few blocks away but standing on the edge it was certainly pungent. We only realised it was a sanctuary after looking around for a few minutes as the information on the sanctuary is on one side in a small corner. This is definitely a very quirky Italian thing, using two-thousand-year old ruins for homeless cats! I couldn’t imagine many other countries doing such a thing.

  18. There’s a bit more to it than this. A couple years ago there was a genetic study of those cats and it was determined that the population was a lot more ancient than just saying ‘runaway cats from bad homes’. There are many abandoned places in Rome, some quite large (like the Cafarella park), and they were many more until very recently (Rome started to develop as a big city less than a century ago). In those areas, feral cats have been flourishing since the fall of the roman empire. The small Torre Argentina is but a small example.

  19. This site was the the setting for a scene in a chapter from the book “Those Barren Leaves”, by Aldous Huxley. (a very enjoyable read)

  20. The cat sanctuary behind Parliament Hill in Canada is a dump. Don’t get me wrong, I’m an animal lover… but when tourists crowd back there to get a glimpse, I can’t help but be embarassed at the junk-heap of shelters that have been put together for those kitties. Whenever I’m back there, I only ever see a raccoon helping himself to the mounds of garbage kibble being fed to those poor animals.

  21. That’s one of the places my girlfriend and I visited to find another cat some weeks after our loved one died many yers ago. We didn’t find one there at that time, but we liked anyway all that people who give their time to feed and care for those animals. If you come in Rome, which honestly as a Roman I tell you is becoming more and more a shitty place as the rest of Italy, take some time to visit that site, especially the small rooms you reach by taking the stairs down at the corner near Via Arenula. Here you will find more and more cats, people who take care of them and some cat related merchandising you can buy to help them pay for all that stuff.
    Another relevant site in Rome is this one, though isn’t always open to the public:

  22. SJEF, thanks for the link. That documentary is both a piece of art and a moving film reporting the difficulties those volunteers encounter when they deal with people or with the press.

  23. By the way – no feline females on the pill! Silly me, I should have known… when in Rome….

  24. An active trap/spay/neuter/vaccinate program will be able to keep cats in any sanctuary at manageable numbers and relatively healthy. Hopefully this lovely area, and the one in Canada, are using this tried and proven method.

  25. The cats are still there, and I too have never smelt anything in 20 years of living in Rome. Strange. On the other hand the smog is pretty bad usually.
    The sanctuary is run by a rather zealous woman who (in my experience) did not seem at all keen to find her “residents” a home. A couple of years back I went to see if I could find a “friend” for my own cat and after being proudly shown pictures of two gorgeous Persians that had been given to two German tourists, something that was on the news here in Italy and was obviously a good PR exercise, I was shown several cats who were on their death beds with a series of illnesses and asked if I was interested. After being grilled by the aforementioned woman in something that resembled an interrogation (home, hisory, furniture, lifestyle, life philosophy…) I filled in a form and then was informed that they “would be in touch”. Three months later nobody had contacted me, and by which time I had bought a kitten (admittedly a stray) from a cat shop. Shame.
    Background checks on prospective owners are a must, but that was ridiculous. One couple before me in line were being told they had to install a 1.5 metre fence on top of a 1 metre wall around their garden…

    As I type this, my two cats and one dog are happily playing in my garden.


    Rant aside, Largo Argentina is a very beautiful site, and the cats make it even more enchanting. Sadly Italians often hold with the philosophy that cats can happily survive on the streets and therefore it’s ok to abandon them, and several cats a day are unceremoniously dumped in Largo Argentina.


  26. @Sam: cats are not omnivores like dogs. While they may look happy being fed spaghetti, it’s not a healthy diet for them. Too much carbs may cause diabetes in cats.

Comments are closed.