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Dog in ancient Rome

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Roman sculpture showing a dog
Roman sculpture showing a dog

In ancient Rome, dogs were written relatively much and rather flatteringly. It was an animal ubiquitous in the culture and everyday life of the Romans and the inhabitants of the Roman Empire. They wrote about him Pliny the Elder, Cicero, Columella, Cato the Elder and many other less famous authors.

Roman mosaic showing a dog on a leash.

Pliny the Elder in his “Natural History” enumerates all canine extraordinary things; Cicero soberly assesses dog’s vigilance and loyalty to the master, speed in hunting, courage and ferocity in combat. Columella and Cato look at the dog in terms of its usefulness and give practical tips on breeding and caring for it.

The Romans distinguished between the following types of dogs: watchdog, hunting, luxury(peace), fighting and herding. The guard dog should be black in colour, rather large in height, and his voice should be loud and terrifying. Sharp dogs were valued here, but it was recommended to breed animals that were obedient to the household and not to overdo the dog’s fighting spirit. Columella believed that a guard dog should scare a potential thief away with scary looks and menacing demeanour, not real militancy. He recommended black colour because during the day it gives the animal a deterrent appearance and makes it invisible to uninvited guests at night. Before entering a house, Romans often placed Cave Canem(“Beware of the Dog”) on the wall, often decorated with a black animal with bristling fur and baring fangs.

There on the left as one entered…was a huge dog with a chain round its neck. It was painted on the wall and over it, in big capitals, was written: Beware of the Dog.

Petronius, Satyricon, XXIX

The owner of the property secured himself this way against criminal liability for damage caused by his guardian to the clothes and body of the uninvited guest. The passerby was warned, and if he did not obey and entered the property, he was to blame for himself.

Although the dog was valued as a watchman, legends and various proverbs circulated about his cunning. There is a famous fragment of the comedy Aristophanes: “I scared the thief away with my barking, I let the lovers act in silence, the Lord praised me for one, and the lady for the other” (Latratu fures excepi mutuas amantes sic placui domino sic placui dominae).

Guard dogs were tethered during the day and unchained at night. Cato the Elder in De Agri Culturarecommended tying it during the day, thanks to which it would be more alert and dangerous at night1. This was confirmed by Varron, who wrote in a letter to his wife that she should keep several dogs at home during the day and let them out at night to guard the property2. Several dog tragedies have been discovered in Pompeii buried in volcanic ash. Among other things, an animal found in Vesonius Primus’s house was found on a chain that it could not break. Buried with successive layers of ash, it was dug up until the chain, several meters long, ended, and later it died. A monstrously twisted cast of the dog’s body testifies to long torments and futile attempts to break the iron tether. The skeletons of a dog and a woman were discovered in another house. The woman had died earlier (perhaps a dog killed her), and her body was fed by an animal that died after quite a long time, possibly by starvation. The house was covered with a layer of ash several meters long, but there was air entering the room. Human bones have been gnawed and partially eaten.

The photo shows a cast of a dog that was found in Pompeii. The animal tried to break free from the chain in the face of the threat. In vain. Dated to the 1st century CE.

Columella also reported that the farmer’s first step in running a farm should be to purchase a guard dog to take care of the household, production and animals in the farm.

Dog medallion with the inscription: “Hold me if I am lost and return me to my master Viventius on the estate of Callistus”.
Creative Commons license Attribution - On the same terms 3.0.

Sheepdogs (canis pastoralis) should be completely different from those intended to guard the house. Columella recommends dogs of white or spotted coat colour, strong build and persistence for shepherds. They must be stronger than the wolf so that they can stop a single attack on a herd of goats or sheep, they should run as fast as the wolf so that they can set off in pursuit at the master’s command. The white or spotted colour allowed the shepherd to distinguish his helper day and night from attacking wolves. Varro added that it is worth to attach a nail to the leather collar (melium) of the dog, so that, for example, a wolf cannot injure himself when he tries to bite the animal’s neck. What should distinguish the dog is intense barking, which is proof of the animal’s self-confidence.

The existence of luxury dogs is attested by numerous written and material sources. They were kept for entertainment and play at home, well-fed and cared for. The muzzle was probably unknown and not used, but the dogs had collars sometimes made of very valuable materials. Pliny describes the grief of a certain senatorial family after the loss of a precious favourite in a shipwreck with a no less valuable collar on his neck. Such dogs were often treated on an equal footing with family members and were often erected posthumous monuments and tombstones. Sometimes the owner’s last wish was to rest with his four-legged friend. There was found monument with the following dedication:

I am in tears, while carrying you to your last resting place as much as I rejoiced when bringing you home in my own hands fifteen years ago.

On another, the owner carved the following inscription:

Thou who passest on this path, If haply thou dost mark this monument, Laugh not, I pray thee, though it is a dog’s grave. Tears fell for me, and the dust was heaped above me By a master’s hand.

This text was found on the tombstone of Patricus:

My eyes were wet with tears, our little dog, when I bore thee (to the grave)… So, Patricus, never again shall thou give me a thousand kisses. Never canst thou be contentedly in my lap. In sadness have I buried thee, and thou deservist. In a resting place of marble, I have put thee for all time by the side of my shade. In thy qualities, sagacious thou wert like a human being. Ah, me! What a loved companion have we lost.

Rottweiler is a breed of dogs formerly used to guard the Roman camps in their conquered Germania. These dogs guarded the cattle constituting the food supply of the legions and pulled heavy sledges with food and ammunition. The appearance of rottweilers has evolved – before they were light and slender dogs with long “hooked” tails, they gained weight over the years and their present appearance required new ways of using it – this breed willingly cooperates with humans and was often used for heavy work.
Creative Commons Attribution license - On the same terms 3.0.

The Romans encountered fighting dogs during long wars with the Germans and the Celts. In the battle with the Cimbri, at Vercellae they had to fight a formal battle with these animals. Dogs fought even when their masters were killed or enslaved. They also defended the fortified Cimbri camp most effectively and for the longest time. The Romans broke into the fortifications only after killing all the animals. It is worth mentioning that dogs in battles were also used in a more armoured form. One source states that in the mid-seventh century BCE the Magnesian riders in the war against the Ephesians were accompanied by fighting dogs, which were released to break through the enemy ranks; then there was a driving charge. War dogs were then often sent into battle with barbed collars and armour. Returning to the Romans, Julius Caesar’s troops must have met with fighting dogs during the Gallic Wars. Even before the conquest of Britain, in the 1st century BCE, a large number of dogs were brought to Rome, which, according to the Greek Geographer, were famous for their great hunting skills3.

Later, the Romans themselves began to use dogs in battle, as evidenced by, among other things, the reliefs from Trajan’s Column. Historical accounts also mention the use of fighting dogs in circus arenas. Most often they were contrasted with criminals (including Christians), prisoners of war or other animals. Professional gladiators fought them reluctantly; killing a dog in the arena did not bring much glory, and the danger of being bitten to death was considerable. Large, strong and sharp-tempered dogs were selected for combat purposes. They were also used to chase runaway slaves, but their main task was to pursue the enemy who had been smashed in battle.

In the amphitheatre arena, dogs also took part in hunting. Marcjalis, in his work De Spectaculis(XXX), describes how for the inauguration of the Colosseum a group of Molossians chasing deer were exhibited in CE 80. The chase ended just before the emperor’s podium.

The hunting dogs (canis venaticus) were very specialized breeds. The Romans used greyhounds to hunt big game, as well as a type of dachshund to hunt foxes and badgers. These were the breeds from which some modern breeding varieties of European dogs were derived directly or indirectly. Ancient authors enumerate the main features of a good hunting dog: a sensitive sense of smell, great intelligence and absolute obedience to the master. Pliny writes that some owners became attached to their hunting dogs to such an extent that they took old and blind animals with them for hunting, in order to give them the last pleasure in their lives.

English Mastiff
Creative Commons Attribution license - On the same terms 3.0.
The English Mastiff is an example of molasses. Molossian dogs were large dogs from breeds with a heavy, compact structure, strongly muscled, probably descended from one ancestor.[/Ramka_ze_zdjeeniem]

We know relatively little about the races bred by the Romans. For fights in the amphitheatre arenas, mainly Molossians (especially Epirus), giant dogs with a very malicious character were used. Perhaps they were the ancestors of today’s Bernardines and Newfoundlands. They fought with people and animals. To this day, engravings showing dogs fighting lions, tigers, boars and bears have survived. Molossians were naturally also used in hunting, home defence and warfare.

There were also breeds similar to modern Spitz, Greyhounds, Dachshunds and Sheepdogs. Like the molosses, another breed of dogs came from Greece, which originated more specifically from Laconia, the homeland of Sparta. It was the so-called Spartan or Laconian race. Horace mentioned that “Spartan” and Molos are “the shepherd’s best companions”5. The Laconian breed should be distinguished by large dimensions, a small head, a straight nose, erect ears, a long and flexible neck, and black and shiny eyes. The dog should chase the prey vigorously, with great noise and barking, and lead them into the net. It can, therefore, be suspected that it was rather a type of greyhound.

Judging by the recommendations of Cato and Columella, reasonably rational breeding was carried out by selecting dogs with appropriate external features and temperament. These authors provide a number of practical tips for breeding dogs, even details such as animal names. They propose that these names be short of the type: Sylax, Ferox. Celer, Alka, Roma, Lupas, Cerva, motivating that the longer the name, the more difficult it is for the animal to get used to it.

Dog loyalty was proverbial, but during the Lupercalia (an old Roman festival, celebrated in the Lupercalcave in the Palatinate, where, according to the beliefs of the legendary founders of Rome, the twins Romulus and Remus were fed by a she-wolf), these animals were symbolically punished for their indolence and lack of vigilance. A live dog was nailed to a cross for a bloody sacrifice, in remembrance of the fact that during the Gauls invasion of Rome, the dogs had not warned its inhabitants about the impending danger (it was done by the geese from the temple in the Capitol). However, for the Romans, these were almost mythological events, and in the time of Pliny (1st century CE), the proverbial dog loyalty and vigilance were emphasized. The author cites many examples of the faithful animal defending its lord’s life, which did not hesitate to attack and fly when needed. According to him, this animal is characterized by the following features:

  • The dog will always know its master regardless of circumstances and disguise;
  • Recognizes his name and the voices of the household members;
  • He remembers the way he travelled even when it was very long;
  • He has a generally good memory – remembers people who hurt him and those who were good for him;
  • You shouldn’t run away from an attacking dog as it makes him even more excited;
  • He has a very good sense of smell which can be used in hunting.

The Romans were able to use all the useful qualities of the dog. He was their watchman, sentry, toy, protector, shepherd and even a warrior. These functions have not changed to this day, but perhaps the development of civilization has meant that many formerly useful breeds are now treated as indoor dog breeds kept for the entertainment of their owners. Big cities somehow forced the disappearance of too aggressive breeds, and thanks to long-term breeding, features unsuitable for modern luxury dogs were eliminated in many breeds.

The Romans’ love for these animals was great, as evidenced by the tomb inscriptions. One of them below:

This is the tomb of the dog, Stephanos, who perished, Whom Rhodope shed tears for and buried like a human. I am the dog Stephanos, and Rhodope set up a tomb for me.

  1. Cato the Elder, De Agri Cultura, CXXIV
  2. Varro, De Re Rustica, I.21
  3. Strabo, Geographica hypomnemata, IV.5.2
  4. Horace, Epodes, VI
  • Boyd R Jones, On the history of dogs in warfare
  • Dogs in Ancient Greece and Rome
  • Małgorzata Pierko, Jak traktowano psy w starożytnym Rzymie – ciekawostki historyczne o psach, "Nasz Pies"

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