Dogs in Ancient Rome: Breeds, Uses, Epitaphs, and Facts

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The relationship of the ancient Romans with their pets

Dogs played an important role in ancient Roman society and they were bred as pets, guardians, for herding, hunting, and for war.

Many beautiful virtues were appreciated in dogs: loyalty (fides), obedience, unconditional affection, nobility of soul, great intuition, spontaneity in expressing one’s emotions through the movements of the tail, the different ways of barking, and the different postures of the body. Pliny the Elder (23 A.D.-79 A.D.) called the dog “man’s most faithful companion”.

Related article: The mosaics of the Roman Villa del Casale

Dog breeds of the ancient Romans

According to Latin sources, different breeds were known and sought after, the catuli and catellae (small dogs of both sexes), the Umbrian, Etruscan, and Salento dogs. Imported breeds were the Molossus of Epirus, the Vertragus, the Lacone, and the Cretan Mastiff. The Molossus of Epirus, already used in Greece as a guard and shepherd dog, was also imported into Italy.

The vertragus was a greyhound imported from Gaul, and used mainly for running competitions. The lacone was a very popular hunting dog in Greece, the Athenian historian Xenophon (430/425 BC – 355 BC) in the work “Kynegeticos” described the characteristics of the breed and the methods of its training. The Cretan Mastiff was perhaps a cross between the Molosser and the Lacone, while other breeds were imported from Britain.

The canes pastorales lived in the countryside and were used to tend the flocks, while the canes venatici were used in hunting, and were distinguished according to their ability to detect prey, and their ability to run faster or slower.

dogs-ancient-rome-Canes pastorales
Canes pastorales

The Romans loved little dogs, called catuli and catellae, as domestic pets, and they developed close relationships with these canines. Marcus Valerius Martial, a poet who lived from 38/41 AD to 104 AD, wrote an epigram to the tiny dog named Issa that belonged to a man named Publius and with whom he shared “joys and sorrows.” As we read humorously in Petronius Arbiter‘s “Satyricon,” dogs were frequently “spoiled” not just with hugs but also with food, which was served to them in tasty and ample amounts (27 A.D.-66 A.D.).

In the house of Trimalchio, an arrogant and enriched former slsave, there was a “black and very fat pet dog,” whom at mealtime a slave wrapped in a green cloth and fed with so much food that she almost burst. 

Canes venatici Sculpture, sculpture dated to the 2nd century BCE, Hall of Animals, Vatican Museums
Canes venatici. Sculpture, sculpture dated to the 2nd century BCE, Hall of Animals, Vatican Museums

Dog Epitaphs in Ancient Rome

The ancient Greeks and Romans honored the memory of their dogs with poignant tombstones and epitaphs.

The death of cats, dogs, and other beloved creatures has been a cause of misery since ancient times. Ancient Greeks and Romans wrote epitaphs on the tombstones for the graves of their dogs. 

Ancient Roman Tomb For A Dog
Tombstone with a poem for a dog called Myia: “How sweet and friendly she was! While she was alive she used to lie in the lap, always sharing sleep and bed. What a shame, Midge, that you have died! You would only bark if some rival took the liberty of lying up against your mistress. What a shame, Midge, that you have died! The depths of the grave now hold you and you know nothing about it. You cannot go wild nor jump on me, and you do not bare your teeth at me with bites that do not hurt.”

An example was found near the Church of Santa Marina in Pogerola (Amalfi). The inscription read:

“Portavi lacrimis madidụs te, nostra catella, / quod feci lustris laetior ante tribus. / Ergo mihi, Patrice, iam non dabis oscula mille /nec poteris collo grata cubare meo […]”

“I carried you [to the tomb] with dripping tears, our puppy, / which I did more than three years ago. / Therefore, Patrice, you will no longer give me a thousand kisses / nor will you be able to lie down on my pleasant neck […]”

Other larger and more aggressive dogs, however, were used to guard houses and other places. At Pompeii in the house of the pistor (baker) Paquio Proculus a mosaic was found depicting a dog attached to a chain, guarding a door.

War dogs

In ancient times, dogs were bound with armor or spiked necks and sent into battle to attack the enemy. This strategy was used by various civilizations, such as the Egyptians, Greeks, Persians, Sarmatians, Slavs, British, and Romans.

One of the earliest military uses was for dogs to be put on sentry duty. Sometimes the dogs served as relays to send messages: Messages were inserted into the collar, threaded between the leather and metal of the collar.

The Romans first used battle dogs in their military formations, modeling their tactics after those of other peoples who had engaged in battle, such as the Celts in Britain against Julius Caesar.

The war training was long and complex because the dog had to live with the whole cohort, getting used to distinguishing friends from enemies, through the smell and clothing, and armor. It was therefore important that in castrum the dog could explore and urinate along the fence, feeling it as its border. The dog also had to accept food from all the legionaries of the garrison. The dogs also had to learn a series of verbal orders. They needed to respect the order of attack in battle but also the various calls and the order to stop or turn back when needed. Roman dogs obeyed orders as if they were soldiers.

Guard dog, mosaic
Pavement from a villa along the Via Salaria. 2-3 century CE. Rome

The Roman molossus or canis pugnax is the progenitor of today’s Neapolitan mastiff. However, the canis pugnax was less heavy and larger than the latter and more closely resembled the current Cane Corso.

Cane Corso
Cane Corso (image source)

The canis pugnax was powerful, combative, and courageous but also agile, fast, and able to travel considerable distances daily, both in the plains and in the mountains, and to withstand climates of all kinds.

It was also common practice for the Romans to tie buckets of flaming oil on the backs of their war dogs and send them to the front lines to destroy the enemy cavalry. These dogs were called pirifers or fire bearers.

Training schools for dogs

In Capua there were war dog farms whose animals were sold throughout the Empire. At the time, it was the most important dog training center in the world, because dogs of all breeds converged there, which were not only trained but crossed with each other to improve performance. They also studied the most suitable food for them, the armor to protect them, and other tools to damage the adversaries.

The Romans used war dogs copiously, using them in packs against enemy infantry and cavalry. The dogs were generally protected by leather armor and sometimes with protective metal blades, and had the function of knocking down and tearing the opponent.

Beware the dog

Signs reading “Cave canem” (“Beware of the dog”) warned of the animal’s presence, as evidenced by a mosaic placed on the entrance floor of the “House of the Tragic Poet” in Pompeii. 

Pompeii,-cast-of-a-dog-dead-in-the-79-AD-eruption
Pompeii, cast of a dog dead in the 79 AD eruption

Also in Pompeii in the “House of Orpheus” a plaster cast was made of a dog, who died during the eruption of Vesuvius on August 24, 79 AD: the poor animal did not have the opportunity to escape to safety, as it was attacked to the chain by a thick collar. 

Roman-collar-dog

A bronze collar, which may have belonged to a dog (according to other scholars, however, it belonged to a slave), is kept in Rome in the in Baths of Diocletian of the National Roman Museum. It bears a small plaque on which an inscription announcing the reward for returning the runaway slave to his or her master, Zoninus. 

Cave-canem-Beware-of-the-dog-Pompeii
Cave Canem: “Beware the dog”

Not only wealthy families owned dogs. Seneca in his work “De vita beata” cited the case of dogs that kept company with beggars, who along the streets, in the forum, or in other public places asked for alms.

There were also stray dogs. In Rome, they managed to feed themselves quite well, thanks to the organic waste that was daily thrown on the streets and squares. As the poet Decimus Junius Juvenal (50/60 A.D.-post 127 A.D.) recounted in one of his satires, there was a very bad habit in Rome of throwing garbage out of windows. 

A few specimens of dogs along with goats were sacrificed during the Lupercalia pastoral festival, which took place in Rome from February 13 to 15 in honor of the god Faun-Lupercus. But thanks to the advent of Christianity progressively the pagan rites were reduced more and more, until their total abolition at the end of the fourth century AD.

Sources: 1, 2

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