A superb guest post from Jackie Lambert!
I have said it many times before and, knowing me, will undoubtedly say it many times again. That is that this blog wouldn’t still have in excess of 4,000 followers if all these good people had only me to read.
I know you will enjoy Jackie’s post and it is a most important post looking at the history of the dog. Jackie and her husband look at the dog back in Roman times. You will love this!
Pup Pompeii – Discovering the Dogs of Ancient Rome
Research has now proven that dogs have been companions to humans for 40,000 years. DNA analysis of a 35,000-year-old bone fragment from an ancient wolf, discovered on the Taimyr peninsula in Siberia, presented evidence that dogs diverged from the wolf species much earlier than previously thought. The findings, published in the journal Current Biology, state that Siberian Huskies and Greenland Sled Dogs share many genes with the Taimyr Wolf.
As such, it is no surprise to learn that, a mere two thousand years ago, the ancient Romans kept dogs. However, on a recent road trip to the ruined city of Pompeii with The Fab Four, our four Cavapoos, my husband Mark and I discovered some fascinating facts about the relationship between ancient Romans and Man’s Best Friend.
Pompeii in southern Italy is the most extraordinary time capsule. It grants the onlooker a fascinating and sometimes painfully intimate window into an ancient civilisation. Snuffed out almost instantly by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, metres of volcanic ash preserved the entire city for two millennia, exactly how it was on those two fateful days in 79 AD.
My husband, Mark, and I visited in April this year with The Fab Four, our four Cavapoos (Cavalier/Poodle cross.) Within thirty minutes of leaving our campsite, I had bought my first Pompeii souvenir – a coaster portraying the striking black-and-white mosaic of a dog wearing a spiked collar crouched and ready to pounce, along with the words Cave Canem – Beware of the Dog.
Cave has nothing to do with underground chasms. It comes from the same Latin root as caveat, as in caveat emptor – buyer beware. The original mosaic is in the entrance to the House of the Tragic Poet. Since we were investigating Pup Pompeii, we had to find the real thing and when we got there, The Fab Four thrilled me by lining up in front of it, unasked!
If you think about it, Rome’s canine connections go right back to the beginning. According to the legend, a she-wolf suckled the twins, Romulus and Remus. Although Remus was killed, Romulus went on to found Rome.
Many objects and artefacts confirm Romans kept dogs. It is no surprise to find pooches employed as guardians, hunters, soldiers, and entertainers; both on the racetrack and as gladiators in the arena. Sculptures, paintings, and mosaics often depict these large and muscular dogs wearing spiked collars to make them look fierce, or protect them from the dangerous predators that were their prey, such as wolves, bears, and boar.
They also protected against the supernatural. Trivia, the Roman goddess of sorcery and witchcraft, held sway over places of transition, such as graveyards and crossroads. Also known as ‘The Queen of Ghosts’, she wandered during the night and, like her Greek counterpart, Hecate, was silent and invisible. Yet, the Romans believed dogs could see and hear her, so a dog seemingly barking at nothing was warning its owner that Trivia or her ghosts were approaching.
I was touched to discover a softer side of dog ownership, too. Romans also kept dogs as companions, status symbols, used them as hot water bottles, and revered them as an emblem of loyalty and devotion. Infrared analysis of a dog’s collar discovered in Pompeii carries praise for it saving its master’s life in a wolf attack. The archetypal mutt’s name, ‘Fido’, is the Latin word for ‘trust’ or ‘fidelity’, which explains why dogs were popular gifts between lovers.
There was no Kennel Club in ancient Rome, so dog breeds, as we know them today, did not exist. Ever practical, the Romans classified dogs according to their function, or place of origin.
In 2020, archaeologists in Pompeii discovered the skeleton of a tiny adult dog, about 10 inches (25 cm) at the shoulder – the size of a Yorkshire Terrier or Maltese. Malta is just 60 miles south of Sicily, and the “Roman Ladies’ Dog”, Canis Melitae or Melitan, was an expensive status symbol, affordable only to the upper classes. Besides providing companionship and warmth, the Romans believed they drew fleas away from their owners.
The Cave Canem mosaic of a black-and-white dog wearing a spiked collar possibly depicts a Molossian, forbear of the Roman Canis Pugnaces. In modern English, pugnacious means ‘ready to fight’, so there are no prizes for guessing the purpose of Canis Pugnaces!
The legions imported Molossians from Epirus, a mountainous region in the southern part of modern-day Albania. The name Molossian derives from the ruling dynasty of Epirus at the time. Alexander the Great’s ‘terrible mother’, Olympias, was a Molossian princess. Historian Plutarch suggested she slept with snakes in her bed!
Molossians may also have found their way to Britain with the Phoenicians, where they founded the Pugnaces Britanniae, which the Romans not only faced in battle, but subsequently captured, imported, and selectively bred with their own Pugnaces, because the British version was “inflamed with the spirit of Mars, the god of war.”
Roman classical poet Virgil praised the Molossian’s abilities as a guard dog. “Never, with them on guard, need you fear for your stalls a midnight thief, or onslaught of wolves, or Iberian brigands at your back.”
The Molossian and Pugnaces Britanniae are the ancestors ofthe Neapolitan Mastiff and the lighter Cane Corso. The Romans used both types in war, notably as piriferi (fire bearers).Greek writer Polybius notes thesefearless canine warriors charging towards enemy lines with containers of flaming oil strapped to their backs.
In 300 AD, the Greco-Syrian poet, Oppiano, described the Molossian as,
“A dog of large size, snub nosed, truculent with its frowning brows, not speedy but impetuous, a fighter of great courage and incredible strength, to be employed against bulls and wild boar, undaunted even when confronted with a lion.”
Alexander the Great’s favourite dog, Peritas, is believed to have been a Molossian. It reputedly changed the course of history by saving Alexander’s life twice; protecting him from a war elephant at the Battle of Gaugamela, and holding off Malian troops until reinforcements arrived, even though it was mortally wounded. The legend says it died with its head in Alexander’s lap.
Among the fabulous mosaics that adorn the floors of the house of Paquius Proculus in Pompeii, a rather regal lurcher-type dog guards the door – perhaps a Vertragus – ancestor of the modern Greyhound. The Romans prized this sighthound as a hunter as well as guarding, and, like the smaller lapdogs, also cuddled them for warmth.
Poet, Grattius, who lived from 63 BC to 14 AD, during the time of Emperor Augustus, praised the Vertragus for its speed and refined features, noting rather splendidly that it runs “swifter than thought or a winged bird.”
Vertragus is a word of Celtic origin, and Greek historian Arrian of Nicomedia suggested the breed originated on the plains of Eurasia and was introduced to Europe by the Celts. Genetic research refutes the common belief that the Vertragus, and hence the Greyhound, originated in Egypt, and confirms that Greyhounds are not related to the Saluki or Afghan hound as was previously thought.
The Celtic people originated in the upper Danube basin and expanded their culture across great swathes of continental Europe, including France, Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands, the Balkans, as well as in the east in places such as Asia Minor and Anatolia (part of Turkey) – and took their dogs with them.
Curiously, despite its Celtic connections, studies in the 1970s and 2000 confirm that prior to Roman occupation, Greyhound-type dogs did not exist in Britain. The wooden Vindolanda tablets, the oldest handwritten account of life in the north of Roman Britain, do mention that Imperial troops either knew of the Vertragus, or had them with them.
Julius Caesar allegedly castigated Roman citizens for caring more for their dogs than their children. As is so often the case, funerary goods shed light on ancient civilisations. Many inscriptions on Roman tombs highlight the high regard in which the Romans held their dogs. They also suggest that in the past, dogs may have lived longer than in modern times, perhaps because of the interbreeding required to create pedigree strains.
These heartrending inscriptions will strike a chord with any modern dog owner. The first two could easily refer to Canis Melitae:
“Behold the tomb of Aeolis, the cheerful little dog, whose loss to fleeting fate pained me beyond measure.”
“Bedewed with tears I have carried you, our little dog, as in happier circumstances, I did fifteen years ago. So now, Patrice, you will no longer give me a thousand kisses nor will you be able to lie affectionately ’round my neck. You were a good dog and, in sorrow, I have placed you in a marble tomb and I have united you forever to myself when I die. You readily matched a human with your clever ways; alas, what a pet we have lost! You, sweet Patrice, were in the habit of joining us at table and fawningly asking for food in our lap, you were accustomed to lick with your greedy tongue the cup which my hands often held for you and regularly to welcome your tired master with wagging tail.”
Yet it wasn’t just lap dogs who earned tributes from their owners. Here is a truly beautiful and touching dedication on a Roman marble tablet from the first century AD in the British Museum, contemporary with Pompeii. It is written in verse, from the point of view of a prized hunting dog, Margarita (Pearl), from Gaul, who died giving birth. With allusions to the poetry of Virgil, who stated “Mantua gave birth to me”, the care taken over this memorial proves Margarita was clearly a very beloved family member.
“Gaul gave me my birth and the pearl-oyster from the seas full of treasure my name, an honour fitting to my beauty.
I was trained to run boldly through strange forests and to hunt out furry wild beasts in the hills, never accustomed to be held by heavy chains nor endure cruel beatings on my snow-white body.
I used to lie on the soft lap of my master and mistress and knew to go to bed when tired on my spread mattress and I did not speak more than allowed as a dog, given a silent mouth
No-one was scared by my barking but now I have been overcome by death from an ill-fated birth and earth has covered me beneath this small piece of marble.
In the Monty Python film, The Life of Brian, an anti-Roman revolutionary famously asks, “What have the Romans ever done for us?”
Yet, besides roads, aqueducts, plumbing, sanitation, and fast food, they have clearly passed on a deep love and appreciation of dogs!
- Photo of Romulus and Remus with the she-wolf courtesy of Benutzer:Wolpertinger on WP de, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
- Photo of Bronze Vertragus from the Roman period courtesy of Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, CC BY 3.0 NL <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/nl/deed.en>, via Wikimedia Commons
- Photo of Roman tomb of a dog named Aminnaracus in the National Museum of Wales courtesy of Wolfgang Sauber, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
- Words & photos © Jacqueline Lambert / World Wide Walkies, except where specified. All information is provided in good faith, subject to World Wide Walkies’ disclaimer.
Pompeii visitors information:
- Pompeii Official Website
- Regulations – dogs must be kept on a leash, and cannot enter the houses unless you carry them. Dogs over 10 kg may not visit the site
- Downloadable guide to the excavations
- Map of Pompeii Excavations
- FREE Tickets – these are available for visits on the first Sunday of every month. They must be downloaded online and the gates close once a mere 15,000 have been admitted
- Self-Guided Walking Tour App – there are few interpretive signs on the site. ‘These two expert-designed self-guided walking tours to explore Pompei, Italy on foot at your own pace. You can also create your own self-guided walk to visit the city attractions which interest you the most.’
Jacqueline Lambert is an award-winning author and blogger, who gave up work in 2016 to tour Europe full-time with her husband and four dogs. “Laugh out loud funny and a great travel guide.” is just one of many five-star reviews of Jackie’s ‘Adventure Caravanning with Dogs’ series of light-hearted road trip memoirs.
Follow her blog www.WorldWideWalkies.com to keep up to date with their latest expedition, get travel tips and advice, or find out how they live their dream without a lottery win.
The photograph below is from a collection of photos on the tombstones of ancient Roman dogs. More images may be seen here!
It just goes to show how long these incredible animals have been associated with humans.