Man’s Best Friend: Dogs in the Classical World


Ok, so I’ve had a relatively quiet week, nothing out of the ordinary has occurred and I’ve been ploughing on with my Latin. Although I’m remaining quietly cautious for the time being, I’m happy with my progress and seem to be retaining lots of what I read, so I’ll continue until I inevitably hit a barrier at which point I’ll reach out (again) for some much-needed clarification. This week’s post however it not about Latin.

I always like to keep up to date with the happenings in the twitter sphere when it comes to considering my blog posts but this week nothing really took my fancy so I have taken the advise of my Classical Studies tutor and looked to my surroundings for inspiration – take a look at the post What should I write about. So as I looked up from the iPad to consider my ‘environment’, It didn’t take me long to notice the three things in my house that after my studies take up the most of my time. So, allow me to introduce you to Oscar, Ben & Toby – A.K.A The Three Crazy Spaniels!

I live in a small farming village and I’m pretty certain that the ratio of human to dog is very much in favour of dog and this got me thinking about the relationship between the so-called ‘man’s best friend’ and the peoples of Ancient Rome and Greece? So here’s a couple of examples of dogs in the Classical World.

First up we have… Capitoline Wolf

Italy-Rome-Capitoline-Wolf-Sculpture-1440x971Ok, granted this is not strictly a dog per se but let’s just go with this one because it is dogish and I didn’t really want to leave it out given it’s mythological significance, plus if I really wanted to be pedantic I’d say that all dogs are descended from wolves anyway! There’re various versions of this Roman foundation narrative, but legend has it that the twin brothers, Romulus and Remus were born of a vestal virgin and were subsequently condemned to die by exposure by being abandoned on the banks of the Tiber. Luckily for them a plucky and apparently non-aggressive she-wolf (and a woodpecker) suckled and fed the twins who were eventually rescued by a shepherd, the twins eventually went on to found Rome.

Livy tells us that…

‘A thirsty she-wolf heard the infants’ cries and turned in their direction. She gave the infants her teats so gently that the master of the royal flock found her licking them with her tongue’

Livy, The History of Rome, 1.4

Well done dog! (Ok, I concede, wolf).

Next it’s… Cerberus: Hound of Hades

‘Men say that Typhaon the terrible, outrageous and lawless, was joined in love to her, the maid with glancing eyes. So she conceived and brought forth fierce offspring; first she bore Orthus the hound of Geryones, [310] and then again she bore a second, a monster not to be overcome and that may not be described, Cerberus who eats raw flesh, the brazen-voiced hound of Hades, fifty-headed, relentless and strong’

Hesiod, Theogony 310-15

cerberus_Whilst, Hesiod provides a vivid description of Cerberus, guardian of the gates of Hades whose task was to keep the dead from escaping, his suggestion that the ‘monster’ had fifty heads might come as a surprise! I’m sure many who think about Cerberus will conjure up an image of a ghastly hound, but one with a mere three heads! Anyhow, who’s counting! Cerberus certainly deserves a place on this list of dogs from the classical world.

Moving on again it’s… the myth of Actaéon


Before we go into the narrative, I want you to think about the old proverb – ‘A dog is a man’s best friend’, I’ll leave that one here for the time being and we will pop back to reconsider that after we’ve looked at Actaéon’s untimely end!

analyse-1So, whilst out on the hunt with his trusty hunting hounds the unfortunate Actaéon, grandson of Cadmus, unwittingly stumbles upon a spring in which the goddess Artemis (Diana to the Romans) was bathing, in the company of nymphs. Setting his eyes upon the naked form of the goddess resulted in Actaéon being immediately transformed into a dappled deer. Unable to speak, poor Actaéon suffered the worst possible fate at the hands of his trusty hunting hounds who proceeded to tear their former master limb from limb…. don’t blame the dogs, they were doing their job hunting deer.

‘Prosperous in so much, great Cadmus was struck by disaster. First, Actaéon, his grandson, had antlers sprout from his brow and his dogs were allowed to slake their thirst in their master’s blood’

Ovid, Metamorphoses, 3.137-140

Man’s best friend? Hmmmmmm, you better ask Actéon!


Finally, we have varying sources of evidence that tells us about the uses of dogs in the Roman World.

You only have to look at the evidence to understand that in most cases, dogs played a significant role in hunting and guarding property. One well-known and popular representation of the dog in Rome comes to us in both the visual and literary medium… Cave Canem.

‘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)

Dogs are often mentioned in Roman sources as being the guardians of the home and flocks…

‘Never, with dogs on guard, need you fear for your stalls a midnight thief’

Virgil, Georgics III, 404ff

So there you are – Dogs in Rome are back to being man’s best friend! Well, for the time being anyhow.

I’m sure that there’s lots and lots more sources of evidence about the relationship, interactions and mythic representations of dogs and man in the classical world. These are just a few of the ones that sprung to mind as I wrote this.

So the ball (or perhaps stick) is now in your court, what other examples can you identify?


2 thoughts on “Man’s Best Friend: Dogs in the Classical World

    1. I’ve just seen it! I literally just posted then saw the discussion, it all looks very interesting. I had trouble deciding what to write about this week so it started off as a bit of a ‘throw away’ post but not even scratching the surface there’s a lot of evidence about dogs out there.


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