Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Symbols of Faithfulness: Dogs in Ancient Art

Domesticated dogs appeared in prehistoric paintings at sites like Bhimbetka in central India that date back more than 100,000 years. During the Bronze Age statues, children's toys, and ceramics depicted dogs. Hunting dogs were most commonly portrayed but pet dogs, valued for their faithfulness and courage were also subjects of ancient art.

Dogs were often seen on Greek and Roman reliefs and ceramics as symbols of fidelity and given as gifts among lovers.  Homer's Odyssey reinforced this concept of a dog's faithfulness by telling the story of Odysseus' dog who was the only one that recognized him when he returned home after years of wanderings, even though he was disguised to conceal his appearance. Sadly, because dogs were revered for their loyalty, they were also sometimes sacrificed in special religious rituals.  During Xanthika, a spring purification of the Macedonian army, a dog was sacrificed.  The Spartans sacrificed a dog to Enyalius, the son of Ares, in one of their military festivals as well. At the Robigalia, a festival in ancient Roman religion held on April 25, a dog was sacrificed to protect grain fields from disease.

The ancient Romans kept three types of dogs: hunting dogs, especially sighthounds, a dog like a whippet that hunts primarily by sight and speed rather than by scent and endurance like a beagle, Molossus dogs like the Neapolitan Mastiff for protection, often depicted in reliefs and mosaics with the words "Cave Canem", and small companion dogs like the Maltese, used as women's lap dogs.  Like the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Persians, Sarmatians, Baganda, Alans, Slavs, and Britons, the Romans used large dogs as military sentries and on patrol and sometimes they were taken into battle.  The earliest use of war dogs in a battle recorded in classical sources was by Alyattes of Lydia against the Cimmerians around 600 BCE where the Lydian dogs killed some invaders and routed others.  During Late Antiquity, Attila the Hun used Molossus dogs in his campaigns.

Fresco of Endymion and Selene with a dog from the House of the Dioscuri in Pompeii

Roman funerary monument to a dog with footprint from the Vidy Roman Museum in Lausanne, Switzerland courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Rama

2nd century BCE sculptural group of Roman sight hounds found near Lanuvio, Italy in 1774 now in the Museo Pio-Clementino at the Vatican courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Henry Townsend

Roman Terracotta figurine of a dog 1st century BCE-1st century CE at the British Museum courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor AgTigress

Terracotta askos in the form of a dog 2nd-1st century BCE Greek at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, courtesy of the museum.
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