Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Dogs, symbols of fidelity in the ancient world

 There are illustrations of dogs on the walls of caves and tombs dating back to the Bronze Age, as well as statues, children's toys, and ceramics depicting dogs.  The Ancient Greeks and Romans, contrary to the Semitic cultures, favored dogs as pets, valuing them for their faithfulness and courage.  Homer's Odyssey tells the story of Odysseus, who raised a dog called Argos, and who was the only one that recognized him when he returned home after his travels, disguised to concealed his appearance. This theme has been often depicted in ancient Greek vases, and in Roman reliefs and sculptures.  Dogs were given as gifts among lovers and kept as pets, guardians, and for hunting. 

The ancient Romans kept three types of dogs: hunting dogs, especially sighthounds, Molossian dogs like the Neapolitan Mastiff, often depicted in reliefs and mosaics with the words "Cave Canem", and small companion dogs like the Maltese, used as women's lap dogs. Greyhounds were often represented in sculptures. Large dogs were used in war by the Roman army, most often used as sentries or on patrol, although they were sometimes taken into battle arranged in attack formation. 

The earliest use of war dogs in a battle recorded in classical sources was by Alyattes of Lydia against the Cimmerians around 600 BCE. The Lydian dogs killed some invaders and routed others.   In the war waged by the Ephesians against Magnesia on the Maeander, their horsemen were each accompanied by a war dog and a spear-bearing attendant. Dogs were released first and broke the enemy ranks, followed by an assault of spears, then a cavalry charge. In 525 BCE, at the Battle of Pelusium, Cambyses II used a psychological tactic against the Egyptians, arraying dogs and other animals in the front line to effectively take advantage of the Egyptian religious reverence for animals. In 490 BCE, At the Battle of Marathon, a dog followed his hoplite master into battle against the Persians and was memorialized in a mural.  In 480 BCE, Xerxes I of Persia was accompanied by vast packs of Indian hounds when he invaded Greece.  In 281 BCE,  Lysimachus was slain during the Battle of Corupedium and his body was discovered preserved on the battlefield and guarded vigilantly by his faithful dog. In 231 BCE, Roman consul Marcus Pomponius Matho, the maternal grandfather of Scipio Africanus, led the Roman legions against hostile Sardinians. The inhabitants engaged in guerrilla warfare against the invaders so Matho used "dogs from Italy" to hunt out the natives who tried to hide in surrounding caves. In 120 BCE, Bituito, king of the Arverni, attacked a small force of Romans led by the consul Fabius, using just the dogs he had in his army. During Late Antiquity, Attila the Hun used Molossian dogs in his campaigns against the Romans and others.

Image: Ancient Roman amber sculpture of Eros and his dog at the Archaeological Museum of Udine, Italy courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Giovanni Dall'Orto.  The carving may have been used as a wedding gift with the pregnant dog a symbol of marital fidelity and a wish of fertility to the bride.

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