The Ancients loved dogs too

  • Themes: Culture

Greeks and Romans took a generally unsentimental view of animals, but there is evidence that some people in antiquity were no less inclined than moderns to love their dogs.

Mosaic of a dog in Pompeii.
Mosaic of a dog in Pompeii. Credit: INTERFOTO / Alamy Stock Photo

A puppy became part of the family during lockdown. It was my first experience of living with a dog, and it has been a revelation. Dog-lovers – not owners, since dogs cannot be thought of as possessions – know all too well what depths of unqualified affection these animals evoke, and the unconditional love they give. Having a dog has been a novel chapter in my life, and it has made me return with new eyes to some of the literary and epigraphical tributes to dogs that survive from classical antiquity.

Ancient Greeks and Romans took a generally unsentimental view of animals. We hear a lot about guard dogs and hunting dogs, animals prized for their usefulness rather than as beloved companions. CAVE CANEM, ‘beware of the dog’, runs the motto under the famous mosaic from Pompeii. A similar image is described in the earliest Latin novel, Petronius’s Satyricon (written around AD 60), where the narrator says ‘On the left near the porter’s cubicle was the picture of a big chained dog, above which was written in block letters CAVE CANEM.’ The third-century AD poet Nemesianus wrote a didactic poem, Cynegetica (‘Hunting with Dogs’), in which he devotes 136 lines to explaining the breeding and training of different breeds of dogs: Spartan, Molossian, Pannonian, Libyan, Hispanic, Tuscan – and British (known for their speed). The Underworld was said to be guarded by a fearsome dog, Cerberus, who was imagined to have three heads (sometimes even a hundred). Ancient authors weighed up the qualities of Laconian (i.e. Spartan) and Molossian hounds, terrifying hunting dogs that were trained to rip their prey to pieces. A story about Alcibiades, the unscrupulous politician and ‘bad boy’ of Athens in the late fifth century BC, tells of his chopping the tail off his pet mastiff; according to the biographer Plutarch, he cheerfully admitted that his motive for this act of mutilation was to distract his fellow Athenians ‘so that they would say nothing worse about his other instances of misconduct’. As if.

Household pets in Greece and Rome included cats and various types of fowl: birds appear to have been the pet of choice for young girls in Rome, such as ‘Lesbia’, about whose sparrow the Roman poet Catullus wrote mock-lamenting poem. His poetic successor Martial cited his model when he wrote an affectionate poem in the same metre about his friend Publius’ puppy Issa:

Issa est passere nequior Catulli

Issa est purior osculo columbae…

Issa is cheekier than Catullus’ sparrow,

Issa is purer than the kiss of a dove:

Issa is sweeter than any girl could be:

Issa is more precious than an Indian pearl.

Issa is the puppy that Publius adores.

Hear her whine, you’d think her voice was human;

She knows sadness and she knows joy;

She takes her naps on her master’s neck,

Breathing so softly you can’t hear a thing.

When she needs to relieve herself, not a drop soils the quilt:

She nudges you with a sweet little paw

And asks to be set down and lifted up again.

She knows nothing of sex, and one will never find

a mate worthy of this sweet little girl.

Small or large, dogs give and inspire enduring affection. A modern equivalent of Argos, an akita dog called Hachiko, is commemorated by an annual ceremony every March and a bronze statue at Shibuya Station in Tokyo. Born in 1923, he was the pet of a Professor at Tokyo Univerity, Hidesaburo Ueno. Hachiko would meet Ueno at the station every day on his return. In May 1925 Ueno died prematurely while at work. From that day until March 1935, every day for 9 years 9 months and 15 days, Hachiko returned to Shibuya Station to await him.

Harsh as ancient Roman life could be, we can be sure that they too will have appreciated Hachiko when we read a poetic Latin epitaph for a dog called Patricus from first-century AD Italy:

I have carried you here, our puppy, wet with tears

as more happily I once carried you, fifteen years ago.

But now, Patricus, you’ll no longer give me a thousand kisses,

nor will you be able to rest affectionately on my neck.

In sadness I’ve laid you, good doggy, in a marble tomb,

and I’ve joined you forever to my spirit when I die.

You were ready to match people with your clever ways;

what a pet, what a darling pet we’ve lost.

You would stretch out, sweet Patricus, on my lap

to share my meals, licking with eager tongue the cup

which I often held out to you in my hands,

and regularly welcoming your tired master with your joyful tail.


Armand D'Angour