Welcome back to Rome Across Europe! Over the course of the past year we’ve discovered many things about the Romans and how they have greatly influenced modern-day life.
From food to military strategies to architecture, the legacy of the Imperium Rōmānum has lasted the test of time. Today we’re going to expand this further by focusing on Rome’s use of dogs in warfare.
Almost as long as dogs have been domesticated by man, dogs have had a history in warfare. Since ancient times, War Dogs have been used as scouts, sentries and trackers.
In ancient times, the dogs would be strapped with armor or spiked collars and sent into battle to attack the enemy. This strategy was used by various civilizations, such as the Egyptians, Greeks, Persians, Sarmatians, Baganda, Alans, Slavs, Britons and the Romans.
One of the earliest military-related uses was for dogs to be put on sentry duty. Just like today, the dogs would be used to defend camps or other priority areas day or night. The dogs would bark or growl to alert guards of a stranger’s presence.
The earliest use of War Dogs in a battle recorded in classical sources was by Alyattes of Lydia against the Cimmerians around 600 BC. The Lydian attack dogs were particularly effective against enemy cavalry, killing some invaders and routed others, according to one contemporary source.
Archeologists suspect that humans have been using dogs in warfare since the animals were first domesticated more than 15,000 years ago. As warfare has progressed the dogs’ purposes have changed greatly.
Then in 231 BC, the Roman Consul Marcus Pomponius Matho lead the Legio Romanus through the island of Sardinia. Using “dogs from Italy” to hunt out the natives, the Romans were able to conquer the Sardinians who fought a guerrilla warfare.
The year 55 BC saw Julius Caesar landing in Britannia opposed by Celtic warriors and their dogs. This makes the English Mastiff one of the oldest recorded breeds according to Caesar’s description of them in his accounts.
Often War Dogs would be sent into battle with large protective spiked metal collars and coats of mail armor.
It was also common practice for the Romans to strap buckets of flaming oil to the backs of their War Dogs and send them into the enemy’s front lines to disrupt the opposing cavalry. These dogs were called piriferi, or fire bearer.
Gifts of War Dog breeding stock between European royalties were seen as suitable tokens for exchange throughout the Middle Ages. Other civilizations, like the Spanish Conquistadors, used armored dogs to defend caravans or attack enemies.
The British used dogs when they attacked the Irish and the Irish in turn used Irish Wolfhounds to attack invading Norman knights on horseback. A single Wolfhound was often capable of taking a mounted man in armor off his horse, where the lightly armed handler would finish him off if necessary.
Frederick the Great used dogs as messengers during the Seven Years’ War with Russia, and Napoleon also used dogs during his campaigns. Dogs were used up until 1770 AD to guard naval installations in France.
The earliest official use of dogs for military purposes in the United States was during the Seminole Wars. Hounds were used in the American Civil War to protect, send messages and guard prisoners. Dogs were also used as mascots in American World War I propaganda and recruiting posters.
Romans gathered up dogs from throughout the Empire and separated them into 3 categories: Celere – those that ran down wild animals; Pugnaces – those that attacked wild animals; and Villatici – those that guarded farms.
These “groups” of dogs can be roughly translated into what would be modern day hounds, the Cane Corso and Neapolitan Mastiff respectively. To augment the Canis Pugnaces abilities, dogs from England were brought back to the Empire.
It was said of the Pugnaces Britanniae “they were inflamed with the spirit of Mars the god of war”. Interestingly enough, many believe the infusion of the dogs from England is responsible for the undershot bite in the Cane Corso.
This ancient extinct breed of dog is commonly considered to be the ancestor of today’s Mastiff-type dogs and of many other modern breeds. Mastiff-type dogs are the best-known breeds of Greco-Roman antiquity.
Most scholars agree that the Molossus originated with the Molossis people in the mountainous regions of North West Ancient Greece and southern Albania. The Molossians were renowned for their vicious hounds, which were used by Molossian shepherds in the mountains of northwestern Greece to guard their flocks.
The breed later spread to Italy and other places in the Greek World by colonizing Hellenic peoples from Greece and the rest of the Balkans.
Some scholars contend that the Molossus was a dog used by the Ancient Greeks for fighting. They describe it as having a wide, short muzzle and a heavy dewlap that was used to fight tigers, lions, elephants and men in battle.
Centuries later the Roman Army would routinely deploy its own War Dogs, with whole companies composed entirely of dogs. The Canis Molossus was the Legion’s preferred breed for combat.
The Romans first encountered these Molossians of Epirus during the Macedonian Wars and renamed them Pugnaces because of their willingness to fight. As was the Roman way, what they assimilated they improved upon.
Molossian dogs were also used by the Greeks and Romans for hunting (canis venaticus) and to watch over the house and livestock (canis pastoralis).
Aristotle mentions them in the history of animals and praises their bravery and physical superiority. The Molossian breed was most certainly a very large dog similar to the Mastiff we know today.
The poet Grattius, a contemporary of Ovid, writes “…when serious work has come, when bravery must be shown, and the impetuous War-god calls in the utmost hazard, then you could not but admire the renowned Molossians so much.”
The Cane Corso’s genealogy can be traced back to the Canis Pugnax, a Roman War Dog from the 1st Century. They would accompany their handler onto the battlefields where they would act as an unprecedented guardian.
The tenaciousness of this dog was so extreme they were used in the arenas to fight against larger wild animals, just like the Molossus.
The Cane Corso spiked collars around their neck and ankles, made more dangerous by the large curved knives protruding from its ring. Sometimes they were starved before battle, then unleashed on the unsuspecting enemy.
The Corso was also an Auxilia Warrior in battles for the Romans. The story of the Cane Corso, aka Italian Mastiff, overlaps extraordinarily with the history of the Italic peoples in both splendor and misery.
Cane Corso has maintained, through natural selection over the centuries, the closest possible contact with the environment and the roles which man has asked this companion to play.
The past of the Cane Corso is largely present and current, as if time just slipped away. From its ancestors, the Molossus and Canis Pugnax of Rome, the Corso had an aggressive and combative nature.
Its name derives from cane da corso, an old term for a catch dog used in rural activities with cattle and swine, boar hunting and bear fighting. Cane Corso were also used to guard property, livestock, and families, and some continue to be used for this purpose today.
Historically it has also been used by night watchmen, keepers, and by carters and drovers. Its distribution was limited to some regions of Southern Italy, especially in Basilicata, Campania, and Apulia.
The Cane Corso became excellent in interpreting human gestures through its extensive contact with humans. In small settlements in the south of Italy, the Corso has maintained an archaic system of agriculture and a multipurpose dog.
Not recommended for novice dog owners, Cane Corso puppies require strong leadership and consistent training. This made it a perfect dog for the Exercitus Romanus.
It’s funny that this breed was used for combat since the Corso are typically very docile and sweet in nature. Because of its training, though, Cane Corso would fight if provoked or in a protective manner.
The fall of the Roman Empire predicated the fall of the Roman War Dog. However, this was not the end for this type of dog.
Unlike the Molossus which became extinct, the Cane Corso seemingly melted into the Italic landscape. While no longer the piriferi, the War Dog did find a home with the Italian country folk and with others across the world.
As long as there is warfare, “Man’s Best Friend” will always have a part in it. From scouting to sniffing out bombs to guard duty, War Dogs are simply a highly trained version of the dogs we have at home.
Hopefully, even if you’re a cat person, you enjoyed reading about how dogs factored into Roman warfare. Check back soon to see what we have on deck.
Till next time, Don’t Stop Rome-ing!
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