What Role Did Dogs Play in Ancient Greece? | History Hit

What Role Did Dogs Play in Ancient Greece?

Mycenaean fresco wall painting of a Mycanaean with a horse and a wild boar hunting dog from the Tiryns, Greece. 14th - 13th Century BC. Athens Museum.
Image Credit: funkyfood London - Paul Williams / Alamy Stock Photo

Of all the many hundreds and thousands of history topics out there, few are more relatable to us today than dogs. The history of dogs coexisting with humans can be traced back thousands of years – including to ancient Greek times.

So what do we know about dogs in ancient Greece? How did the ancient Greeks view dogs? And how did they use them?

It turns out, dogs participated in ancient Greek society in many ways: as pets, as hunting dogs and even as companions during times of conflict. Here’s an introduction to the role of dogs in ancient Greece.

Written sources

Our sources for dogs in ancient Greece are several and varied. A number of ancient literary accounts survive that mention dogs, including certain Greek myths. Perhaps the most famous mythological dog is Cerberus, the three-headed hellhound that lived in the Underworld and belonged to Hades, God of the Underworld.

The epic poet Homer also mentions dogs in both his Iliad and his Odyssey. Indeed it is in Homer’s Odyssey that we have one of the most emotive accounts of a dog from ancient Greece. Odysseus, the Greek hero, had just returned to his homeland of Ithaca. After 20 years away, he is forced to approach his old palace in disguise. On his way, he caught sight of his old hunting dog: Argos.

Those left behind on Ithaca had treated Argos terribly ever since Odysseus had left to fight in the Trojan War some 20 years earlier. Nevertheless, upon seeing the disguised Odysseus, Argos immediately recognised his master. According to Homer, Argos’ ears dropped, he wagged his tail. Unable to acknowledge Argos lest he blow his disguise, an emotional Odysseus walked on. With that, Argos died.

A drawing of Odysseus with his dead dog, Argos. c. 1835.

The story of Argos came to epitomise the loyal dog in ancient Greece. He remained loyal to Odysseus and recognised his disguised master, even after 20 years apart.

Alongside these legendary stories, we also have an ancient Greek manual about dogs. This is Xenophon’s Cynegeticus – ‘How to Hunt with Dogs’. In it, Xenophon covers various canine topics: how to train your dog, what are the best dog names, what are the best collars, the best leads and so on.

Archaeological evidence

Alongside the surviving texts, we also have lots of archaeological evidence. Depictions of dogs sometimes feature in ancient Greek art. From Symposium vessels to the supposed depiction of a dog on a scene of the Athenian Painted Stoa. The scene in question showed the Battle of Marathon.

Epitaphs from dog tombstones have also survived. Alongside the many dog bones that archaeologists have uncovered, these inscriptions are further evidence of how ancient Greeks sometimes buried their beloved pets. This is an act that many of us can no doubt relate to today.

As mentioned, we know that the ancient Greeks were fond of naming their dogs. Xenophon includes several names in his Cynegeticus. They include ‘Spirit’, ‘Raider’, ‘Swift-footed’, ‘Barker’, ‘Slayer’ and so on. What is interesting to note, however, is that none of these are human names. The Greeks did not give their dogs human names.

An ancient Greek clay figurine of a dog. Museum of Cycladic Art, Athens, Greece.

Dog types

Various types of dogs are mentioned in our surviving sources. These include the Laconian, Indian, Cretan, Locrian and Molossian dog. All of these names refer to ancient geographic areas. Laconia for instance was a region of the southern Peloponnese; its most famous city was Sparta.

But were these geographic names also the names for certain breeds of dog? The evidence suggests no. The Greek philosopher Aristotle, for instance, once described a particular dog for hunting and another for guarding sheep. Both, however, he labelled as Molossian hounds – despite describing two very different dogs.

What this means, therefore, is that the term ‘Molossian’ did not mean the same as a breed today (for instance a Golden Retriever). A Molossian dog could come in various shapes and sizes and could serve different purposes, rather confusingly.

Man's best friend has been at our side for thousands of years. Ancient Greece was no exception, and although some of the breeds that were popular back then might seem unfamiliar to us today, tales of their loyalty, dependability and downright cuteness certainly are not.
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The lapdog

One of the most popular dog types in the ancient Greek world was a small canine called a Miletian. Also known as the Maltese dog, it was generally small in size and very flurry, with a curly tail and sharp ears. Aelian recalls how Epaminondas, the renowned 4th-century BC Theban general, was greeted by his Miletian dog when he returned from Sparta.

Another famous instance is an ancient Greek epitaph, dedicated to a Miletian dog. On the epitaph, its owner had written: “He was known as the Bull.” A humorous parting remark that its owner left for his beloved, small pet.

The hunting dog

The most famous type of dog from ancient Greece has to be the hunting dog. Hunting was predominantly an elite pursuit. Hunting dogs, consequently, were owned by wealthier members of ancient Greek society.

Xenophon described numerous types of dog that could serve as hunting dogs. At the same time, however, he stressed how certain dog types were better suited for certain types of hunting. Indian, Cretan, Laconian and Locrian dogs were ideal for hunting boar for instance, whereas Indian hounds were the best-suited for hunting deer.

An ancient depiction on a krater of a boar hunt using dogs. British Museum.

Image Credit: via Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Did the Greeks have war dogs?

We have several examples where dogs are involved in ancient Greek warfare. None, however, seem to suggest that dogs were actively trained for war. These were dogs in war, not dogs of war.

The most common place where dogs were seen during war in classical Greece was during sieges, when war was brought to where the dogs were (for instance cities).

The ancient Greek writer Aeneas Tacticus wrote a treatise on siege defense that has survived. In the treatise, Aeneas mentioned dogs on several occasions. Not only did he highlight how the besieged could use dogs for guard duty and for alerting the defenders about upcoming attacks, but he also explained how they could function as messengers, delivering important messages in their collars. Horrifically, he also suggested that the besieged or besiegers could cauterise the dogs, if they were worried that their barking could cause problems.

Dogs did sometimes accompany military campaigns: we have evidence for several commanders taking their dogs with them on campaign. One such dog was Peritas, Alexander the Great’s dog. Peritas accompanied Alexander on his Persian and Indian Conquests. Alexander would name a city in the Indus River Valley after Peritas.

Another story has the dog of the successor general Lysimachus staying by his master’s corpse, in the days following Lysimachus’ death at the Battle of Corupedium in 281 BC. We do therefore see examples of dogs in ancient Greek warfare, but not in a trained capacity.

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Tristan Hughes