Archaeologists in Italy have unearthed a 2,000-year-old dog-headed statue beneath a busy street in Rome. The small terracotta statue was found as part of excavations of a funerary complex on the ancient Via Latina in the city’s Appio Latino district. Ever since dogs were first domesticated in the Paleolithic period, humans and canines have lived alongside one another, but this doesn’t mean that every culture has idealized the relationship. When they weren’t making terracotta statues of dogs, for example, Romans were sometimes known to crucify them.
For the Romans, dogs fell into one of two camps: domesticated helpers and scavenger outsiders. In his Georgics the poet Virgil advises the estate owner to choose their companions based on one of two qualities: their ability to defend the estate and its four-footed residents from wild animals and their ability to assist in hunting. There are, in other words, hunting dogs and sheep dogs, just as there are cultivated lands and uncivilized countryside and woods. The poet Grattius identified the Umbrian dog, for his loyalty and sense of smell, but notes that you wouldn’t want him in a fight. And as a group dogs have a kind of liminal status: they can be barbaric wild beasts with predatory urges or domesticated faithful insiders. They capture the uncertainty we encounter in other people: they might be friends or enemies.
Dogs were known for presenting their owners with other challenges. If they got too hungry, they might attack you or your flock. The agricultural writer Columella appears to know about rabies or canine madness, which he puts down to feeding your dogs a mixture of bread and beans. Nevertheless, in both cities and countryside villas the home was guarded by chained watchdogs, who were positioned in the atrium. Excavations at the House of Vesonius in Pompeii revealed one unfortunate animal still chained to a doorpost. Dogs could serve a religious purpose too: Cerberus the three-headed hell-hound prevented the dead from leaving the underworld.
If dogs failed in their duties, however, they could find themselves in hot water. In one famous story relayed by Pliny the Elder in his Natural History, they failed to prevent an attack by the Gauls in 390 B.C. The putative invaders managed to escape the notice of guards and watchdogs but were spotted by the beady-eyed sacred geese of Juno. The geese roused the inhabitants and the city was saved. In tribute to this, dogs were crucified once a year near the Circus Maximus as a reminder and punishment for the betrayal. Geese, meanwhile, were carried on litters adorned with cushions of imperial purple and gold. Like other animals, dogs were regularly caught up in the sacrificial mechanics of ancient religious practice: they may have found themselves on the proverbial chopping block at celebrations of Lupercalia (the sexually charged celebration of the survival of Romulus and Remus on February 15); at Robigalia (a festival to placate a difficult goddess who might spoil the harvest); as offerings to the underworld deity Genita Mana; and during agricultural festivals.
There were some, of course, who loved dogs. After all, they are adorable. The Epicurean philosopher Lucretius appears to have been a fan and provides a vivid account of dogs twitching their bodies as they dreamt of hunting in their sleep. Alexander the Great, who was gifted no fewer than 150 dogs, loved one—Peritas—so much that he named a city after him when he died. A hunting dog, Peritas fought alongside Alexander in war, allegedly bested lions, and may even have taken down an elephant. He may have been special, however, as he was rumored to have had tiger’s blood running through his veins.
The fundamental ambivalence towards dogs that we find in Roman sources is mirrored by their neighbors in the ancient near east. The Pyramid texts of ancient Egypt describe a royal guard dog that was anointed with perfumed ointment, wrapped in linen, ceremonially buried in a coffin paid for out of the royal purse, and laid to rest in a custom-built tomb. When the Achaemenid king Cambyses II conquered Pelusium in Egypt in 525 BCE he apparently placed dog, cats, sheep and other sacred animals in his ranks so that the Egyptians would stop fighting. It worked so well that he conquered the city.
Just as in Rome, dogs were particularly associated with loyalty, which in turn led to comparisons between canines, servants, and enslaved people. Just as Philip Pullman writes that servants always had canine daemons in The Golden Compass as a means of emphasizing their servile nature, so too ancient near eastern diplomats and vassal kings euphemistically described themselves as the slaves and dogs of more powerful monarchs and pharaohs.
Numerous stories imply that dogs are the lowest status animal, perhaps due to the disgust they elicit in humans. Dr. Idan Breier of Bar Ilan University, refers to a Sumerian proverb, which notes that “a dog licks its shriveled penis with its tongue,” which, to be fair, is also true of cats (or at least my cat). The biblical book of Proverbs says that the fools act like dogs that return to their own vomit (26:11). Rabbinic sources agree and stress that the animal appears to feel no shame as it rehearse its mistakes over and over. Aristotle took a slightly more positive approach to the dogs-eating-their-vomit phenomenon, generously suggesting that they deliberately forced themselves to vomit in order to refeed and heal themselves (History of Animals 4.8.5).
The stereotype that dogs are shameless and even repulsive contributed to the naming of one of history’s most prominent philosophical schools: the Cynics. The word itself comes from the Greek kunikos or dog-like. While some think that the Cynics were named after the Cynosarges gymnasium in Athens, where their founder taught, others disagree. A later commentator remarks that they are named “doglike” because of their shameless disregard for manners and willingness to defecate and have sex in public. Our definition of what counts as “cynical behavior” has certainly come a long way.
Shamelessness, however, was hardly the biggest problem that people had with canine behavior. It was necrophagia, or corpse eating, that gave people pause. Whereas today people worry that they will die alone only to be eaten by their cats, it was dogs who were known for feasting on unburied corpses in antiquity. The biblical Queen Jezebel met her end when she was pushed out of a window and her body consumed by dogs in the space of a few hours (2 Kings 9:35-37). A character in the apocryphal story the Acts of Andrew hopes that dogs will eat the saint Andrew alive as he hung from his cross. In such contexts stray dogs are scavengers who feed on the bodies of the condemned.
While they seem firmly cemented as “man’s best friend” now people didn’t always view our canine companions in such straightforward terms. As Fabio Tutrone has written, dogs are “suspended between nature and culture—a condition primarily arising from their deep, yet never complete, integration into the human social order.” For every Lassie, there’s a Cujo, and that teacup poodle still has the spirit of a wolf buried somewhere deep inside.