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Molossian: The Jennings Dog

"A fine dog it was, and a lucky dog was I to purchase it."

Henry Constantine Jennings

One of the very few examples of a Hellenistic animal sculpture copied in the Roman period, this marble figure depicts the Molossian, an ancestor of the modern mastiff. The dog was native to Epirus in northwestern Greece, which was sacked by Rome in 168 BC. The original second-century BC bronze likely was associated with a civic monument there.

The statue, which had lost its tail, was acquired by Henry Constantine Jennings during his stay in Rome, sometime between 1753-1756. He called it the "Dog of Alcibiades" after the fourth-century Athenian who, relates Plutarch (Life of Alcibiades, IX), was said to have purchased a large and handsome dog with a particularly attractive tail, only to have it docked. Better, Alcibiades laughed, to give the Athenians something to talk about other than himself.

Gambling debts forced the sale of the sculpture in 1778, when it was purchased by Charles Duncombe. Edmund Burke was said to have remarked at the time, "A thousand guineas! The representation of no animal whatever is worth so much," to which Dr. Johnson replied, "Sir, it is not the worth of the thing, but the skill in forming it, which is so highly estimated. Every thing that enlarges the sphere of human powers, that shews man he can do what he thought he could not do, is valuable" (Boswell, Life of Samuel Johnson, April 3, 1778).

Sold by the Duncombe estate in 2001, the figure now is in the British Museum, after an appeal raised the $950,000 asking price.

"Mastiff, greyhound, mongrel grim."

Shakespeare, King Lear (III.6)

  Pliny also speaks of art and its worth.

"...our own generation saw on the Capitol, before it went up in flames burnt at the hands of the adherents of Vitellius [AD 69], in the shrine of Juno, a bronze figure of a hound licking its wound, the miraculous excellence and absolute truth to life of which is shown not only by the fact of its dedication in that place but also by the method taken for insuring it; for as no sum of money seemed to equal its value, the government enacted that its custodians should be answerable for its safety with their lives" (XXXIV.38).

A similar pair of mastiffs (left) also are in the Pio Clementino Museum (Vatican). These dogs have retained their tails.

The Molossian is mentioned in the literature more often than any other breed. Other sources not already cited include Aristophanes (Thesmophoriazusae, 416), where it frightens off adulterers; Aristotle (The History of Animals, IX.1), where, as a sheep-dog, it is considered superior to other breeds in size and courage; Plautus (Captivi, 86), where the parasite is like a greyhound (venaticus) when business is put aside and a Molossian when it recommences; Statius (Thebaid, III.203), where the maddened hounds do not recognize Actaeon, their master; Lucretius (De Rerum Natura, V.1063ff), where the dog growls and bays, fawns over its pups, howls when left alone, and whimpers when threatened with the whip; Horace (Satires, VI), where the country mouse has his fill of the city when the house resounds with the barking of Molossians.

The Molossian was said by Nicander (quoted by Pollux, Onomasticon, XXXIX) to be a descendant of a dog (Lelaps, "Whirlwind" or "Tempest") forged in bronze by Hephaestus and given to Zeus. Nothing could escape it, just as nothing could catch the Teumessian fox. For this reason, both were turned to stone so that the one might not catch the uncatchable and the other not escape the inescapable.

References: Export of Works of Art 2000-2001 (2002) by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (Case 36); Notes and Queries: A Medium of Inter-Communication for Literary Men, General Readers, Etc. (October 28, 1865) pp. 353-354; Quintus Curtius Rufus: The History of Alexander (2004) translated by John Yardley (Penguin Classics).

See also Charles Townley.

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