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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces an article in
Greece & Rome
Vol. 10, No. 30 (May, 1941), pp114‑117

E(dward) S(eymour) Forster died in 1950:
the text is therefore in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!

 p114  Dogs in Ancient Warfare

By E. S. Forster

'The French Army has opened a recruiting station for army dogs. Dogs will be accepted either as gifts or on loan for the duration of the War. They will be concentrated at a training camp, where they will be given special courses which, in a few weeks, will turn them into specialists for patrol work, Red Cross, despatch courier or observation duty. . . . If there are enough volunteers, France will maintain an army of 1,000 dogs.' Daily Telegraph, 28 Nov. 1939.

This passage has suggested that it might be interesting to collect, as far as possible, the passages dealing with the use of dogs in ancient warfare and make a comparison with modern practice. The references which I have discovered, and which seem mainly to refer to Greek warfare, are numerous, but no doubt there are others which I have failed to trace.

There is no evidence that dogs were used for military purposes in Homeric times, though they are frequently mentioned as employed for hunting — especially in similes — as sheep-dogs, watch-dogs, and scavengers, and also as pets (τραπεζῆες κύνες); and it was customary for heroes to be accompanied by their dogs when they went to the assembly. Two dogs were slaughtered on the tomb of Patroclus.

The earliest mention of the use of dogs in warfare is in a battle between Alyattes, King of Lydia, and the Cimmerians (circa 600 B.C.). When he took the field, he ordered that his troops should be accompanied by a number of large and fierce dogs. These fell upon the invaders and tore many of them to pieces and put others to flight (Polyaenus, Strateg. VII.2).​1 The same author (op. cit. VII.9) says that, when Cambyses during his invasion of Egypt in 525 B.C. attacked Pelusium, the defenders used formidable engines against him, which threw darts, stones, and fire. Cambyses, thereupon, placed in his front line dogs, sheep, cats, and other animals held sacred by the Egyptians, who instantly ceased using their engines. Thus Cambyses took Pelusium and opened the way into Egypt.

 p115  Darius in 513 B.C., when he had made up his mind to retreat during his invasion of Scythia, in order to deceive the Scythians, left dogs and asses in his camp on his departure. When the enemy heard their barking and braying, they thought that Darius was still in the camp, and he was out of reach before they discovered their mistake. This is the account given by Polyaenus (op. cit. VII.11.4) and Frontinus (Strateg. I.5.25), but Herodotus only mentions the asses.

Xerxes in his invasion of Greece was accompanied by enormous numbers of Indian hounds (Herod. VII.187). No indication is given as to the purpose for which they were required; but it seems probable that they were used for military work as well as sport. There is evidence of the use of dogs by the enemies of the Persians, since we are told by Aelian (De Nat. Anim. VII.38) that at the battle of Marathon an Athenian was accompanied by his dog, whose services were recognized by its portrayal in the picture of the battle in the Painted Colonnade at Athens, where master and dog appeared among the victorious leaders. This is a detail which is not mentioned in the account given by Pausanias (I.15.3) of this famous picture.

Thucydides makes no mention of the use of dogs in the Peloponnesian war, but there are numerous references to the subject in later writers, which may be classified according to the type of service for which the dogs were used, viz. for attack, for patrols, as guards, as messengers, and as bloodhounds.

As to the employment of dogs in the attack, Aelian (Var. Hist. XIV.46) tells us that the horsemen of the Magnesians, who lived on the Maeander, when they made war on the Ephesians, were each accompanied by a dog and by an attendant armed with a spear. In battle the dogs first rushed forward and threw the attackers into confusion, then the attendants threw their spears, and finally the horsemen themselves charged. Another Asiatic people, the Colophonians, according to Pliny (N. H. VIII.61) used whole detachments of dogs, who fought in the ranks with the soldiers; they had, he says, the advantage that they did not require any pay!

As to patrols of dogs, Aeneas Tacticus (XXII.20) tells us that Nicocles, King of Cyprus, probably after the Battle of Naxos  p116 (376 B.C.) — the reading is uncertain — expecting attacks on the city, sent a force accompanied by dogs to patrol the neighbourhood. Similarly, according to Polyaenus (op. cit. II.25),º the Spartan Agesipolis at the siege of Mantinea in 385 B.C., finding that his own allies were secretly supplying the besieged with food, sent patrols accompanied by dogs between the camp and the city, with the result that no one dared to approach the city, lest they should be discovered through the barking of the dogs.

Aeneas Tacticus (XXII.14) recommends that dogs should be used as guards, being tied up on dark nights outside a city, since they will reveal the presence of approaching spies or escaping deserters, and by their barking arouse the sentinels if they go to sleep. Vegetius (IV.26) also recommends their employment for guarding fortresses at night. According to Cicero (Pro Sext. Rosc. 56) in the Capitol at Rome not only were geese kept, who had proved themselves so useful by giving the alarm when the Gauls made their surprise attack, but also dogs;​2 and Aulus Gellius (VI.1.6) tells the story that Scipio Africanus was in the habit of visiting the Capitol at night to take counsel with Jupiter there, and that the guardians of the temple were always amazed that, though the dogs always attacked others who approached at night, they never barked at or molested Scipio. Plutarch (Vit. Arati, 24) tells us that in 243 B.C. Aratus used numerous dogs for guarding the key‑fortress of Acro-Corinth after its capture; each body of 400 soldiers was accompanied by 50 dogs.

The use of dogs as messengers in war is described by Aeneas Tacticus (XXI.31‑2), who says that they were employed in Epirus and Thessaly in the following manner: the dog was taken away from its master in leash and, when a message was to be sent, a strap was placed round its neck on the inside of which a letter was sewn; the dog, when released, returned to his master with the letter.

Lastly Polyaenus (op. cit. IV.2.16) tells us that Philip of Macedon used bloodhounds to track down his foes in the rough, wooded country of the Balkan mountains. It would thus seem  p117 that the ancients used dogs in warfare for much the same purposes as the French to‑day, with the exception of Red Cross work,​3 which is a feature of modern war.

The locus classicus in ancient literature about the various kinds of dogs and their breeding and training is Xenophon's Cynegeticus, but it naturally only treats of dogs used for sport. An interesting chapter deals with the names of dogs, which, Xenophon says, should be short and easily called.​a Some of the examples which he gives find close parallels in English nomenclature: e.g. Ὁρμή, 'Dash'; Ἀκτίς, 'Flash'; Πολεύς, '(an emendation for Πολύς). 'Rover'; Στερρός, 'Sturdy'; Σπέρχων, 'Hasty' or 'Bustler'; and one of the hounds of Aktaeon was named Στικτή, 'Dappled' or 'Spot'. Among other names which Xenophon suggests are Φύλαξ, 'Sentinel'; Λόγχη, 'Lance'; Αἰχμή, 'Spearpoint'; Αὐγώ, 'Daybeam'; Χαρά, 'Joy'; Σπουδή, 'Zeal'; Ἀνθεύς, 'Blossom'; Γηθεύς, 'Cheerful'; Νόης, 'Wary'; Μήδας, 'Crafty'; Βρέμων, 'Roarer'; Στίβων, 'Tracer'; Καίνων, 'Killer'; and Πόρθων, 'Havoc'.

The Author's Notes:

1 For similar use of dogs by the Cimmerians themselves see Bury, History of Greece, p112, and the frieze on a sarcophagus of Clazomenae there reproduced.

2 In Livy, V.47, we read that, when the Gauls came so near to capturing the Capitol, the dogs, unlike the geese, failed to notice their approach.

3 The nearest ancient approach to which was the sacred dogs of Adranus in Sicily, which saw drunken revellers safely home at night! (Aelian, De Nat. Anim. XI.20.)

Thayer's Note:

a For other ancient lists of dog names, see Mair's footnote to Oppian, Cynegetica I.444. For dogs generally, see the many Greek and Roman sources listed in the footnote to the Loeb edition of Grattian's Cynegetica, p166.

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