Saturday, November 8, 2014

Animals in Ancient Art

The dog has been a participating member of human history for longer than written record has been in existence.  The temple of Gobekli-Tepe in Turkey has been dated to 12,000BCE and contains archaeological evidence of domesticated dogs, which correlates to the findings at the Natufian Grave in Israel from the same era[1].  There is further evidence throughout history and different cultures that the dog has been honoured and respected.  This essay shall look at three specific examples of art objects, one each from the ancient cultures of Italy (Rome), Egypt, and Greece, and compare them to both the current living examples of dogs as well as to each other, in order to deduce the perception of the dog by these cultures.
To begin, the first example will be a floor mosaic from Pompeii depicting a dog in a crouching position with the words ‘cave canem’ or ‘Beware of Dog’ incorporated into the mosaic.  A picture of the mosaic[2] can be seen at the end of this essay in the ‘Art Referenced’ section.  The dog as depicted is black, but there are areas of white tile used on its body.  This could be done to show that the particular dog the mosaic is modelled after was black with two white spots, one on its front right shoulder and one on its right flank just before the rear leg, or it could have been an attempt by the artist to show either a glossy coat for the dog or a semblance of depth so that the beginnings of the legs are easier seen.  There was a statement made on an Italian Greyhound website using this mosaic saying that the ‘Beware of Dog’ statement was intended to let the visitors know that there were tiny little greyhounds around and not to step on them[3].  Also, this site goes on to say that the dog in the mosaic is in a ‘playing’ position.

These ideas are hard to accept or believe as there is no documented evidence to support these claims; however there are many ancient documents that stipulate how the breed of the desired dogs from this time should look and act, which are contrary to this.  Some of these are Horace in his Episode VI[4], Varro and Cato in their respective writings on agriculture[5], and Columella[6] in his writings on agriculture as well.  All of these agree that the dogs should be large, either to protect the house from trespassers or to protect the flocks from wolves.  Varro gives a breed standard for the large dog called the Molosser, which was used for guarding.  Varro says that they should be “…of good size, …stubby jaw with two fangs projecting somewhat from left and right… covered by the lips, large head, large drooping ears, thick shoulders and neck, …large wide paws that spread when he walks, … tail think, with a deep bark…”[7].  This description matches the descriptors for the modern mastiff breeds of dog such as the Tibetan Mastiff, Cane Corso Italiano, Neapolitan Mastiff[8].  The dog depicted in the Pompeii mosaic very likely is one of the Molosser dogs that Varro was describing, however the artistry is a little lacking, most likely due to either the medium being used, or the skill level of the artist themselves, which is possible given the disjointed placing of the words. 

This serves to debunk the statement that the ‘Beware of the Dog’ inscription was to protect the ‘small dogs’ from being stepped on and more so to protect the visitors from the dogs.  This also shows that the dog depicted would not have been a small Italian Greyhound, but a larger mastiff-like Molosser breed.  Further support for this can be seen in the mosaic itself.  When inspected closely, the dog can be seen to be restrained with a heavy chain.  This coupled with the statements of Cato that ‘good guard dogs should be chained up during the day[9]’ show that the dog depicted in the mosaic was a household guard dog, and that ‘cave canem’ was used in ancient Rome the same as it is today. 

The second example of dogs in ancient art is from Alexandria in Egypt.  This floor mosaic was found during excavations under the new library of Alexandria, and can also be seen in the ‘Art Referenced’ section at the end of the essay[10].  This depiction of the dog is very well done.  The shaping of the head and body is proportionate to each other, with the exception of what appears to be a rather overly large neck.  The dog appears to be a tri-colour dog, with a body of white with some black patches, and a fawn coloured mask and inner ears.  The musculature of the dog is easy to observe, and it would appear that great care has been taken to depict a specific dog in this instance.  The look of the dog resembles that of a modern-day Basenji or a Pharaoh Hound breed, but the colouration and markings are termed ‘out of the norm’ by most breeders today[11].  This could be due to thousands of years worth of breeding which has changed the dog in appearance, if it is even the same breed.  The level of detail that is put into this mosaic, and that it was found in a royal court floor lends itself to the assumption that the dog was highly regarded, be it a specific dog or an entire breed. 

The last example is found on an ancient Greek vase in the Louvre depicting Hercules with Cerberus, the three-headed dog that stood guard in the Greek Underworld[12].  While the mythology around Cerberus has altered it from a real dog[13], the general artistic depictions of Cerberus are not that different to the description of the Molosser dog breed mentioned earlier.  Comparing the depiction on the vase, Cerberus has the black coat, powerful straight and tilted in hind legs, the large head and thick neck, and the shortened powerful jaw that Varro said is desirable in a guard dog[14].  Since ancient Rome and ancient Greece share a common mythology, background, and similar geographic location, it is a logical assumption that the mythical guard dog of the Underworld would be an empowered and legendary version of the Molosser guard dog that they already knew and respected. 

In conclusion, it can be demonstrated that both the Pompeii mosaic and the vase depicting Cerberus are possibly drawing their inspiration from the same dog, most likely one of the mastiff-type guard dogs such as the Molosser that was common at that time.  The Egyptian mosaic, however, is of a different dog altogether, but also is of a much higher quality of craftsmanship.  While the artistry skill level and style between these three ancient pieces of art differ, it is evident that the ancient peoples of Rome, Greece, and Egypt loved, respected, and even to an extent deified their dogs. 


Alderton, D.  (2008).  Encyclopedia of Dogs.  Parragon Books.  Bath, UK.

Ancient History Encyclopedia.  ‘Dogs in the Ancient World’.  Mark, J. (1970) (Accessed on 28 Dec 2011)

Bibliotheca Alexandria.  The New Library of Alexandria and Museum.  and  (Accessed on Dec 28 2011)

Cerberus.  Tufts University.  (Accessed on 28 Dec 2011)

Columella, On Agriculture.  (Translated by Harrison 1941).  Cambridge Harvard University Press.  (Accessed on 28 Dec 2011) 

‘Dogs in Ancient Rome and Greece’.  University of Chicago. (Accessed on 28 Dec 2011)

Horace.  (1995).  The Complete Odes and Episodes. (Translated by Shepherd).  Penguin Books.

Italian Greyhounds.  Sighthounds in the Ancient World. (Accessed on 28 Dec 2011)

Varro.  De Re Rustica.  (Translated by Hooper & Ash).  University of Chicago. &*.html (Accessed on 28 Dec 2011)

Art Referenced

Vase in the Louvre Museum – Hercules and Cerberus -

[4] Horace, The Complete Odes and Episodes, Episode VI
[5] Varro, De Re Rustica, p 397-407
[7] Varro, De Re Rustica, p 397-407
[8] Alderton, Encyclopaedia of Dogs, pg. 329, 350, & 369.
[11] Alderton, Encyclopaedia of Dogs, pg. 172, 212.
[13] i.e. three heads and sometimes a serpent tail.
[14] Varro, De Re Rustica, p 397-407

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