Dogs accompanied the armies of antiquity. If you ever get to Thessalonica, look at the top panel of the Arch of Galerius. On the left is a dog looking up at the horse and rider above it. Perhaps no more than a camp follower, but perhaps a dog that guarded the camp of his master once the army stopped for the night. In an Attic Black Figure vase from 540 to 520 BC, a dog stands amidst the warriors departing. Saying goodbye? Just as likely going with them. (Louvre F19) Then as now, dogs can be taught to take risks. Above is the side of a vase made about 500 BC showing a dog running beside, almost under, the horses pulling a racing chariot. (Tampa 86.35)
What did they do if they went to war?
Military functions of dogs have their origins in the uses dogs have had since the beginning of domestication. Aeneas, known as the Tactician, writing in the fourth century BC, describes using dogs for a range of purposes. On nights when a city is under siege, he recommends tethering them outside the wall (άριστον δ'εν τοιαυταις νυξιν έξω του τειχεος κυνας προσδεδέσθαι νυκτερευοντας) so they can detect spies approaching and deserters trying to flee, and so that their barking will wake any guards who have fallen asleep. (Aeneas 22.14) The guard dog below in a mosaic from Herculaneum that is tied to a hoop high on the wall has generally been assumed to be guarding a house, on the belief that the Vesuvians and Herculaneans were only interested in themselves, but the military symbols might argue that the dog was outside the city or perhaps guarding a camp.
Polyaenus, describing a siege in 385 BC, tells how dogs stopped traitors from aiding the enemy:
“While Agesipolis was besieging Mantineia, the Lacedaemonians were joined by their allies, who were sympathetic towards the Mantineians, but were obliged to help the Lacedaemonians because they were at that time the leading power in Greece. Agesipolis was informed that the allies were secretly supplying the defenders with whatever they might need. To prevent this happening in future, he let loose a number of dogs around the camp, and particularly around the part which faced towards the city. This stopped the communications with the defenders; because no one ventured to cross between the camp and the city, for fear of being discovered by the barking of the dogs.” (Polyaenus, Stratagema, 2.25)
Dogs could accompany human guards on their rounds outside a city wall, as Aeneas says they did before the Battle of Naxos in 376 BC. (Aeneas 22.20; see also Vegetius, IV.26) During defensive maneuvers inside, Aeneas advises keeping the dogs chained up (δεσμειν) lest they attack and harass the troops. (Aeneas 38.2-3)
Dogs might have to be silenced for certain maneuvers. Aeneas says that for making secret sorties against an enemy encamped outside the walls, the dogs would have to be kept from barking and the cocks from crowing. He says they are to be rendered temporarily mute by cauterizing some part of their mouths (επικυσαντα τι του σωματος). (Aeneas 23.1-2) Hopefully the guard dogs would be brought inside and locked up to minimize the need for this. Something of the reverse of this situation was a usage Darius made of dogs to deceive the Scythians. Darius left his camp, but tied up the dogs so that their barking and baying convinced the Scythians he was still in the camp. (Sextus Julius Frontinus, Strategemata, 1.5.25)
The numbers of dogs used for guard work were not small. Plutarch, in his Life of Aratos (24.1), says that, in 243 BC, the Achaeans guarded Acrocorinthos with 400 soldiers and 50 dogs and as many handlers (πεντηκοντα κυσι και κυνηγοις ισοις). Dogs on the column of Marcus Aurelius probably reflect guard dogs that were brought by the Roman Army in the Danubian campaign. The dogs are shown in the drawing, by Pietro Bellori from a publication of 1704, coming ashore from ships during the invasion.
Soldiers might be accompanied by dogs in battle. Aelian in his Miscellaneous History (XIV.46) states regarding a battle from the eighth century BC:
“The Magnesians, who border the Mæander, warred against the Ephesians and every member of the cavalry brought a dog and a slave. When the enemy came near, the dogs fell upon them first, then the slaves with bows and arrows, and finally the masters.”
This sort of coordinated use of dogs to attack an enemy in a group suggests some level of training, and specifically of attack training.
A painted chest in the tomb of Tutankhamun shows two dogs in battle below the pharoah's chariot, evidencing the use of dogs in battle before 1300 BC. In the section of the chest shown above the dogs bite the heads of their victims. They look more like hunting dogs than war dogs, and it is possible that the artist has put the greyhound-like animals in an environment where they would never have been. The second dog looks out from the painting directly at the viewer, allowing us to meet his gaze for eternity. Perhaps the pharoah's own dogs were immortalized by an artist anxious to please his benefactor.
In a passage in his History of Animals (VII.38), Aelian describes dogs soldiering with their masters (συνεστρατεύοντο), mentioning one that fought with his master at Marathon and was portrayed on the Painted Colonnade in Athens with his master. The poet Valerius Flaccus describes the Caspians streaming forth, their pack of dogs dashing no less swiftly at the trumpet’s blare, joining their masters in battle. (Argonautica VI.107-113) Pliny describes the king of the Garamantes as being escorted back from exile by 200 dogs that did battle for him. (Natural History, VIII, 61) Herodotus says that Xerxes brought Indian hounds for his invasion of Greece (VII.187)
Strabo refers to the Celts using dogs bred for the chase in war as well. (IV.5.2) This likely means they were used in battle. The Alexander Sarcophagus in the Istanbul Archaeology Museum shows a dog under a horse at full gallop, the dog oblivious to the danger of running between the horse's legs as it breaks to the right.
Pliny says the Colophonii and the Castabalenses had faithful cohorts of dogs that fought in the front rank and never refused battle. (Natural History, VIII, 61) Polyaenus writes that when Alyattes, king of Lydia, fought the Cimmerians in the sixth century B.C., he brought fierce dogs that fell upon the barbarians and injured many of them (Stratagema 7.2; see also 7.9, using dogs on the front line defensively). The great frieze of the Temple of Zeus at Pergamum shows a battle against the giants in which dogs aided the gods. The Molossian in the section shown below might be mistaken for a lion were one not to look closely at the animal’s tail.
Pliny describes a dog that would not leave his master’s side after he died in battle, driving away birds and beasts of prey. Another starved to death in mourning, and yet another threw himself on his master’s funeral pyre. Though not in a war, Pliny tells of a dog that, when thrown food, took it to the mouth of his dead master, and when his master’s body was thrown into the Tiber, the dog jumped in the rushing water and tried to keep him afloat, something a great crowd watched. (Natural History, VIII.61)
Dogs were used as messengers in antiquity, and were used for this as recently as World War I, electronics having now relieved them of this function. Aeneas says that messenger dogs were used in Epirus, ancient home of the Molossian. He describes how this was done:
“In Epeiros, dogs were widely used as follows. A dog would be taken away from home on leash and a collar with a letter sewn inside put around its neck (περιεθηκαν περι τον αυχενα ιμαντα, εν ώ επιστολη ενερραπτο); then it would be released, at night or during the day, and would inevitably return to its owner. The Thessalians did this too.” (Aeneas 31.31-2)
Polyaenus describes Philip of Macedon using hunting dogs (θηρευτικας κύνας) to pursue barbarians fleeing into the Balkan mountains, finding most of them. (Stratagema, iv.2.16) This is a very early instance of using dogs to track humans rather than game. Ionnes Zonaras, a Byzantine chronicler, describes using dogs from Italy to track men and cattle in 231 BC (κύνας εκ της Ιταλίας μετεπεμψατο ευρινας, και δι’ εκείνων την στίβον και των ανθρωπων και των βοσκηματων ευρων πολλα απετέμετο), something bloodhounds were doing on England's border with Scotland in the time of King James. (VIII.18) E.S. Foster, in referring to the passage by Polyaenus, describes the dogs as bloodhounds, but hunting dogs is the most that can be made of the Greek. In neither of these instances is it certain that the dogs were following a specific track. Both passages seem more like area searches, as when modern police dogs look for a suspect who has fled a crime scene, going on the attack once they have found someone hiding.
Forster says that the only function ancient war dogs did not perform was Red Cross work.This is less true now. Although Forster was writing decades after Otto Kalischer discovered that dogs could be trained to recognize specific chemicals, he was writing well before this was put to practical use to create bomb, narcotics, and arson dogs. Still, much of what they do for us now they were doing for us then, and often paying the ultimate price for this service.
Sources: J.M.C. Toynbee (1973). Animals in Roman Life and Art. Cornell U. Press. Ithaca; D. Whitehead (translator and commentator) (1990). Aeneias the Tactician. Oxford U. Press, Oxford; M. Lemish (1996). War Dogs: Canines in Combat. Brassey’s London; S. Menache (1998). Dogs and Human Beings: A Story of Friendship. Society & Animals 6(1). E.S. Forster (1941). Dogs in Ancient Warfare, Greece & Rome, 10(3), 114-7; G.B.A. Fletcher (1941). Word on Dogs in Ancient Warfare, Greece & Rome 11(31), 34; Aeneas Tacticus (Loeb Classical Library 1923); Corpus Scriptorum Historiae Byzantinae: Ioannis Zonarae, Annales (Bonnae Impensis ed. Weberi 1844).
For a description of Kalischer's work and the evolution of scent detection, see Police and Military Dogs (Taylor & Francis/CRC Press, forthcoming October 2011). Thanks to Richard Hawkins, Brian Duggan, L.E. Papet, and John Grubbs for many helpful suggestions.