Man's Best Friend - Dogs in the Ancient World

By Owain Williams

While perusing some ancient Athenian vases for images of dogs for a piece of art in an upcoming issue, I started to wonder about what dogs would be wandering around in an ancient city. If you go out in a city today, especially in a park, you will see all manner of dogs, from tiny dachshunds to Great Danes. How different would it have been in, say, fifth-century Athens?


We know that dogs have been our constant companions for millennia. There is, for example, the Two Dog Palette from late fourth millennium Egypt, or an inscribed brick from the reign of Ur-Nammu in Mesopotamia, ca. 2100–2000 BC, which was trodden on by a wandering dog. There is even a plaque depicting a dog nursing her pups from Mesopotamia, ca. 2000 BC.

A plaque depicting a dog nursing her pups from Mesopotamia, ca. 2000 BC

In ancient Greece, arguably, the most iconic dog – as exemplified by a beautiful Roman copy of a Hellenistic statue in the British Museum – is the Molossian hound. Reminiscent of the modern mastiff breed of dogs, the Molossian appears to have been a guard dog. The earliest reference to such a dog is Aristophanes’ Thesmophoriazusae (416), where they are kept to frighten off adulterers. Aristotle also tells us that the Molossians kept two kinds of dogs, one for hunting and one to guard their sheep. Their hunting dogs were no different from other hunting dogs elsewhere in Greece, but the guard dogs “are superior to the others in size, and in the courage in which they face the attacks of wild animals” (History of Animals 608a30– 33), to my mind resembling the Kangal Shepherd Dog of modern Anatolia. Despite being such an iconic animal, there are very few surviving representations of it in ancient Greek art.

In ancient Greek art, it is, unsurprisingly, hunting dogs who appear much more frequently, especially on pottery. They tend to be much smaller dogs than the Molossian is made out to be, with slender bodies, long tails, and narrow snouts. Some representations of this dog make them appear somewhat rat-like, but others have far greater detail, such as a mid-fifth century lekythos depicting Kephalos and his hound. 

A mid-fifth century BC lekythos vase depicting Kephalos and his hound, now in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts

Xenophon provides a description of the ideal hunting dog in his treatise On Hunting (4.1–3; trans. Marchant and Bowerstock, 1925):

“First, then, they should be big. Next, the head should be light, flat and muscular; the lower parts of the forehead sinewy; the eyes prominent, black and sparkling; the forehead broad, with a deep dividing line; the ears small and thin with little hair behind; the neck long, loose and round; the chest broad and fairly fleshy; the shoulder-blades slightly outstanding from the shoulders; the forelegs short, straight, round and firm; the elbows straight; the ribs not low down on the ground, but sloping in an oblique line; the loins fleshy, of medium length, and neither too loose nor too hard; the flanks of medium size; the hips round and fleshy at the back, not close at the top, and smooth on the inside; the under part of the belly itself slim; the tail long, straight and thin; the thighs hard; the shanks long, round and solid; the hind-legs much longer than the fore-legs and slightly bent; the feet round. Hounds like these will be strong in appearance, agile, well-proportioned, and speedy; and they will have a jaunty expression and a good mouth.”

I cannot help but imagine these dogs to resemble modern sighthounds, such as whippets and greyhounds. Indeed, in modern Britain especially, greyhounds were primarily used for hare coursing, just as Xenophon recommends for the dog he is describing.


In the same treatise, when discussing hunting larger game, such as deer and boars, Xenophon also mentions several other breeds – the Indian, the Cretan, the Locrian, and the Laconian (10.1). Aristotle also mentions the Laconian hound in his History of Animals, stating that a cross between a Laconian hound and a Molossian hound is “remarkable for courage and endurance of hard labour” (608a33–34).


It is fun to imagine what life must have been like for the everyday person in antiquity. While not everyone in the modern world likes dogs, they have rightfully earned the title of ‘man's best friend', providing companionship for many. Just as Odysseus weeps when he sees his dog Argos again, so too did dogs likely provide companionship to people throughout the ancient world.

Leave a comment

Related Posts