Where There Actually War Dogs In Ancient Rome

Animal Warriors

Historical accounts suggest that dogs have been helping humans as valued allies since ancient times. From war to hunting and tracking, loyal canines were willing participant in a wide range of activities. Dogs are still used by modern military forces in a variety of roles, from scouting and reconnaissance to search and rescue and even explosive detection, but how did ancient Rome use these beloved animals? Canines were employed by the legions, but not in the same way they are today.This article will investigate how the ancient Romans used dogs in their armies, and examine the evidence for war dogs during the Roman period.

Rome first fielded an army around 350 BC, composed of 40 cavalry and 80 foot-soldiers. Those brave enough to join the legions would do so as a full-time career, as the Roman Empire quickly widened its borders. In 218 BC, Hannibal famously crossed the Alps with elephants and a force of over 20,000. The Roman Republic sought to match and so they built the world’s first professional army and all the various components of the military machine, including the use of dogs.

The most famous of these early war dogs were a type known as Molossus. This large, aggressive breed could carry supplies, pull ammunition carts and guard camps. They were also used for offensive purposes on the battlefield, sicced on opponents to terrorise and disorient them. The dogs were bred for physical strength and aggression, and reportedly had a deep black coat of fur, sometimes referred to as ‘black death’ by enemies. Although it is thought that the Molossus could have had a significant impact on the battlefield, it is not known how widely they were used.

Archaeological evidence for the use of war dogs does exist, with bones that have been found at military sites thought to belong to the Molossus. Furthermore, ancient writings, such as those of the Roman historian Pliny, allude to the fact that war dogs were used by both the Roman Republic and the Empire. Pliny makes mention of a breed specifically used by the Roman Army which he termed ‘Cannae Canes,’ or ‘Dogs of Cannae’, referencing the famous battle of 217 BC.

Historians believe that the Romans used small terrier-like dogs, known as ‘turnspits’, to crawl underneath enemy chariots, attacking the animals harnessed to them and causing chaos and confusion. This strategy clearly demonstrates the Romans’ understanding of canine psychology and how to use it to their advantage on the battlefield. Ancient artwork also depicts canines bearing lances and armor, suggesting that dogs were used as a deterrent in battle and a morale booster for Roman troops.

In addition to their use in war, dogs were of course used for a variety of purposes around Rome such as hunting, herding, and guard duty. Dogs were also used for entertainment, with the most famous example being Roman gladiatorial events. Famous dog breeds from this period include the swift and sleek Greyhound, used for hunting hares and deer, and the powerful Bulldog, which was used to control bulls in the arena. Even today, some of these ancient breeds are still bred and used for their legendary qualities, evolution proving that certain breeds really are timeless.


Hunting was an important leisure activity for the Roman upper classes, and dogs were an integral part of the hunt. Dogs were bred for hunting specific animals, and in the Roman period, these included hares, deer, boars and even wolves. Pointers and setters were also developed to point out prey, such as birds. Breeds used at this time were generally smaller and nimbler than the hounds used in later centuries.

Hunting was a way for Romans to display their wealth and power, with the most successful hunters being highly revered. Some members of the elite even commissioned the making of large bronze statues of themselves and their canine hunting companions. Hunting with dogs not only showed a hunter’s ability to tame and control animals, it also demonstrated his courage and strength. To hunt with spears without any form of protection was considered a test of skill, and it was very popular in the Roman period.

The Roman poet Virgil wrote an epic poem about a hunt and its aftermath. The epic, known as ‘The Aeneid’, tells the story of Aeneas and the Trojan exile, who experienced a number of adventures and triumphs thanks to the help of the hunting dogs entrusted to him by the gods. This story was used as a symbol of bravery and strength and became one of the most popular hunting myths in the Roman period.

Evidence for the use of hunting dogs in the Roman period can be found in literature, art and archaeological evidence, such as bones and even sculptures of dogs found in tombs. The sculptures, which often depict dogs and their owners in hunting scenes, give an insight into the relationship between the two species and how they worked together in order to succeed in the hunt.

Guard Dogs

Guard dogs were also highly valued by the Romans, as they could be used to protect property and alert owners to potential intruders. Some breeds specialised in guarding livestock, while others were used to guard homes. Large, intimidating breeds such as the Mastiff and the Bulldog were favoured by the Roman aristocracy and military figures, as they could retaliate powerfully against any intruders. Smaller breeds were used for guard duty in inner city dwellings and for tracking escaped slaves.

The Romans were one of the first cultures to domesticate wolves, and by the 1st century AD, they were already training them to act as guard dogs. In Rome, these animals were held in high regard and were even given an honored place in many households. These domesticated wolves were known as ‘lupoi’ or ‘canis lupus’, which translates to ‘wolf-dog’. Historians believe that in some cases these domesticated wolves may have been used for war, as the Roman author Quintus Curtius goes so far as to describe them as ‘wolves fit for battle’.

The Roman records also reveal that guard dogs were highly prized and were even presented as gifts to the emperor or any noblemen who garnered favor from the emperor. The use of guard dogs likely helped to reduce crime, as potential robbers were likely to think twice before attempting to break into a guarded compound. In addition to their use in protection, guard dogs were often used for hunting, and it was not uncommon for them to be trained in both disciplines.

Cultural Significance

Throughout their history, dogs have played an important role in Roman society and culture. Dogs have been an integral part of Roman mythology, often appearing in stories and even gods taking on canine form. For example, the god Faunus was often portrayed as a man with the head and ears of a dog, and was associated with fertility and agriculture. Dogs also appear in the famous legend of Romulus and Remus, who were famously found by a she-wolf and brought up by a shepherd.

Dogs were also highly respected in Rome, and were the only animals allowed to enter the temples. Statues and other art dedicated to canine deities are also frequently seen, testifying to the deep reverence in which cats were held by the Romans. In addition, the word ‘canine’ is derived from the Latin word for dog, ‘canis’, and demonstrates the important role dogs have had in language and culture.

In conclusion, there is evidence to suggest that the Romans used dogs for war, hunting and guard duty during their reign. Although it is impossible to determine exactly how widely these animals were employed by the legions, scholars have argued that they played an important role in the Roman war machine. Dogs were also used in other areas of life, such as hunting, guard duty and even religious ceremonies.

Breeding & Training

The Romans had a highly advanced understanding of animal breeding and training, and used their knowledge to develop numerous breeds for specific tasks. Dogs featured prominently in the breeding and training process, and the Romans developed numerous techniques for animal husbandry. Although there is limited evidence for these techniques, it is known that the Romans were one of the first civilisations to attempt selective breeding, which is still used today in order to develop specific traits in animals.

The Romans also had a rigorous system of training dogs, which was conducted by professional animal trainers referred to as ‘domitores’ or ‘domitores canum’. They would use a number of different methods to train their dogs, depending on the breed and purpose. It is thought that the use of treat rewards, sound stimuli and physical punishment were all employed to produce the desired results, and it is possible that the Romans even made use of non-violent methods.

The Romans also understood the importance of kindness and companionship, and Romans often treated their dogs as members of the family. They were encouraged to give food, affection and even basic obedience training to make sure that their dogs were obedient and loyal. It is clear that the Romans saw these animals as valuable and important, and took their training and care seriously.


The Romans were one of the earliest cultures to cultivate the relationship between humans and animals, and their legacy in this area is still highly visible today. Although many of the breeds used in the Roman period have since been lost, some have endured and are still used in similar roles today. Breeds such as the Greyhound, the Mastiff and the Bulldog remain popular, and modern military forces often employ similar tactics as those used by the Romans, such as using dogs to scout and search for explosives.

The influence of the Roman period has also been felt in the world of dog shows and competitions. Many of these events have their roots in the competitions and displays seen in the Roman period, and it is not uncommon for dogs to still be dressed in armor, taken on the hunt and even used to scare away threats and enemies. In many ways, the Romans’ love of dogs and their attempts to use them for various purposes has shaped the world of canine companionship as we know it.

The Relationship between Dogs and Humans

The relationship between dogs and humans has been a lasting one, with both parties often benefiting from the collaboration. The Romans were one of the earliest cultures to understand this relationship and to make use of these loyal and hard-working animals for a variety of purposes. From war to hunting, guard duty and even entertainment, dogs were used in a variety of ways in the Roman period and often showed their willingness to take on whatever tasks were assigned to them.

The Romans’ use of dogs also demonstrates their understanding of animal psychology, as they experimented with a variety of training methods and tasks, such as using dogs to crawl under chariots or siccing them on enemies. This evidence of foresight and experimentation is still highly visible today, and it is clear that the Romans left a lasting legacy when it comes to the use of canines.

Although it is impossible to know exactly how far the use of dogs spread during the Roman period, there is evidence to suggest that they were an important part of the ancient Roman war machine, as well as a vital component in other areas of life. Whether patrolling the streets, attending religious ceremonies or executing complex military maneuvers, dogs were frequently employed in the Roman empire and were held in high regard.

Moshe Rideout is a professional writer and historian whose work focuses on the history of Ancient Rome. Moshe is passionate about understanding the complexity of the Roman Empire, from its architecture to its literature, political systems to social structures. He has a Bachelor's degree in classic studies from Rutgers University and is currently pursuing a PhD in classical archaeology at UMass Amherst. When he isn't researching or writing, he enjoys exploring ruins around Europe, drawing inspiration from his travels.

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