Dogs in Ancient Warfare

Dogs in warfare have a long history, dating back to ancient times before Christ. The Greeks, Persians, Egyptians, Britons and Romans, among others, all used dogs. They were used as guards and were also sent on the battlefield, usually protected by spiked collars or clad in coats of mail armour. The Molossian (or Canis Molossus) dog was the primary war dog of both the Greeks and the Romans, and was specially bred just for combat.

Molossian war dog

The earliest recorded use of war dogs dates back to around 600 BC. Alyattes, the King of Lydia, drove the Cimmerians from Asia Minor with the help of dogs. Alyattes reportedly had his soldiers turn packs of dogs loose on Cimmerian troops. The dogs were particularly effective, having killed some of the invaders. Around the same time Magnesian troops used dogs in the war against the Ephesians. The Magnesian horsemen were each accompanied by a dog and a spear-wielding attendant. The dogs were released first to breach the enemy ranks, followed by an assault of spears and then a cavalry charge. An epitaph records the burial of a mounted warrior named Hippaemon with his dog Lethargos, his horse Podargos and his squire Babes.

In 525 BC, according to legend, the Persians used dogs (and other animals including cats) as shields against the Egyptians during the Battle of Pelusium. The Egyptians regarded certain animals as being sacred and their religion forbade harm towards them on any account.

A mural depicting the war dog at the Battle of Marathon, 490 BC

In 281 BC Lysimachus, who ruled Thrace, Asia Minor and Macedon, was killed during the Battle of Corupedium. His body was found on the field a few days later with his faithful dog protecting his corpse from birds of prey.

In 231 BC Marcus Pomponius Matho used dogs to hunt guerrillas hiding in caves while leading the Roman legions through the inland of Sardinia, and in 55 BC Julius Caesar used English mastiffs when invading Britain. Caesar described the dogs in his accounts as powerful and courageous when they fought alongside their masters.

War dogs have come a long way since earlier days as times changed, but one thing has not changed - dogs remain loyal to the troops they serve.