Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Cave Canem (Beware of Dog)

Mosaic from the vestibule of the House of the Tragic Poet

It's generally thought that domestic dogs (Canis lupis familiaris), a subspecies of the grey wolf (Canis lupis) have been around for more than 10,000 years; the exact process of their domestication remains somewhat of a mystery. It could be the dog came nearer in search of food and shelter, or that man grabbed and kept a few of the more tame beasts, or a combination of both.


While plenty of pictorial evidence of them has been found to exist as early as 2000 BC, early written records are less prominent. As they began to appear regularly in the written record, dogs were categorized by their basic function: guardians, herders, and hunters. There was some discussion among the early Greeks and Romans of what made for the best dogs of each type.  Happily, among those people were writers who cared enough to put their thoughts about the matter down on papyrus. In his De Re Rustica (vol. VII), Columella, a first century Roman, gave some black and white details on what particular dogs should look like and how they should behave to best effect their purposes, paraphrased here:

An all-white dog is recommended for the shepherd to avoid mistaking it for a wolf in the half-light of dawn or dusk, and an all-black guard dog for the farm to terrify thieves in the daytime and be less visible to trespassers at night. It should not be too savage, so as not to attack the inhabitants of the house, nor so mild that it fawns over the thief. The farm-yard dog should be heavily built, with a large head, drooping ears, bright eyes, a broad and shaggy chest, wide shoulders, thick legs, and short tail. Because it is expected to stay close to the house and granary, a lack of speed is not important. The sheep dog, on the other hand, should be long and slim, strong and fast enough to repel a wolf or pursue one that has taken its prey.

Just for fun, I thought I’d try to pick out the paraphrased passage from the original Latin text

[3] De villatico igitur et pastorali dicendum est, nam venaticus nihil pertinet ad nostram professionem. Villae custos eligendus est amplissimi corporis, vasti latratus canorique, prius ut auditu maleficum, deinde etiam conspectu terreat et tamen non numquam nec visus quidem horribili fremitu suo fuget insidiantem. Sit autem coloris unius, isque magis eligitur albus in pastorali, niger in villatico, nam varius in neutro est laudabilis. Pastor album probat, quoniam est ferae dissimilis, magnoque opus interdum discrimine est in propulsandis lupis sub obscuro mane vel etiam crepusculo, ne pro bestia canem feriat. [4] Villaticus, qui hominum maleficiis opponitur, sive luce clara fur advenit, terribilior niger conspicitur, sive noctu, ne conspiciatur quidem propter umbrae similitudinem, quam ob rem tectus tenebris canis tutiorem adcessum habet ad insidiantem. Probatur quadratus potius quam longus aut brevis, capite tam magno, ut corporis videatur pars maxima, deiectis et propendentibus auribus, nigris vel glaucis oculis acri lumine radiantibus, amplo villosoque pectore, latis armis, cruribus crassis et hirtis, cauda brevi, vestigiorum articulis et unguibus amplissimis, qui Graece drakes appellantur. Hic erit villatici status praecipue laudandus. 

(I used this. Anyone know Latin? How’d I do?)

Also from old writings, four dog types appear to be called out distinctly: the Molossus (think mastiff), the Laconian (hounds from Sparta, which is interesting given the differences in the hounds – sleek herders and hunters – and the mastiffs – tough dogs of war), the Cretan (a combination of the first two – whose modern incarnation looks a lot like the Carolina Dog), and the Melitan (a smaller wirehaired breed from Malta that we’ll see again when I talk about Diogenes the Cynic). It hardly seems sufficient as a foundation to the variety of breeds we have now, but breeding cycles are short and I’m certain that many types were simply not recorded. 

There are now estimated to be between 300 and 500 distinct breeds of dog in the world, depending on your definition of breed. This variety represents the unique ability of man to change his environment to suit his needs (terrier ratters, mastiff load pullers, etc.) as well as his desires (human-faced Pug, and possessed hassocks). It's a pretty unique interspecies relationship. 

2 comments:

Kelly Elmore said...

I just translated a passage from Cena Trimalchionus, a part of a novel by Petronius. The main characters walk into the Atrium of Trimalchio's house to go to dinner and they see a wall painting like the Cave Canem mosaic. It has the inscription and everything. Cool coincidence.

Lynne said...

"There on the left as one entered...was a huge dog with a chain round its neck. It was painted on the wall and over it, in big capitals, was written: Beware of the Dog."

Petronius, Satyricon (XXIX)

(That was on one of the linked source pages too.)