The Roman Dogma of Animal Breeding: “Bark”aeological Findings Reveal the Effects of Selective Pressures on Roman Dogs

by Ariane Akhand

Faculty mentor: Dr. Liane Houghtalin

Animals as a whole are often overlooked when studying ancient Rome, but there is one animal that even Roman authors of farming guides often dismissed as being insignificant; this animal being the dog. The Romans kept dogs for many purposes; such as for hunting game, protecting a flock of sheep, guarding the house, and providing companionship. The authors of Roman farming guides often provided guidelines as to which characteristics were ideal for each type of working dog, but are these ideal characteristics reflected in the reality of Roman dogs? I set out to conclude to what extent the Romans influenced observable dog traits by the process of selective breeding. The ideal dogs described in the guides written by Columella, Varro, and the Greek author Xenophon have been analyzed and compared to archaeological findings depicting real Roman dogs in the forms of vases, mosaics, and actual dog bones. It was found that the Romans placed selective pressures most strongly on their hunting and herding dogs, followed closely by their guard dogs, and then minimally on their lap dogs. The nearly uniform traits shared by herding and hunting dogs is most likely due to the high stakes positions that these dogs held, as their owner depended on them for money and food. The guard dog also held a high stakes position in protecting the household, so it is not surprising that it experienced selection in a similar way. The lap dog did not contribute to its household as working dogs did, and selection for a lap dog’s traits was likely done on an individual basis, based on the owner’s personal preferences. This leads to the highest degree of diversity being observed in Roman lap dogs.

The Roman Dogma of Animal Breeding

8 Replies to “The Roman Dogma of Animal Breeding: “Bark”aeological Findings Reveal the Effects of Selective Pressures on Roman Dogs”

  1. Congratulations on a very fine thesis, Ariane. I’m still so interested in Columella’s belief that docking a dog’s tail prevented rabies. I wonder if that was his idiosyncratic belief or general knowledge? I learned a lot from your thesis and offer you hearty congratulations.

    1. Thank you so much, Dr. Pitts, and thank you for your feedback along the way. c:

  2. Ariane – I enjoyed listening to your capstone presentation. I am glad you were able to integrate your two majors into a cohesive and interesting thesis. I was fascinated to learn that fur color correlates to personalities of dogs.

    1. Thank you! I’m glad I was too. It just feels right to have been able to utilize both.

  3. Thank you, Ariane! The perfect example of how taking a look at Classics through the lens of another discipline, in this case Biology, makes the discipline of Classics stronger. Great job!

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