As a former professor of ancient history, I have often cast a jaundiced eye over the largely imaginary and highly romanticized early histories of the various dog breeds. One of the real clichés of canine history is that the famous Molossus dog of Greek and Roman antiquity was a dog of the bulldog/mastiff type and ancestral to modem breeds of the same sort..


This belief, which may go back to Renaissance times and was sanctified by the 18th century science in the person of the great taxonomist Linnaeus, is universal today: “These dogs [mastiffs] were treasured by the Greeks, who called them Molossians (after the ancient district of Molossia in Epirus, northwestern Greece), John McLoughlin, The Canine Clan, 1984, page 108. “The [Neopolitan Mastiftl is the descendant of the ancient Molasses [sic], which were bred by the Greeks and later the Romans for use in arena fights and also as dogs of war,” Dr. Carl Semencic, The World of Fighting Dogs, 1984, p. 185. See also Douglas B. Oliff, The Mastiff and Bulimastiff Handbook, 1987, pp.3-4-, Mario Zacchi, The Neopolitan Mastiff, 1987, pp. 15-49.





Lit is quite common to refer to mastiff-like dogs– Mastiffs, Bullmastiffs, Dogues, Neos, American Bulldogs, etc.–as “Molossers.” An advertisement in Dog World proclaims the Japanese Tosa as “the ultimate Molosser.” I gather that in Europe there are special “Molosser” clubs and shows for Dogues, Neos and such.


The Molossus-Mastiff connection has been formerly enshrined by science in that family of so-called “mastiff bats” is scientifically designated the “Molossidae.”


Unfortunately, the factual evidence for this seemingly universal belief is all but non-existent. The notion that the Molossus dog was some sort of ancestral bulldog or mastiff is almost certainly completely false! The best literary evidence suggests that the real Molossus dog was a lightly built coursing dog, closer to a greyhound than a mastiff, as I intend to demonstrate below.




The Molossi were a people living in the mountainous region of northwestern Greece and southern Albania. They were the foremost of the tribes making up the Epirote Confederacy. We are not sure of their ethnic affinities. They may have been Greek “hillbillies,” or they may have been Illyrians (who many or may not have been ancestors of the modem Albanians) or a mixture of the two peoples. In any event, they were long regarded by the more civilized Greeks as a backward and semi-barbarous people. By the 4th century B.C., their royal family had assimilated Greek culture and claimed descent from Neoptolemus, the son of great Achilles. A prominent Molossian king was Alexander of Epirus (aka Alexander the Molossian), who waged war in Italy and died in 330 B.C. His sister was Olympias, the mother of Alexander the Great. Greatest of the Molossian-Epirote kings was Pyrrhus (who gives us the term “Pyrrhic victory” for an excessively costly success). At various times Pyrrhus attempted to conquer Macedonia, Rome and Italy, Sicily and finally Greece before being killed in 272 B.C. Thereafter, Molossia and Epirus tended to become a political satellite of Macedonia. The Molossi were crushed by the Romans in 170 B.C.


All of this is a long way of introducing the fact that it is preposterous to assume that the big hunting dogs depicted on the friezes of Assyrian kings like Ashumasirpal E or Ashbanipal hundreds of years earlier, to say nothing of other mastiff-like dogs depicted in yet more ancient eastern art, came from a remote, isolated and barbarous region well over a thousand miles away.


Nonetheless, the claim is often made that these dogs are indeed Molossian: “The Assyrian kings … maintained large kennels of Molossians, huge Mastiff-like dogs that were used for hunting and war,”


Shirley Kalstone, “The Dog in Art,” in The AKCs World of the Pure Bred Dog, 1983,p.269.See also K.S.Matz, The Pit Bull in Fact and Fable, 1984, pp. 5-12.


A variant of this is the claim that these Assynan dogs were exported to Greece, where they then became known as Molossi, although I have never heard a plausible suggestion of how these presumably valuable dogs ended up in the remote, backward, mountainous, land-locked region of Molossia.





The true Molossus dog was undeniably one of the most famous dogs of classical (Greco-Roman) antiquity. It is variously mentioned as a premier hunting dog, an aggressive guard dog and as a guardian and herder of cattle and sheep by many of the greatest writers in Greek and Latin literature over a period of 800 years.

[Note: Because I do not have access to a university library, I have been unable to check all literary references to the Molossus dog. Those that I have not been able to check include: Pollux, V, 37-1 Oppian, Cynegetica 1, 375; Plautus, Captivi 86-, Seneca, Phaedra 33; Statius, Thebais III, 203, Silvae 11, 6, 19, Achilleis 1, 747; Martial XR, 1, 1, Claudian, Stilicho H, 215, III, 293. 1 encourage anyone with the opportunity to do so to check out these references and see if anything else germane to the topic can be found.]


The earliest reference to the Molossus dog occurs in the Athenian comedian Aristophanes’ Thesmophoriazusae (line 416), which was staged in 411 B.C. A passing reference is made there to the Molossus dog with mastiff types is found in Aristotle’s History of Animals (608a), written about 347 B.C.: “Of the Molossian breed of dogs, such as are employed in the chase are pretty much the same as those elsewhere- but the sheep-dogs of this breed are superior to the others in size, and in the courage with which they face the attacks of wild animals.” (Revised Oxford Translation, ed. Jonathan Barnes, 1994). The allusions to the dogs’ size and courage are faintly suggestive of a mastiff type, but all Aristotle is really saying is that the strains of the Molossus breed favored for herding are larger and braver than those used for hunting. The dual function of the Molossus as both a herdsman’s dog and a hunting dog are echoed in the Roman poet Horace’s Sixth Epode (lines 5-10), where the Molossus and the very similar Laconian (Spartan) hound are first described as a “friendly force for shepherds” ( amica vis pastoribus) and then as relentless trackers. Virgil likewise (Georgics III, 404-413) refers to the Molossian and Laconian dogs as both hunters and protectors of livestock.




A fairly common piece of “mastiff malarkey” is that British dogs of the mastiff or bulldog type were brought to Rome and pitted against the Molossi, and the British dogs proved superior (e.g., Dr. Carl Semencic, Pit Bulls & Tenacious Guard Dogs, 199 1, p. 242; K.S. Matz, The Pit Bull. Fact and Fable, 1984, p. 12).


Actually, there seems to be little or no evidence (at least that I can find) that the Romans routinely used mastiffs or other fighting dogs in the arenas (except at the very end of the classical period), despite many assertions to this effect by modem authors. It is interesting that Roland Auget’s Cruelty and Civilization: The Roman Games (1972) makes no mention at all of dogs being used for combats in the arena, nor did the Romans seem to have much interest in dogfights as such. (After watching lions, tigers, bears, wild bulls, elephants, rhinos and men going at each other in the arena, the Romans would probably have found pit dog matches tame and boring by comparison!) The oft-mentioned claim that the Romans made extensive use of war dogs seems to have scant literary and archaeological support as well.


To return to the purported battles between the British “mastiffs” and the Roman’s Molossi, the whole notion seems to have its roots in a passage of Grattius (sometimes called, on dubious authority, Grattius “Falisctis”), who wrote a 540-line poem on dogs and hunting sometime shortly before 8 A.D. The Translation in the Loeb Classical Library of this passage (I 1. 174-18 1) reads as follows: “What if you visit the straits of Morini, tide-swept by the wayward sea, and choose to penetrate even among the Britons? Oh how great your reward, how great your gain beyond any outlays! If you are not bent on looks or deceptive graces (this is the one defect of the British whelps), at any rate, when serious work has come, when bravery must be shown and the impetuous War-god calls in the utmost hazard, then you could not admire the renowned Molossians so much.”


To paraphrase Grattius in simpler language, he is saying, “If you want a really good [hunting dog], a trip to Britain would almost be worth it. The British dogs may not look like much, but for bravery in a fight [with game animals, as the adjacent passages make clear] even the famous Molossus does not surpass them” In short, all Grattius is saying is that Britain produced plucky hunting dogs, period. All the statements about British fighting dogs being pitted against Molossi or exhibited in the arena at this time are modem flights of fancy bersed on this eight lines of Grattius. There is nothing in Grattius that these British dogs were bulldogs, mastiffs, “fighting dogs” (pugnaces) or anything of the sort. Amusingly, the author of the entry on “Dogs” in the Oxford Classical Dictionary cites the same passage to claim, “…from Britain [came] a small, shaggy terrier of poor appearance but great courage.” Mastiff or Scotty? Our modem authorities can’t seem to make up their minds about Grattius’ “British dog”!





Although most allusions to the Molossus dog in literature are passing references to it in its role as a hunting dog or as an aggressive protector of humans and livestock and fail to give any physical description, we can get some idea of what it looked like. For example, Lucan, writing about 64 A.D., (Pharsalia IV, 440) alludes to the levis Molossi. Now, levis has the basic meaning in Latin of “light” (in weight). It can also mean “swift” or “nimble.” None of these are adjectives that one is likely to apply to a mastiff-type dog!


However, the passage in ancient literature that really dashes the Molossus-mastiff identification is found in the poet M. Aurelius Olympius Nemesianus, writing about 284 A.D. In his poem about dogs and hunting, he all but gives us a breed standard for the Molossian and the Laconian dogs, which evidently were very similar (I 1. 103223). He says that a bitch to be mated should befacilem cursu, facilenique recursu (I. 106 (“good at running, good at running back” [on command]. “She should be tall, on straight legs” (I 1. 108-9). She should have a “firm belly” (I. II1). He tells how her ultra soft ears should flow back as she runs (I. II3).


Neinesianus advises when culling puppies to test for those which promise to be “light in running” (I. 139), and these are to be spared.


Nemesianus, then, makes it abundantly clear that the Molossus dog, far from being some sort of mastiff, was actually a rangily built coursing dog, probably more akin to the greyhound. (If running down jackrabbits is your game, the Dogue and the Neo are not exactly the breeds that come to mind!)

Perhaps the closest contemporary counterpart to the Molossus dog of antiquity would be something like the Catahoula Leopard Dog, which is a fairly rangy conformation and serves both as a herder and a hunter; it is also reputed to be an aggressive guard dog.


This is born out in classical art, where lean dogs on the order of the Catahoula (without the spots) abound, but mastiff types tend to be conspicuous by their absence, despite Vicki Heame’s attempts to turn the famous statue of the Capitoline Wolf into the “Capitoline Pit Bull” Bandit, 199 1, pp. 174-177.) Even Zacchi, an ardent proponent of the Molossus-mastiff connection, has to admit, “Roman iconography, of which there is actually not a great deal on the Molossian dog, is less clearcut than the Persian and Assyrian-Babylonian concerning unity and type.” The Neopolitan niastiff, pp. 27-28. About the best examples he can cite are two smallish, broad-headed dogs that could easily pass for American Pit Bull Terriers on a late Roman sarcophagus Ibid. Give the frequent references to the Molossus dog in literature, the near non-existence of mastiff-like dogs in Greco-Roman art alone would make it highly improbable that the Molossus dog was any sort of mastiff, especially when recognizably mastiff-like dogs were relatively common in the art of the ancient near east. (Some authors, aware of these difficulties, have suggested that the Molossus was a “cursorial mastiff” of the boarhound/Great Dane type. However, there really isn’t any good evidence to suggest that the Molossus was any kind of mastiff at all, “cursorial” or not!)


In short, the identification of the famous Molossus dog of antiquity with bull and mastiff breeds is entirely a modern (in the broad sense of the word) misconception. The scientific designation of the mastiff bats as “Molossidae” is based on the same fallacy. The contemporary practice of calling contemporary mastiff-like dogs “Molossers” should be discontinued in the interests of accuracy (although I don’t expect this to happen anytime soon).





Because the famous Molossus dog was evidently not a mastiff type, it does not necessarily follow that mastiff-like dogs were entirely unknown to the Romans. Such dogs were in existence in Asia centuries before the heyday of Rome. It also seems incontrovertible that the mastiff-like dogs were known to the Romans by the end of the classical period, around 400 A.D. There is a description of what makes a good watchdog in L. Junius Columella’s De Re Rustica (written circa 60-65 A.D.) that sounds decidedly mastiff-like. I don’t have the reference, but it is quoted in Semencic’s Pit Bulls, pp. 255-6:


“The guard dog for the house should be black in color so that during the day a prowler can be frightened by his appearance, When night falls, the dog, lost in the shadows, can attack without being seen. The head is so massive that it seems to be the most important part of the body. The ears fall toward the front, the brilliant and penetrating eyes are black or gray, the chest is deep and hairy, the hind legs are powerful, the front legs are covered with long thick hair, and he is short legged with strong toes and nails.”


Semencic takes this to refer to the Neopolitan Mastiff, but the references to the hairy chest and the long hair make it sound like one of the shaggy mastiffs, on the order of the Tibetan Mastiff, rather than the smooth-coated Neo. And lo, there is some evidence that the Tibetan Mastiff may have been kept by the Romans. There is a line in Grattius (I. 159): “There are those who raise Chinese dogs, a breed of ungovernable rage.” Some commentators have suggested that these ferocious Chinese dogs may actually have been Tibetan Mastiffs. What else? Chows? Shar-peis?)


Lest one take Grattius too seriously, however, between his references to the fierce Chinese dogs and the plucky British dog discussed earlier, he tells how bitches of the Hyrcanian breed shun the dogs and go into the woods to mate with tigers to produce nobler offspring! (Hyrcania was a district of northern Iran famous for its tigers.) Although the pedigree of the Hyrcanian dogs may be discounted, Grattius (I 1. 161-170) describes the breed as prone to killing livestock, but redeeming itself as a “great fighter” magnus pugnator in the forest. Was this another Asian mastiff, perhaps akin to the Assyrian dogs, with a tiger-brindle coat accounting for the tall tails about its breeding?


In the treatise on dogs and hunting attributed to the Athenian soldier and man of letters Xenophon, who lived in the first half of the 4th century B.C., the author recommends the “Indian dog” as being ideal for hunting deer (IX, I) and wild boar (X, 1), describing these dogs as “strong, large, swift-footed and not lacking in spirit.” E.C. Marchant in the Loeb edition (p. 421) identifies these Indian dogs as “Thibet dogs, called by Grattius (I 5 9) Seres. ” I must question this identification, however.


“Swift-footed” (podokeis) is not an adjective I would apply to such a massive dog.

Some scholars use the reference to Indian dogs as evidence that Xenophon did not write the work, arguing that such dogs would have been familiar in Greece before the conquests of Alexander the Great. Surprisingly, the famous Molossus dog is nowhere mentioned in this work. If the author is Xenophon, this may have been because he was very biased in favor of all things Spartan. This extended to the Lacoman dogs, which he recommends highly, and so he may have regarded the Molossian dog in much the same light a dyed-in-the-wool pit bull man would an Amstaff or Bull Terrier!





Finally, a short look at a couple of other bits of “mastiff malarkey.” In the AKC’s Complete Dog Book, the breed history for the Mastiff states, “Caesar describes them in his account of invading Britain in 55 B.C., when they fought beside their masters against the Roman legions with such courage and power as to make a great impression.” Yes, they made such a great impression that Caesar doesn’t say anything at all about any dogs whatsoever in his account of his two invasions of Britain (De Bello Gallico IV 20-36, V 8-23)! The same breed history continues with an account of how “huge British fighting dogs” defeated all other varieties in the Circus and were matched against human gladiators, bulls, bears, lions and tigers–all of which seems to have been inflated from the few lines of Grattius about the plucky, if nondescript, British hunting dogs discussed earlier.


Another howler found in the Mastiff history in the AKC Complete Dog Book is an account attributed to Herodotus telling how Cyrus the Elder, founder of the Persian Empire, received a mastiff from the king of Albania (a region in the Caucaus, not to be confused with the modem state in Europe). When the dog proved wanting in gameness after being pitted against a dog and a bull, Cyrus, disgusted, had it killed. The king of Albania then sent a mastiff bitch with the admonition that it was beneath the dignity of a mastiff to fight a dog or bull and that Cynis should set it on a worthy opponent like a lion or an elephant. “Whereupon, says Herodotus, the Mastiff bitch was set to attack an elephant and did so with such fury that she worried the elephant down to the ground and would have killed it.” Only trouble is, this story is nowhere in Herodotus! Evidently it is a corrupted version of a story from Pliny the Elder’s Natural History VHI, 4, told about Alexander the Great,, and the dogs are merely described as being of “extraordinary size” (Zacchi, The Neopolitan Mastiff, p. 17). Zacchi, however, has a similar blunder when he claims that Livy states that a large number of Epirote dogs followed the triumphal chariot of Aemilius Paulus after the Roman victory over the Macedonians at Pydna in 168 B.C. “This group of molossians went to make up the nucleus of ‘fighters’ [pugnaces] used for combat in the arena.” There are no references to any dogs found in Livys account of Aemilius Paulus’ triumph, nor did Diodorus Siculus’ nor in Plutarch’s.



by Jan Libourel