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The Dogs of War

posted Aug 16, 2018, 9:09 AM by Gordon Doherty   [ updated Dec 9, 2018, 5:27 AM ]

When writing, I aim to provoke within myself the kind of emotions I want my readers to feel. Terror and horror have to be two of the most powerful emotions, and there was one scene in Legionary: The Blood Road that had cold shivers racing across my skin as I typed. Pavo and Sura are on the run, hiding out in the wilds with their Claudian comrades. They think they have given their darkest enemy the slip, and then, one night, this happens...

Pavo peered through the blackness towards the nightmarish scene at the treeline: one of the Claudia sentries watching the dell’s edge now lay on his back, the snow around him black with blood. A nightmarish shape hovered over him on all fours, jerking and shuddering, pulling sinews from his belly. He remembered stories he had been told as a child: of forest demons, of creatures that lived in darkness and feasted on the flesh of men. For a moment, he felt like a helpless boy. He took a half-step forward to see better, to be sure… then stepped on a twig somewhere beneath the snow.

The creature’s head swung round, ears pricked up, staring at Pavo. Pavo stared back, seeing the spiked collar on the thing's neck, the metal plate armour on its huge chest. The creature's lips peeled back in a low growl, fangs wet with saliva and blood. Now he understood what it was: a Molossian hound.

A dozen more prowled into view and padded forward. They were surrounded.

*SHUDDER*, eh?


The Molossian hounds only play a small part in the story, but I thought they merited a little attention here - not least to show that they are more than just the demonic creatures from the scene above. They are actually noble animals with a long and distinguished history.

This ancient and now extinct breed of hound was once bred in southern Europe. Described as having a wide, short muzzle and a heavy dewlap (skin around the neck), they were employed by man long before the days of the Roman Empire - by the Greeks, the Assyrians and probably even by the Bronze Age Sumerians. It was the Molossi - a Greek kingdom founded by King Molossus, allegedly the grandchild of Achilles  - who gave the dogs their name. Molossi lands stretched from north of Mount Pindus to the headwaters of the Thyamis river, on the Greek mainland, opposite Corfu. They adopted and trained the hounds for herding and for fending off cattle thieves or bandits.

Writing during the Roman Republic era, Polybius writes of generals tying pots of Greek fire to the backs of dogs and sending them running - ablaze - at enemy cavalry. They would run under the horses, causing the riders to be thrown. Cunning and extremely cruel in equal measures.


It was probably Marcus Aurelius who first formally employed the breed (known to the Romans as Canis Molossus) in legionary warfare,  often equipping them in protective spiked metal collars and mail armour, and training them to run in attack formations. The Molossus was used to fight tigers, lions, elephants, and men in battle. They were a common participant in the gladiatorial arena too.

*Update* - it seems the Marcus Aurelius link is disputed. Some claim it is perpetuated myth, others are not so sure dogs were ever used by the Romans as anything more than camp watchhounds.
So, I had a hunt around for some source evidence. The ancient texts do not explicitly detail Marcus Aurelius' use of 'War Dogs', but I did find this very interesting section of the Marcus Aurelius column in Rome, a fantastic monument that depicts his Danubian campaigns:

Left: A section of the Marcus Aurelius column in Rome
Right: A close up of... the war dogs in battle (from big pic - top, just left of centre)?

Anyway, moving on...


"Never, with them on guard," says Virgil, "need you fear for your stalls a midnight thief, or onslaught of wolves, or Iberian brigands at your back."

Aristotle mentions them in The History of Animals, praising their bravery and physical superiority.


Later breeding saw the arrival of the Alaunt - so called because they were favoured by the Alani people (who originated on the Eurasian Steppe, but moved westwards into Europe during the Great Migration). Modern mastiffs are probably descended from these large and formidable creatures.

Now, some visual tidbits:

Left: Fragment of a relief from Nineveh circa 7th c BC, showing Molossian hunting hounds and Assyrian warriors.
Centre: A Roman officer holds a Molossus (or a close relative breed) at bay as his army readies for battle.
Right: Just look at how powerfully built this creature is - it must have been an excellent form of security and a deadly opponent!

In the arena: molossians tackle a tiger for the amusement of the crowds.

Read all about it! - in 'The Blood Road'


Animals in the Military, Kistler

De Re Militari, Vegetius

The Marcus Aurelius column, Rome