Phoenix Ancient Art 2022 / 41 – Argos: The Dog in Antiquity

Among domesticated animals, the dog, always our faithful companion, is probably the creature closest to humans. The Latin writer Columella long ago stressed the importance of dogs in everyday life:

For what human being more clearly or so vociferously gives
warning of the presence of a wild beast or of a thief as does
the dog by its barking? What servant is more attached to his
master than is a dog? What companion more faithful? What
guardian more incorruptible? What more wakeful night
watchman can be found? Lastly, what more steadfast avenger
or defender (De Re Rustica [On Agriculture], VII.XII.1)?

An extensive ancient literary tradition treats the behavior, both negative and positive, of the dog. In the Iliad, Homer portrays dogs as semi-wild beasts that prey on the bodies of warriors killed at the battle of Troy, as guardians of the flocks, and as
hunters. Aesop, in several fables, describes dogs in situations that allude to human folly and greed. Aristotle’s De Animalibus Historia and Xenophon’s Cynegeticus are dedicated not only to the classification of dog breeds (the lists include about 60), but also to their habits and qualities. The dog’s major functions, as stressed by Columella, were household and herd guard, hunting assistant, faithful personal companion, and favorite pet. In some myths, the dog was imagined as a companion of the gods, a god itself (a god transformed into a dog), or a fantastic beast. Much information on human communications with dogs, both in real life and in myth, can be found in Greek, Roman, Near Eastern, and Egyptian art. Representations of the dog, said to be the second-most-depicted animal in Classical art (following the image of the horse), illustrate the various breeds known in antiquity. Ancient works of art and literature have preserved many names of dogs, one of which has been chosen for this presentation: Argos, the hunting dog and faithful companion of Odysseus. The hero and his pet present an expressive example of a human relationship with a dog, whose image is suggestively recognized here in a series of Greek and Roman cameos (cat. nos. 1–7).