In this article, Winchester City Museum volunteer, Abigail, takes a look back at the place dogs held in Roman society.
There can often be a tendency to overlook the parallels between people of the past and the communities we live in today in modern society – perhaps because we are so far temporally removed from them.
You might be tempted to think of the Romans as cold and remote, with no care for comfort, but did you know that they loved dogs just as much as we do now? The Romans would keep various animals as pets, including weasels, cats and parrots, but dogs were especially beloved. One of the most renowned Latin poets, Virgil, praised dogs for their guardianship, and the scholar Varro advised that every family should have a hunting dog and a watchdog.
On the Roman and Iron Age floor of Winchester City Museum lives Nyx in our Roman kitchen. But what might life have been like for Nyx?
The Romans went through many of the same steps for raising a dog as we do today. One of the first steps is to name the puppy. Greek historian Xenophon suggested that the best names were simple and short so that the dog could be called easily. He came up with a list of 46 names that he thought were suitable, but they sound unusual when translated into English. Some of the names he suggested were Radiant, Wine, Judgement and To Swell. However, some of the names Ovid uses in his Metamorphoses better resemble ours today, like Spot, Bear and Shaggy. As Nyx’s name is one-syllable and easy-to-call, she has a perfect Roman name!
Nyx would then be taught basic commands, like “sit”, “stay” and “follow”, and then additional commands based on her job. As Nyx is a hound, she would have been a hunting dog and taught to work in teams with other dogs and return prey undamaged. Nyx would have been rewarded with either food or praise. There are many references from Roman poets and writers that British dogs were very clever, swift and suited to hunting – the Roman poet Grattius even describes them as superior to the militarised and extinct dog breed, Molossus, from Ancient Greece.
Many other different jobs were taken up by dogs in Roman times, such as herding, guarding, lap and house dogs. Guard dogs would have been taught to growl and bark at intruders, while lap dogs would be trained more similarly to our pets today with tricks for entertainment. Like our dogs, Nyx would go for walks, chase animals, beg for food and take long naps when she wasn't training.
The epitaphs and mosaics dedicated to late pets are another reminder of how humanity has stayed the same for thousands of years. One of the most profound yet simple epitaphs reads: “I am in tears, while carrying you to your last resting place as much as I rejoiced when bringing you home in my own hands fifteen years ago.”
You can meet Nyx at Winchester City Museum, visit our website for full opening hours.