The Dogs of Empire’s Legacy

“Shugo,” I called, recognizing him.

“Lord Sorley,” he said, coming over to me. The puppy squirmed in his grasp.

“What is that?” I asked. Shugo was one of the shepherds, and his sheepdogs were the best around. We bought young dogs from him, rather than breed our own. But the puppy he was holding was no sheepdog, although its black and white colouring suggested one of its parents was.

He spat. “Hagen came through with his hound just when Meg was in heat,” he grumbled. “This is the result. I drowned the others at birth — what good would they be? Left her this one to raise so the bitch wouldn’t pine, but I need her back with the sheep. So it’s drowning for this one, too.”

“How old is he?” I could see from how he held the pup it was male.

“Six weeks.”

“Don’t drown it,” I said. “I’ll buy it from you.”

“Buy it? What do you want it for?”

“The Comiádh’s son is ten. Just the right age for a puppy. Will you send it? I’ll write a note, if you’ll wait a few minutes.”

“Aye,” he said. “It’ll make a boy’s dog, I warrant.”

One of the advantages of writing what I write – historical fiction of another world – is that I don’t have to stay true to historical fact. I do, a lot, but in the case of Colm’s puppy (and other dogs in the books), I may not have.

This isn’t to say that herding dogs and hunting dogs were unknown in the classical and early-medieval world. They were. Dogs have likely accompanied people and their herds since long before recorded history; once domesticated and relating to people as part of their pack, dogs’ protective instincts would easily extend to the animals associated with their people. Archeological excavation of sites dated to the middle of the 3rd millennium BCE has found the remains of sheep and dogs together. But the physical separation of hunting dogs and herding dogs by breed is thought by some researchers to have occurred much later – so Colm’s dog Peritas, which I envision as a cross between a border collie and a deerhound – appears anachronistic.

File:Dog-Mosaic.jpg
2nd century BC mosaic from Alexandria, Egypt of a dog and a pitcher. Public Domian, via Wikimedia Commons

Or does it?  About 200 CE, Oppian of Apamea, a Greek poet, wrote a poem on hunting, in which he observes that, for the hunter, the black and white dogs of the farmer and shepherd (the mosaic above may show one of these) are not desirable. These may have been more guardian dogs than herding dogs – a couple of centuries earlier, Marcus Varro, in his De Re Rusticae, wrote:

As there are, then, two sorts of dogs — the hunting-dog suited to chase the beasts of the forest, and the other which is procured as a watch-dog and is of importance to the shepherd… 

By Anonymous (Roman Empire) – Walters Art Museum: Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18804318

In the 2nd C Roman relief of a herdsman and his dog (above), there are no features that point to this dog as a ‘black and white herding dog’ as we know them in later centuries (and as I picture the herding dogs of Linrathe) – but no evidence it isn’t, either.

File:Mosaic of Dog Chasing a Rabbit, Roman, Homs, Syria, 450-462 AD, polychrome marble tesserae - Chazen Museum of Art - DSC01916.JPG
Mosaic of Dog Chasing a Rabbit, Roman, Homs, Syria, 450-462 AD, Chazen Museum of Art
Daderot, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Hunting dogs – of the sort, perhaps, that has fathered Colm’s puppy, were praised and prized, and some of the best reputed to come from Britain.  Oppian, again:

There is a strong breed of hunting dog…the wild tribes of Britons…call by the name of Agassian…. It is by virtue of its nose, however, that the Agassian is most exalted, and for tracking it is the best there is; for it is very adept at discovering the tracks of things that walk upon the ground, and skilled too at marking the airborne scent.

Later in Empire’s Reckoning, the protagonist Sorley, after a long journey south in the role of an itinerant sheep-shearer, sends the sheepdog that has accompanied him home, a long journey on its own. I took this idea from The Drove Roads of Scotland, the author commenting on this practice among the drovers of the 17th and 18th centuries. But it goes back much further than that:  Varro, again:

Publius Aufidius Pontianus, of Amiternum, had bought some herds of sheep in furthest Umbria, the purchase including the dogs but not the shepherds, but providing that the shepherds should take them to the pastures of Metapontum and to market at Heraclea.​ When the men who had taken them there had returned home, the dogs, without direction… returned to the shepherds in Umbria a few days later, though it was a journey of many days.

This is a distance of some 300 miles, about the same distance that Haldane suggested the sheepdogs of Scotland, 1700 years later, travelled alone on their return home.

Maybe Colm’s Peritas isn’t completely anachronistic, nor is the black-and-white sheepdog Sorley sends home. In my fictional but familiar world, all that really matters is that the reader can believe in these dogs and their journeys.

References:

Varro: De Res Rusticae:  translation at:  https://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Varro/de_Re_Rustica

Oppian:  translation at:  https://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/e/roman/texts/oppian/home.html

Haldane, A.R. B.  1960.  The Drove Roads of Scotland (2008 edition, Birlinn).

Featured Image: A child holding a dog, detail of the 6th century mosaic floor from the Palatium Magnum (Constantinople’s Great Palace), Palace Mosaic Museum, Istanbul . Carole Raddato from FRANKFURT, Germany, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons