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The Mastiff – Lessons From History

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196 – June 2017

by Lee Connor

‘And Caesar’s spirit, ranging for revenge, Shall in these confines with a monarch’s voice Cry ‘Havoc,’ and let slip the dogs of war!’

When Shakespeare put these words into the mouth of Mark Antony, we may reasonably assume the breed he had in his mind’s eye was the Mastiff. Moreover the dogs – quoted in the literal sense – would probably have been im- ported into Ancient Rome from Britain, which was famous for the breed long before Caesar’s invasion of the Island, fifty-five years before Christ.

The canes pugnaces of classical authors were dogs used in warfare and, although varieties bred for this purpose existed in many countries, the Mastiffs of Britain were second to none and, when the Romans eventually established their rule, they fostered this breed and exported specimens of it, as well as those of the Irish Wolfhound, to Rome to be used for the purposes of war as well as in their bloody gladiatorial exhibitions and contests.

The big question, however, is if Mastiffs were already in Britain at the time of the Roman invasion, where on earth did these dogs originally come from? I think the answer to this lies in the remarkably fine bas-reliefs one can view in museums around the world. Anyone who has studied the stunning carvings in the Assyrian (modern day Northern Iraq) Gallery in the London
Museum must surely come away with the conviction that the dogs so vividly depicted, hunting Lion, wild horses, etc. must have been the ancestor of our Mastiff.

But how did these powerfully built dogs get to Britain in such ancient times?

The answer to this particular question is of course a matter of conjecture but what archaeologists are discovering is that there was far more intercourse between ancient peoples than we previ- ously believed. The Phoenicians (from modern day Syria/Lebanon and Northern Israel) had considerable trade with the Ancient Britons, especially the Cornish (in England’s far southwest peninsula), and there are a number of surviving legends about the Phoenicians coming and trading with the Cornish peo- ple for their valuable tin. Were Mastiffs also offered up as part of this trade?

However these dogs reached British shores, the English Mastiff soon built up a fiercesome reputation. Strabo, the Ancient Greek geographer/historian who lived from BC63-AD19, recorded that the Gauls sometimes bought up Mastiffs to use in the front lines of their battles.

Click here to read the complete article
196 – June 2017

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