The Molossus was one of the most popular and famous dogs of the ancient world, and was the primary war dog of both the Ancient Greeks and the Ancient Romans. The breed makes numerous appearances in ancient literature over a period of 800 years, and was known to some of history’s most famous men, including Aristotle, Alexander the Great, and Virgil. However, very little is known about the breed itself, and many unsubstantiated claims are made about the dog. For the past several centuries it has been widely believed that the Molossus was a Mastiff-type dog and that it was ancestral to all other European and Near-Eastern breeds in the family. In fact, the breed has given its name to the group, which is most frequently known as Molossers (but also commonly called the Mastiffs, Dogues, Alaunts, and Alanos). In recent years, the connection between the Molossus and the Mastiffs has come into question, with some claiming that the breed was actually a fleet-footed coursing dog, a medium-sized, general purpose working dog, or even a type of herding dog.
The History of the Molossus begins with the Molossi tribe of Epirus. Epirus was an ancient region located in parts of modern day Greece, Macedonia, Albania, and Montenegro. The region was inhabited by a mixture of tribes, some of which were Greeks, others Illyrian. It is unclear whether the Molossi were Greeks or Illyrians, but they maintained close ties to a number of Greek city states as well as the Hellenized Kingdom of Macedonia. The Molossi were regarded as one of the most powerful of all the Epirote tribes, largely on the basis of their war dogs. These dogs were said to be extremely ferocious in battle and were greatly feared by the Molossi’s enemies. Some sources claim that the Molossi acquired their dogs from the Persian Army during the 5th Century A.D., when the Molossi joined forces with the Greeks to repel an invasion of the Balkans. Other evidence seems to indicate that the Molossi developed the Molossus from local dogs.
However the Molossus came into existence, it became known throughout the Hellenic world. The earliest known reference to a, “Molossian Dog,” comes from a play written by the Athenian, Aristophanes in 411 B.C., approximately 80 years after the conclusion of the Greco-Roman Wars. In 347 B.C. the famed Aristotle described the breed in his treatise, History of Animals. Aristotle’s description may indicate that the Molossus was not a single breed, but rather a type or a landrace. "Of the Molossian breed of dogs, such as are employed in the chase are pretty much the same as those elsewhere- but the sheep-dogs of this breed are superior to the others in size, and in the courage with which they face the attacks of wild animals." This seems to imply that there were at least two types of Molossus, a coursing dog and a livestock guarding dog. This may solve the mystery of why the physical descriptions of the Molossus are so varied, but it may also just mean that the Molossus had multiple functions, quite common among ancient breeds (or even modern ones such as the Rottweiler or Labrador Retriever). In fact, the Laconian Dog of Sparta which was said to be very similar to the Molossus was also a herding and hunting dog.
Originally kept almost exclusively by the Molossi, the Molossus was eventually kept across the entirety of ancient Greece. Close allies of their neighbors the Macedonians, the Molossi and their war dogs joined Philip II on his conquest of Greece in the Fourth Century B.C. More famously, the Molossus accompanied the armies of Alexander the Great (whose mother was actually a Molossian) when he conquered all the lands from Egypt to India. After Alexander’s death, the Greek Empire splintered into numerous successor states, a number of which kept the Molossus. This splintering of the Hellenic World coincided with the rise of two great powers to the west, Rome and Carthage, each centered on a great city of the same name. For a time, both grew in influence and power, but by 264 B.C. it was clear that as vast as the Mediterranean is, it was not large enough to contain the ambitions of Carthage and Rome. For the next 100 years, the two Empires would wage a disastrous series of three wars against each other, known to history as the Punic Wars. A few years earlier the Romans had conquered Greek territory in Southern Italy and Sicily, and the Greek polities generally supported Carthage, both openly and more surreptitiously. Fearful that the Greeks to the east would join forces with the Carthaginians to the south and west, the Romans launched a series of military campaigns known as the Macedonian Wars, which resulted in the Greece becoming a part of the Roman Empire. During these conflicts, the Romans first encountered the Molossus and were greatly impressed by its prowess on the battlefield. They adopted the breed as their own, and from the 2nd Century B.C. until the Empire’s collapse it was the primary war dog of the Roman Army.
The Romans were highly skilled dog breeders and recognized that the Molossus had many talents, including hunting, herding, property guarding, and warfare. The breed spread wherever the Roman Legions went, but perhaps became most popular and numerous in Italy. Although the breed makes frequent appearances in literature, there are no depictions that are universally accepting as belonging to the breed. Modern thought commonly holds that the Molossus was a Mastiff-like dog. However, there are very few images of Mastiff-type dogs from Ancient Greece or Rome, and most of those that exist are highly debated (although they appear on numerous Ancient Mesopotamian and Egyptian artifacts). Instead, Greco-Roman artists usually include lean, rangy dogs that look very much like modern sighthounds. This has led some to conclude that the Molossus was not a Mastiff at all, but rather a breed of sight hound. It may seem odd to think of such a dog as a beast of war, but as late as the 1500’s, the Spanish used such dogs to subdue Native Americans, and the Sloughi and Azawakh of North Africa still make very fierce guard dogs.
Further evidence for the Molossus being a sight hound comes from the poet M. Aurelius Olimpias Nemesianus, who wrote about the ideal breeding practices for the Molossus in a 284 B.C poem. He describes how the best female should be, “Good at running… Tall, on straight legs,” have a firm chest, and come back reliably when called. He also described how the dog’s ears flowed as it ran. On first glance, this description would seem to be more indicative of a Sighthound than a Mastiff, but it is far from conclusive. In fact, a number of Mastiff-type breeds were developed specifically for coursing and/or hunting, most of which are straight-legged and very fast. Some examples of Mastiffs that could meet this description include the Great Dane, Dogo Argentino, Cane Corso, Fila Brasileiro, Scott American Bulldog, and even the Rottweiler.
Because descriptions of the Molossus are unclear and somewhat contradictory, some researchers have come to believe that the dog was very generic in appearance. They believe that the Molossus was actually a medium-sized, multi-purpose working breed. The two most commonly used comparisons are the Catahoula Leopard Dog and the American Pit Bull Terrier. Both native to the United States, these dogs have served a number of purposes throughout history, including hog hunting, herding, dog fighting, property guarding, personal protection, crime fighting, and use in the military. Additionally, both breeds are quite variable in terms of appearance. Depending on the line and the purpose they were bred for, they can be tall and lanky, bulky and tank-like, or somewhere in between. Although it is doubtful that either breed shares a close relationship with the Molossus, it is possible that both/either could be very similar to the ancient breed.
There is one piece of art that is generally, if not universally, agreed to depict the Molossus. It is a statue from Britain known as the Jenning’s Dog. The dog shown looks vaguely like a number of modern breeds supposedly descended from the Molossus, especially the Rottweiler. However, the Jenning’s Dog has a medium-to-long coat and a significantly less exaggerated “Mastiff-head.” The Jenning’s dog is almost identical to at least one modern breed, the Sarplaninac, better known in English as the Illyrian Shepherd. A very ancient breed native Serbia, Albania, and Macedonia, the Sarplaninac is primarily used as a livestock and property protection animal, and is said to be a courageous and fearless defender. The Yugoslav and Serbian militaries have also used the breed as a war dog. Not only does the Sarplaninac look almost identical to the Jenning’s Dog, but it is also used for the same purposes as the Molossus, is described in a nearly identical fashion, and perhaps most importantly is native to the exact same region.
The Romans used the Molossus for a variety of purposes throughout the life of the Empire. The breed was used to attack enemy troops, protect Roman properties, herd and drive livestock, defend domestic animals and people from wild beasts, hunt down game. The breed also was apparently a regular competitor in Gladiatorial arenas, where it was pitted against breeds from across the world, all manner of ferocious wild animals, and human slaves. Supposedly, the Molossus first met its match in the years immediately following the Roman Conquest of Britain. The Pre-Roman Celts possessed a truly massive war dog, known to the Romans as the Pugnaces Britanniae. The Pugnaces Britanniae is itself a great mystery. Many claim the breed was the same as the modern English Mastiff, while others think that it was actually the Irish Wolfhound. Either way, the Romans greatly admired the dog and exported it, along with many other British breeds, across the Empire. It is very possible, and perhaps likely, that the two dogs were crossed. Such a cross may explain the large size of many supposed descendants of the Molossus.
Beginning in the 2nd Century A.D., the Roman Empire began to decline. A series of economic crises, plagues, barbarian incursions, and numerous other factors meant resulted in the total collapse of the Western Empire and the beginnings of the Dark Ages. It is completely unclear what became of the Molossus, known, admired, and feared across the Ancient World. The breed continues to be mentioned until the end of the Empire, but not thereafter. Some have theorized that the Molossus went totally extinct in the chaos that followed the Fall of Rome. Times of war often result in the extinction of dog breeds, as they perish in the combat, have their breeding ceased by otherwise occupied masters, and are extremely expensive to care for. Those who believe that the Molossus was a sight hound generally ascribe to this theory. Others think that the Molossus as a distinct breed disappeared over a period of many years as a result of decades of crosses to other breeds. A similar theory holds that localized breeders selectively bred their own versions of the Molossus to meet their own unique needs and preferences. Over time, these dogs became different enough that they became entirely separate breeds. Those who follow those two theories usually believe that the Molossus was a Mastiff-type dog and that it was one of the primary ancestors of all Modern Molossers. Literally dozens of breeds are said to be descendants of the Molossus, including the American Bulldog, Great Dane, Rottweiler, Alano Espanol, Saint Bernard, and Pug.
Interest in the Molossus began to increase again during the Renaissance. During those years, Italian thinkers began to study the classic history of the Roman Empire. There was great interest in connecting the Italy of the time with that of the glory days of Ancient Rome. The Molossus was connected to the two native Italian Mastiff breeds, an urban property guardian that became the Neapolitan Mastiff and a hunting/farm work type that became the Cane Corso. There is in fact some very convincing evidence in favor of such a connection existing, although as has been seen this evidence is highly disputed. This theory was widely popularized by Carl Linnaeus, the great taxonomist who developed the modern system for classifying all living things. This theory has become so widespread that a variety of Mastiff-type dogs are no collectively known as Molossers. There are currently Molosser clubs and Molosser shows across the United States and the World, and many kennel clubs have a Molosser Group.