One of my recurring themes is scary dogs. I’m not sure where this obsession came from because I hardly think about dogs in my waking hours and have not had one as a pet since childhood, but there they are, popping up in all my books.
My first Roman Mystery features running dogs on all three versions of the cover. I often say it has ‘good dogs, bad dogs and dead dogs’ because someone is killing the watchdogs of Rome’s ancient seaport. I thought canicide was more suitable for a children’s detective novel than homicide.
I thought wrong. After outraged complaints from British readers, I vowed never to kill another dog. And in thirty subsequent books I’ve hardly ever broken that vow.
So where does my primal obsession with dogs come from?
I vaguely remember being scared by a barking dog behind a fence when I was a little girl. And I remember having nightmares of being chased by dogs. When I was about eight or nine my family acquired a delightful black and white Boston Terrier named Duchess. She had an adorably ugly little face and loved to play with us. Her favourite game was Tug Towel. One of us kids would hold one end, she would clamp jaws on the other and then pull, with ecstatic growls and bulging eyes.
But I also remember my distaste at finding red spots of her menstrual blood dotted around the house. One day she was seduced by Sandy, a big golden laborador who belonged to a neighbour. They got stuck together mid-coitus and the entire neighbourhood came out to witness them waddling about in the middle of the road like the proverbial two-backed beast. Duchess rolled her eyes with embarrassment, or so it seemed to me. The ultimate humiliation came when someone trained a hose on the ignominious pair, drenching them with water as well as mocking laughter.
Duchess died of old age and after a suitable period of mourning we went to the animal shelter to find a replacement. There were no Boston terriers so we settled for a pretty Sheltie mix cowering in a corner. I was going through an African phase and insisted on naming her Simba – Swahili for ‘lion’ – on account of her white mane. Far from being lion-like she was neurotic and cringing, with a tendency to snap at men who made sudden moves to stroke her. When I went to college I was relieved to leave her at home, in the care of my long-suffering parents.
I only spent a year studying at U.C. Santa Barbara before I transferred to another campus, but I still remember the packs of dogs that roamed the streets and beaches. Abandoned by their feckless student owners, these once-beloved pets had become feral. There was a story, no doubt apocryphal, that a band of them had once cornered an undergraduate in a vacant lot and forced him to throw a stick for hours. Readers of The Thieves of Ostia now know where I got the idea for the cover scene.
In our affluent culture saturated by images of cute animals, it is hard to think of dogs as sinister, but as I read ancient texts I am often reminded of the deeply unpleasant aspects of canine behaviour. Throughout most of human history, dogs have been considered unclean scavengers and dangerous killers.
Dogs appear in the very first line of Homer’s Iliad, where they vie with carrion birds to feed on the bodies of dead warriors. They’re in the Odyssey, too, where a savage pack of them strike terror into the heart of our hero:
Suddenly the baying dogs caught sight of Odysseus and flew at him, barking loudly. He had the sense to sit down and drop his staff. Even so he would have suffered ignominious injuries there and then, at his own farm, had not the swineherd dashed through the gateway, shouted at the dogs and sent them scurrying off in all directions with a shower of stones.
(Homer Odyssey 14.28)
In fifth century Greece, the poet Euripides died after being torn apart by a pack of his host’s watchdogs as he returned late from a banquet. ‘Such a great genius did not deserve this cruel fate,’ laments the Roman who tells this story.
(Valerius Maximus, Memorable Deeds and Sayings 9.12.4)
In the Jewish scriptures, dogs are presented as consistently negative. They lick human blood, devour corpses and return to their vomit. (e.g. 1 Kings 22.38, 2 Kings 9:10 & Proverbs 26:11) To be called a ‘dog’ was the most degrading epithet imaginable.
(e.g. 1 Samuel 17:43 & 2 Samuel 16:9 )
In the New Testament even Jesus refers to dogs as unclean, showing how deeply engrained this attitude was in the ancient Middle East. (Matthew 7:6 & Matthew 15:26)
We know from naturalists like Pliny the Elder and doctors like Galen that rabid dog bites were common enough to be genuine concerns. Today, this problem has been all but eradicated in the prosperous first world, where dogs have to get their shots, but in poorer parts of the third world dog bites account for a horrifying number of child deaths.
In Apuleius’s Metamorphoses, also known as The Golden Ass (a mid-second century fable sometimes called ‘the first Latin novel’) our hero meets many dogs, none of them pleasant. At one point a bandit recounts the death of his fellow robber, who was wearing the ill-judged disguise of a bearskin.
Guards called long-eared, bristling hunting dogs and commanded them to attack Thrasyleon. Hiding behind a door, I clearly saw my friend bravely fighting off the dogs… Finally he slipped out of the house and sought safety in flight. But as he ran along the streets of the town, all the dogs from neighbouring alleys poured out, just as fierce and numerous as the hunting dogs who were still in pursuit… I witnessed a pathetic and ghastly sight: that of my friend surrounded by the seething pack of dogs and ripped to pieces by their jaws.
(Apuleius, Metamorphoses IV.19 ff)
Similarly, the myth of Actaeon has the eponymous hero torn apart by his own hunting dogs after Artemis has turned him into a deer. This adds a horrible new layer to our primal fear of being devoured by predators: that of being eaten by our own faithful pets.
For Greeks and Romans did not keep dogs solely for hunting, herding and guarding. Some of them, especially women and children, had small lapdogs purely for companionship and play.
From the Roman world we have Helena, a dog beloved enough to receive an expensive tombstone praising her as her ‘matchless’ and ‘well-deserving’. Even the poet Martial, who can be very rude about certain women and their lapdogs, penned a charming poem about a pet dog called Issa. Unlike my family’s childhood pet Duchess, she never soiled the bedcovers with a single drop but put an imploring paw on her master’s neck whenever nature called.
(Martial Epigrams 1.109 )
Perhaps the most famous dog from ancient sources is Argos from Homer’s Odyssey. Tick-ridden and lying on a heap of manure, the old hound recognises his returning master after twenty years and, with a feeble wag of his tail, he dies of happiness.
(Homer, Odyssey 17.290ff)
I suppose not all ancient dogs are bad.
Caroline Lawrence’s latest book, Death in the Arena, has a good dog on the cover. Set in Roman Britain, it is suitable for kids 9+