We will continue our excursions into Columella’s Res rustica with a summary of his advice on the buying, care, and grooming of dogs. In his day, as in ours, the dog was an essential animal to have on the farm. Besides companionship, it provided security and assisted in the management of other domesticated animals, such as sheep and goats.
A good canine was a valued addition to the household, and special care should be taken in choosing and maintaining one. As Columella nicely says (VII.12):
Quis famulus amantior domini? Quis fidelior comes? Quis custos incorruptior? Quis excubitor inveniri potest vigilantior? [What house-servant is more loved by his master? What companion is more faithful? What guardian is more honest? What watchman is more vigilant?]
One is struck, when reading the relevant sections of Res rustica (VII.12 et seq.), at just how relevant and practical his advice is for the modern reader. Even the passages that betray their antiquity still have a charm to them that only adds to the reader’s enjoyment (or at least to this reader’s enjoyment). I will present the choicest morsels of Columella here, so that we may get a flavor of the whole.
A good farm-dog should have sufficient mass, and a sufficiently loud bark to scare off intruders and keep other animals in line. A dog with a good growl and bark can be effective even without being seen; just their noises keep malefactors at a distance.
The dog should be the same color all over, if possible. White makes for a good sheep-dog, and black a good farm dog. A white sheep dog cannot be accidentally mistaken for a wolf that might mingle with the flock. A black dog is best for household security, as they tend to have a more intimidating appearance. It is also harder to see at night.
The dog should be squarely built, and have a large head, drooping ears, a short tail, sparkling black or grey eyes, and substantial claws on its feet.
The temperament of the dog should be neither too mild nor too aggressive. If it is to friendly, it will not be good at security, and may even seek approval from the intruder or thief. If it be too aggressive, then it may pose a threat to the homeowner. Diligent, cautious, not given to wandering off, and focused are good traits in a farm dog.
Speed is not an essential characteristic of a good house dog. Most encounters will not happen over long distances. However, a dog will slender, lean build is better than a short, stout one.
The first duty of a dog is not to let themselves be attacked; their second duty is to defend themselves with extreme violence if they are attacked.
What types of food should be served to dogs? Columella recommends barley flour mixed with whey (farina cum sero commode pascit). Bread made with emmer flour mixed with the liquid of boiled beans (farreo vel triticeo pane satiandi sunt, admixto tamen liquore coctae fabae). The bean-liquid should be tepid and not hot, for hot liquids can cause “madness” in dogs.
Dogs should be prevented from having sex until they are at least a year old. Intercourse before this time causes weakness and listlessness, and makes them deteriorate mentally. Female dogs are not of much use after ten years of age. Puppies should not be allowed to run around too much until after six months. If a puppy’s mother is lacking in milk, then the puppy can safely be given goat’s milk.
Puppies must be trained well to preserve their good qualities for our use. They should be called by names that are not “too long”, as too long a name may confuse the dog. The ideal length of a dog’s name is two syllables. Names function as a dog’s “cue” and some care must go into their selection. Columella recommends the following Latin names for dogs as being eminently suitable:
Puppies should have their tails cut off once forty days have passed from their birth. There is a nerve that runs through the spine of the dog to the end of its tail. Columella advises us to “draw out this nerve” with our teeth and then sever it. The reason for amputation of the tail, he tells us, is hygiene: certain diseases are prevented, such as rabies. (Pliny concurs with this in his Historia naturalis, VIII.153).
The ears of dogs attract fleas and ticks, and these pests must be removed. Columella recommends rubbing the ears frequently in the summer with crushed bitter almonds (amaris nucibus contritis liniendae sunt).
If the ears of the dog are already dotted with bites and sores, a good way to give relief is to smear boiled liquid pitch mixed with fat (coctam picem liquidam suillae adipi mixtam). “Pitch” here presumably means bitumen, tar, petroleum, or other natural resin. This ointment is sure to repel ticks and fleas. Columella wisely notes that ticks should not be removed by hand, as parts of the insects can remain in the skin of the dog.
What to do in the case of a flea infestation? The best remedy is to make a potion of ground cumin mixed with hellebore (cyminum tritum pari pondere cum veratro, aquaque mixtum et inlitum), and rub it on the dog’s skin. Another good remedy is the juice of the Italian cucumber, or stale oil-lees (vetus amurca) applied to the dog’s entire body.
If a dog becomes covered in scabs, a good remedy is to make a preparation of gypsum and sesame ground and mixed together, and then mixed together with liquid pitch. This paste is then applied to the areas of the dog’s body covered with sores. The juice of the prickly juniper (juniperus oxycedrus) also works well for this purpose.
Here, then, is Columella on dogs. The advice here is both interesting from a historical perspective, and practical in most respects. The medical remedies definitely show their age; but, if one were lacking any other option, they would presumably be better than nothing. Dog lovers will be comforted to know that the ancient Romans valued their canines as much as we do today. Through the ages, the dog has provided a unique mixture of joy and security, making him the most cherished and indispensable of man’s animal companions.
Read More: Celsus’s General Directives For Good Health