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The Molossian Hound: The Original Mastiff

September 28, 2010

Jenning's Dog

This is one of the earliest, detailed sculptures of a dog in the Greek and Roman world. It is of a Molossian, a common breed at the time but now extinct, which is the predecessor of today’s mastiffs.

The sculpture was only acquired by the British Museum in 2001, after money was raised to purchase it from the Duncombe Estate. The previous sale of the dog, from Henry Constantine Jennings to Duncombe, in 1778 had provoked Edmund Burke to remark “A thousand guineas! The representation of no animal whatever is worth so much”

I quote from the Encyclopedia Romana:

“The Molossian is mentioned in the literature more often than any other breed. Other sources not already cited include Aristophanes (Thesmophoriazusae, 416), where it frightens off adulterers; Aristotle (The History of Animals, IX.1), where as a sheep-dog, it is considered superior to other breeds in size and courage; Plautus (Captivi, 86), where the parasite is like a greyhound (venaticus) when business is put aside and a Molossian when it recommences; Statius (Thebaid, III.203), where the maddened hounds do not recognize Actaeon, their master; Lucretius (De Rerum Natura, V.1063ff), where the dog growls and bays, fawns over its pups, howls when left alone, and whimpers when threatened with the whip; Horace (Satires, VI), where the country mouse has his fill of the city when the house resounds with the barking of Molossians.

The Molossian was said by Nicander (quoted by Pollux, Onomasticon, XXXIX) to be a descendant of a dog (Lelaps, “Whirlwind” or “Tempest”) forged in bronze by Hephaestus and given to Zeus. Nothing could escape it, just as nothing could catch the Teumessian fox. For this reason, both were turned to stone so that the one might not catch the uncatchable and the other not escape the inescapable.”

Where is it?
In Room 22, the World of Alexander. As you enter the room from the Egyptian galleries, look back once you have entered. The dog stands behind a wall in front of the entrance. In any case, the giant sculpture is hard to miss.

Further Reading
Molossian, The Jennings Dog, from the Encyclopedia Romana

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