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The Romans knew both dogs and wolves. But how similar and how dissimilar did they think they were, as indicated by their literature? I am looking for an understanding about Roman views on dogs and wolves, and here are some concrete questions to give an idea of what I'm looking for:

  • Are there passages in ancient Roman literature comparing dogs and wolves in the first place?
  • Did they know that dogs are essentially tamed wolves?
  • Did they know that dogs and wolves can interbreed?
  • Did they make a practical or mythical distinction between them?
  • Are there attested misconceptions about the two animals?
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It seems that interbreeding between wolves and dogs was deemed possible in Roman culture at least at the time of Pliny the Elder (I cent. CE.) But so was the idea of interbreeding between dogs and tigers.


I was curious and went to Pliny's Naturalis Historia.

It happens to have separate chapters for wolves and dogs. The latter happens to mention wolves and... tigers. It gets interesting.

  • It says that Indians interbred tigers and dogs (!):

    E tigribus eos indi volunt concipi (Plin. Nat. 8.61) The Indians raise a breed between the dog and the tiger (Bostock, 1855)

    and it goes to explain how they did it.

  • Right after that, it also says that the Gauls did the same (interbreeding, apparently) with wolves and dogs:

    Hoc idem e lupis galli, quorum greges suum quisque ductorem e canibus et ducem habent The Gauls do the same with the wolf and the dog, and their packs of hounds have, each of them, one of these dogs, which acts as their guide and leader

The XIX century translator/editor adds a footnote favoring the plausibility of this, as if writing for a skeptic reader:

The dog is capable of generating with the wolf; and as what is termed the shepherd's dog much resembles the wolf, Cuvier conceives it not impossible, that it may have originated from this mixture

In contrast, the previous footnote discredits and tries to explain the statement about the interbreeding of dogs and tigers:

This practice is mentioned by Aristotle, Hist. Anim. B. viii. c. 33, and Diodorus Siculus, B. xvii. But Cuvier informs us, that neither the tiger nor the panther are capable of generating with the dog; he supposes that the account was invented to enhance the value of the spotted or striped dogs, which were brought from India


Regarding the question on practical or mythical distinction between them, the chapter of Naturalis Historia on wolves talks about something very similar to werewolves, discrediting them as a myth. In turn, there is no mention of men turning into dogs in the relevant chapters:

Homines in lupos verti rursusque restitui sibi falsum esse confidenter existimare debemus aut credere omnia quae fabulosa tot saeculis conperimus (Plin. Nat. 8.34) That men have been turned into wolves, and again restored to their original form, we must confidently look upon as untrue, unless, indeed, we are ready to believe all the tales, which, for so many ages, have been found to be fabulous

Wolves are also said to have a noxious influence in the eye:

Sed in italia quoque creditur luporum visus esse noxius vocemque homini, quem priores contemplentur In Italy also it is believed that there is a noxious influence in the eye of a wolf; it is supposed that it will instantly take away the voice of a man, if it is the first to see him

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This is not an example of a "Roman view" on wolves and dogs, but a story that seems to have come from the Greek world that Romans became aware of at some point.

The fable of "The Dog and the Wolf" is included in at least some collections of the fables of Aesop; Wikipedia says it is "well attested in later Greek sources, including the collection of Babrius, as well as in the Latin collection of Phaedrus". I found a Latin version here ("Lupus ad Canem") although I'm not sure exactly where the text comes from. The Wikipedia article on Phaedrus the fabulist says that he lived in Rome in the first century CE. Apparently, although Martial mentions Phaedrus’ work, there are not many references to Phaedrus in ancient times.

The fable compares the dog's comfortable life of servitude to the wolf's life which has less security but more freedom. The use of these two animals in the story could imply a certain understanding of the similarities of wolves and dogs, and of the way dogs differ in being domesticated rather than wild.

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