Dogs of War: Ancient History of Animals in Warfare
Man and beast have partnered for various reasons over tens of thousands of years—almost always for food or protection. The dirty history of animals in warfare is sometimes inspiring, sometimes disturbing, but without the aid of creatures in war, humanity would be in a different place than we are today.
The image of a mounted warrior succinctly captures the history of animals in war, but many animals, such as dogs, camels, elephants, pigs, oxen, dolphins, pigeons and more, have all served in various capacities and have played roles (for good or ill) in war and combat related activities. Some animals were inhumanely weaponized, while others were beasts of burden and transportation. Still others filled the role of mascots to boost morale.
It can be said that horses have played the greatest and widest role in the history of animals in warfare. Evidence points to horse domestication as early as 5000 BC in Kazakhstan. Initially they were used for food and milk, but it wasn’t long before they served as the mainstay of warfare; from the time man recognized the advantages of using the tall, strong, maneuverable beasts in battle, until they were replaced within the last 100 years with motor vehicles.
In ancient China and Egypt, the horse was used to pull chariots and ‘proto-chariot’ platforms.
Later, with the invention of the saddle and stirrup, and the breeding of heavier horses, battle tactics forever changed, as mounted warriors proved a decisive advantage, delivering devastating charges from the backs of fierce, trained animals. The riding and arrow-shooting combination was a technique perfected by the Mongols, who used it to effectively conquer most of Eurasia and establish an empire.
Dai Viet heavy cavalry of the Tran Dynasty (1225–1400 AD). Both horse and rider had protective armor. Wikimedia Commons
In Europe the mounted warrior was considered the most prestigious force, and their warhorses were trained to kick and bite.
Possessing a fine horse became a designation of status, and often only the wealthy could afford them.
Cataphracts, or heavily armored cavalry, were used in ancient warfare across Western Eurasia by many peoples. The horse and the warrior were both heavily protected, usually enclosed head to toe in scale armor. The horseman would wield a lance as a weapon. These fearsome forces would often serve as elite cavalry, using charges to pierce through infantry lines. It is these warriors and war horses that are believed to have influenced the well-recognized European knights.
Historical re-enactment of a Sassanid-era cataphract, complete with a full set of scale armor for the horse. Note the rider's extensive mail armor, which was de rigueur for the cataphracts of antiquity. Wikimedia Commons
A depiction of Sarmatian cataphracts fleeing from Roman cavalry during the Dacian wars circa 101 AD, at Trajan's Column in Rome. Public Domain
A horse isn’t suited for all terrains or jobs, however, and that is where other animals entered the fray.
Cave canem mosaics ('Beware of the dog') were a popular motif for the thresholds of Roman villas. Wikimedia Commons
Often dubbed man’s best friend, dogs have been partnered with humans and used in warfare since their domestication more than 50,000 years ago. Not just for attacking, work hounds were used for protecting livestock or property, or for simple companionship. War dogs were used by Britons and Romans, Greeks and Egyptians, Persians, Slavs, and others.
The earliest written account of war dogs comes from a classical source regarding Alyattes, King of Lydia. The war dogs are said to have attacked and killed invaders in a battle against the Cimmerians around 600 BC.
In antiquity, troops from Anatolia used war dogs in conjunction with cavalry. Riders were said to release their hounds on the enemy to disrupt and soften lines, and then the mounted warriors would charge, to devastating effect.
Xerxes I of Persia invaded Greece in 480 BC and brought large packs of Indian hounds.
War dogs are said to have been present at the Battle of Marathon, dating to 490 BC, between the Greeks and Persian Empire.
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Top Image: Battle between Mongols & Chinese mounted on war horses (1211). (Public Domain)
By Liz Leafloor