Domestication has had a huge impact on the human experience. For example, most of the meat that we eat still comes from a small number of captive-bred species. Similarly, while we use machines to power our production processes in the present time, we were reliant on draft animals as a critical source of labor for a considerable part of our pre-modern existence. However, it is important to note that just because an animal became domesticated, that didn’t mean that it spread throughout human-controlled territories in an instant. Instead, groups of humans had to acquire said animals from their neighbors, which in turn, made it possible for their neighbors to acquire those same animals from them. Something that could make for a very slow spread, particularly since not every group of human would have had both the means and the interest in every single domesticated species.
As such, it makes sense for people to wonder how far various domesticated species had spread in historical times. However, it is interesting to note that dogs were domesticated between 18,800 and 32,100 years ago, which was more than enough for them to have spread throughout human-controlled territories by historical times. One excellent example would be the existence of Pre-Columbian dogs, which was possible because the ancestors of the indigenous peoples of the Americas brought their canine companions with them when they crossed the land-bridge connecting Siberia and Alaska around 11,500 years ago.
Thanks to this, dogs were everywhere in the ancient world. For example, 3300 BC Uruk has provided us with the depiction of a dog wearing a dog collar, which possesses a rather remarkable resemblance to the modern Saluki. Similarly, while the ancient Egyptians are justly famous for their love of cats, they were also quite fond of their canine companions. Something that can be seen in their funerary practices for said animals, which are critical because ancient Egyptian religion was so focused upon the afterlife as well as ensuring one’s place in the afterlife. Under these circumstances, it should come as no surprise to learn that dogs were also extremely important in the ancient Greek world.
What Was the Molosser?
It is very common for people to view the ancient Greeks as one people because we take nation-states for granted. However, it is important to note that the ancient Greeks were divided up into numerous groups that claimed a common heritage but tended to be very protective of their independence. Moreover, while the ancient Greeks were strongly associated with the concept of the classical polis, there were plenty of ancient Greeks who didn’t fit into that mold. One excellent example would be the Molossians (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Molossians), who would be the namesake of the Molosser.
For those who are curious, the Molossians were a collection of ancient Greek tribes that lived in the region of Epirus, which was the northwest portion of ancient Greece. There are some experts who question whether they were ancient Greeks or ancient non-Greeks who embraced ancient Greek culture. However, there are certain pieces of evidence that support the idea that the Molossians were indeed ancient Greeks. For example, they and their neighbors were permitted to send sacred envoys to the city of Epidaurus, which was important because the ancient Greeks took the question of Greek-ness very seriously. Similarly, the Molossians controlled the oracle of Dodona, which was one of the most sacred sites of ancient Greek religion. On top of this, the Molossians played up their ancestors in the same way as their counterparts throughout the ancient Greek world. After all, their name comes from Molossus, who was the supposed grandson of Achilles from the Trojan War. As such, the Molossians were very much interwoven in the common heritage of the ancient Greeks. Still, while they were considered to be ancient Greeks by other ancient Greeks, they were seen in a semi-barbaric light because of their position on the periphery.
In any case, the Molossians tend to be remembered for a couple of things. One would be their royal family, which eventually presided over the whole of the region of Epirus. This is because of two individuals. First, Alexander the Great’s mother Olympias was a Molossian princess, which is how the famous conqueror could claim to have been descended from Achilles. Second, Alexander’s second cousin once removed Pyrrhus was a notable general in his own right but tends to be best-known for having won a pair of victories so ruinous that he could proceed no longer, thus resulting in the phrase “Pyrrhic victory.” Two, the Molossians are remembered for their dogs, which were famous for their size as well as their ferocity. Thanks to this, Molossers saw extensive use as guard dogs, watch dogs, and hunting dogs, so much so that they were the stereotypical watch dog of the Greco-Roman world. Keen-eyed individuals might notice that depictions of Cerberus sometimes resemble a Molosser, though to be fair, Cerberus’s parentage meant that he wasn’t a dog so much as a dog-shaped monster.
Are Molossers Still Around?
Molossers are no longer around. The ancients didn’t have dog breeds in the same way that we do, so Molossers aren’t quite what interested individuals might imagine if they are used to thinking of dogs in terms of dog breeds. For that matter, even if the ancients did have dog breeds, there is no guarantee that Molossers would have made it through the transitional period between late antiquity and the early medieval era intact. Never mind the time since. However, the popularity of the Molosser means that it is often speculated that it is the ancestor of a wide range of dog breeds that can be found in the present time. Indeed, it is sometimes said that every single European mastiff can claim descent from these dogs, though that is a rather bold claim based on neither particularly plentiful nor particularly strong evidence. Still, that perception has set in, with the result that Molosser is sometimes used as a term for a wide range of dog breeds that are thought to have been descended from them.
Generally speaking, these dogs are used as either guard dogs or watch dogs. However, the changing nature of dogs means that this is by no means guaranteed to be the case, as shown by how American Bulldogs are considered to be Molossers. Some of the other Molossers are very expected names such as Pit Bulls, English Bulldogs, and French Bulldogs. Others are less so, with an excellent example being the Golden Retriever. On top of this, there are also some Molossers that seem very unlikely to be descended from their ancient namesakes thanks to their geographical origins, as shown by the Chinese Shar-Pei and the Korean Dosa Mastiff. Interested individuals should know that different organizations can have very different definitions for what is and isn’t a Molosser, which makes sense because it is such an inexact term when used in a modern context.