How were Rottweilers used by the Romans? Piecing Together the Rottweiler’s Ancient Ancestry

Rottweilers are a breed  with a long and storied history and a major question that often comes up is the Rottweiler’s origins in ancient Rome. Though they are most commonly associated with Germany, these powerful dogs are rooted in the ancient world with a lineage that traces back thousands of years and crosses continents. 

In our post on a brief history of Rottweilers, we go over how the Rottweiler was used and developed up until modern times in Germany. But many Rottie lovers have heard about how the Rottweiler was once a war dog of the Romans and even used in the Colosseum to fight lions. 

It’s very hard to trace the exact origins of the Rottie over thousands of years, but using genetic studies, geography and the reports of ancient historians, we will look at what we know about early Rottweilers in Rome and Greece, where they came from and what they did. We will also have a look at how they ended up in Germany. 

Firstly, How did the Romans use Rottweilers?

The Rottweiler is a descendant of a Roman dog called the Molossus. The Romans used the Molossus to guard and herd livestock (droving) and pull carts loaded with goods. Traditionally they hunted, herded livestock, acted as war dogs to break enemy lines, and guarded their homes. They were also used in the Colosseum to kill wild animals.

But there’s a lot more to the ancient history of the Rottweiler than that, and a lot of it is guesswork, as we only have pieces of the puzzle rather than the complete picture.

Remember that the Molossus was not a breed of dog the way breeds exist today.  Back then, dogs were defined more by their function (hunters, herders, etc.) and sometimes by where they were from. So, tracing the Rottweiler back to ancient times is tricky since there was no kennel club to keep records of bloodlines. The Molossus also existed for many centuries, and there were likely many different versions of this dog depending on the area and the time.

Let’s start with what we know about ancient Rottweiler genetics and look at some of the dogs that may be the prehistoric ancestor of our favorite breed, and then look at they reached Rome.

The Earliest Ancestor of the Rottweiler: The Tibetan Mastiff

The Rottweiler’s history actually does not start in Rome. It actually goes much further back to one of the most ancient breeds, namely the Tibetan Mastiff, which is thought to be about 5000 years old. Certainly, the Rottweiler’s signature black-and-tan color is common in the Tibetan Mastiff. In the picture below, we can see that the Rottweiler and the Tibetan Mastiff are still recognizably similar.

A 2011 study confirmed that Rottweilers are at least partly descended from Tibetan Mastiffs. What’s even more interesting is that the Tibetan Mastiff is actually a superior mountain dog suited for high altitudes because it has the DNA of unknown and extinct “ghost” canid. We don’t know what canid this was, only that it was ”wolf-like”, which implies it was not a wolf.

We need to keep this in mind because the spread of Mastiff-type livestock guardian dogs seems most common in mountain ranges like the Himalayas, Alps, Balkans, and Caucasus. Most of our livestock guardian breeds like the Great Pyrenees, Anatolian Shepherd, or Caucasian Shepherd have similar features and thrive in mountainous areas. And this is at least partially the family of dogs the Rottweiler belongs to.

The breed that is genetically closest to the Tibetan Mastiff is the St. Bernard, which is descended from the extinct Alpine Mastiff. As the name suggests, this mastiff came from the Alps, which is right next to Rottweil in Germany, where the Rottweiler is from. This suggests the Tibetan Mastiff spread and thrived along mountainous regions as livestock guardians and watchdogs for thousands of years.

Another breed that has Tibetan Mastiff DNA is the Bernese Mountain Dog, another livestock guardian from the Swiss Alps, a mere two hours drive away from Rottweil. So it’s likely that the Bernese Mountain Dog and the Rottweiler had a common ancestor.

However, the Tibetan Mastiff is a livestock guardian breed which is technically in a different genetic group from true Mastiff breeds like the Rottweiler. So the ancient livestock guardians probably gave rise to the Mastiffs like the Rottweiler, Bullmastiff, and others, the mastiffs have been their own distinct genetic group for centuries. Usually, they have a history of fighting and guarding. This is one reason that true Mastiffs may be the descendants of Molossers, who were famed for being fighting dogs and livestock guardians.

But there is also the possibility that early Tibetan Mastiffs simply traveled from Tibet as guardians along the silk road into Europe without needing any Roman dogs at all. This way, Molossoid dogs were already perhaps in Europe before Roman invasions. The truth is murky and impossible to know for certain.

According to one massive genetic study, the Rottweiler is most closely related to the Dobermann, Black Russian Terrier, and Giant Schnauzer. But it still fits in with all the other mastiff-type breeds known for heavy builds, broad mouths, and occasionally shorter snouts.

But let’s assume the Tibetan mastiff or early Asian-type Mastiff is actually the ancestor of the Roman Molosser that the Romans took to Europe in their campaigns. How did the Romans get the Molosser?

The Rottweiler was a Greek dog first

The history of the Roman Molossus, the Rottweiler’s ancestor, is key to piecing together how a mastiff in Asia became a famous war dog of Rome. But the Molossus originally started in Greece, not in Rome and specifically made it into the history books around the time of Alexander the Great. Today, the Molossus of Epirus is still an official breed recognized by the Greek Kennel Club. 

When tutoring Alexander the Great, Aristotle was one of the first historians to write about these giant dogs. He wrote about the “great dog of India,” and noted that it was big enough to fight a lion. Of course, India is right next to Tibet and the Himalayas, where the Tibetan Mastiff is from.

The Molossus specifically came from Epirus in Macedonia. This was where the Molossi tribe lived and were famous for their dogs. How the Molossus came to be in Epirus is unknown. Here are the main theories:

  • Some argue the Molossus was bred there from local dogs, but if this is true then there should be no link between them and the early Tibetan Mastiff.
  • The Molossus may have arrived through Persia in a war between the Greeks and the Balkans. This links the Molossus better to the Tibetan Mastiff because we can trace the journey from the Himalayas, across the Balkans, and finally to Greece, splintering into different livestock guardian breeds along the way.
  • They may have arrived in Epirus from an entirely different dog called the Alaunt, which we will discuss below.

Alexander the Great’s mother was Molossi Princess, which is one way he may have come into possession of these highly valued dogs. Some say they were used by his father, Philip II, to conquer Greece and they were also used by Alexander the Great in his campaigns.

However, another theory is that Alexander found these dogs when he conquered parts of Asia and brought them back to Greece. Because of his mother’s connection to the Molossi tribe, they then became known as Molossians.

Stories from that time suggest that these mastiffs would grab their prey (including lions) and refuse to unclench their jaws no matter what the hunter did. This is an interesting characteristic that some fighting dogs like the Pit Bull are still known for. Pit Bulls are probably also descended from the Roman Molossus, like the Rottweiler as Britain too was invaded by Rome.

So, the Molossus was first a Greek dog, probably coming from the Balkans, where it traces back further as far as Tibet. Later it spread to Rome, or modern-day Italy since Rome had a tendency to absorb most things Greek. This is why we think the statue of the Jennings dog, which is a Roman copy of a Greek statue, was probably a Molossus.

The Ancient Rottweiler in Rome

We pick up the history of the Rottweiler again in Rome. Here, Virgil wrote that there were two kinds of Molossus. Canis Venaticus was the type used for hunting, while Canis Pastorilis had the job of taking care of the home and the livestock. They are also famous for being Canis Pugnax, or war dogs. Note that these terms are actually different job descriptions for what was probably the same type of dog.

A modern way to explain it is that today’s Rottweiler can be a therapy dog, a herding dog, or a military dog. In other words, the same breed can perform many different functions.

The critical attribute of the Molossus is that this was a dog with a strong urge to defend.

Virgil writes, “never, with them on guard, need you fear for your stalls a midnight thief, or onslaught of wolves, or Iberian brigands at your back.”

What ancient Historians and Poets wrote about early Rottweilers (Molossers)

But what did people in Rome actually write about the Rottweiler’s ancestors? Let’s look at more early historical descriptions and see if we can pick out Rottie traits and characteristics that still exist today.

Here we can pick up bits and pieces about these early watchdogs and livestock guardians that later became the Rottweiler. Varro talks about shepherd dogs and specifies that they should have:

  • A big head
  • Floppy ears
  • A broad upper body and neck
  • Large paws
  • Thick tail
  • Loud bark
  • And be white in color so that the dog can be seen in the dark.
  • It should also have a strong, nail-studded collar to protect their necks.

Aside from the color, we can definitely see many common Rottweiler characteristics in Varro’s description. Although, we should take note of the color, as it may give valuable clues about the Rottweiler’s ancestry.

A century later, Columella talks about the ideal farm dog in De Re Rustica. He advises that farmers look for the following in their dogs:

  • It should have a deep bark and be big
  • A shepherd should have a white dog so that can see see the dog in the dark, but a family should have black dog to scare away thieves, as intruders won’t be able to see the dog.
  • The dog should not be too vicious or dangerous, but it should also not be so friendly that it makes friends with thieves.
  • It should have a short tail, droopy ears, a heavy build, a wide chest, and thick legs. The dog does not need to be fast.

Here we can begin to see that the black dog kept around the house sounds increasingly like an early Rottweiler. Keeping in mind that Varro’s and Columella’s farm dogs were likely Molossian crossbreeds, possibly with Laconian hunting dogs.

But let’s keep looking at what ancient historians wrote about Molossers. Firstly, let’s briefly focus on the question of color. We know that Black and Tan is a color in the Tibetan Mastiff. But many early Molossers seem to be white, which is more consistent with the Alaunt.  We will look closer at the Alaunt below.

The one mention we have of black and tan dogs is from Xenophon, who described black and tan Laconian dogs in the Southeast of Greece. So the color pattern did exist in Greece, but it’s not specified if it existed in the Molosser at this point.

The Laconian was a different type of dog because, in the Satyricon, Laconian dogs are baying outside while Trimalchio brings a giant Molossian called Skylax into the house to see his guests. Skylax was described as a guard dog, and his name meant “Puppy.”

When Titus opened the Colosseum in AD 80, the poet Marital wrote about Molossians taking part in the Colosseum’s animal hunt and chasing deer.

 Oppian also wrote about the Molossian and described it as, “Impetuous and of steadfast valor, who attack even bearded bulls and rush upon monstrous boars and destroy them…They are not swift, but they have abundant spirit and genuine strength unspeakable and dauntless courage.”

He also mentioned that Farmer’s Molossians were either black or white. So, we get the idea that white dogs were still the most commonly used by shepherds, and black dogs more as home guardians. This is a trend that holds true today, where many livestock guardians are still white or light-colored like the Kangal, while close-quarter guardians, like the Rottweiler and the Cane Corso, are mostly darker in color.

How the Rottweiler became a German dog

The Molossus likely came to Germany, and to Rottweil, situated between the Alps and the Blackforest, in AD 73, where it was founded by the Romans. It was a free Roman imperial city for 600 years and it makes sense that the Romans brought their dogs, the Molossus, where they served as herding and guard dogs, just like they did in Rome, and eventually evolved into the Rottweiler.

The Romans likely brought their dogs with them for several reasons. And we will list them here to keep things brief:

  • Romans used their Molossians as war dogs, called Canis Pugnaces, and these dogs traveled with their armies. There appears to be some confusion over the term Canis Pugnaces or Canis Pugnax, which simply means “war dog” or “fighting dog”. Many believe that the modern Cane Corso and the Neapolitan Mastiff are descended from the Canis Pugnaces and not the Molosser. However, since the term only means “fighting dog,” it may simply be the dog’s job description rather than a different breed. So many Molossians were also a Canis Pugnax, or “fighting dog” in the same way that many Rottweilers are also military dogs today.
  • The Molossers were excellent drovers (driving or herding dogs) that could drive cattle and livestock along with the army to provide them with consistent food while they traveled.
  • Once in Rottweil, the early Roman Molosser could serve as a sentry and guard dog, as well as maintain the livestock. We know from what the historians wrote that the Romans preferred black dogs to guard, so this may be why the Molossers in ancient Rottweil were not white. Their work with livestock and pulling carts of meat would also continue for centuries, as they later became the “Butcher’s dog of Rottweil.”
  • They also pulled carts for both the Romans and the future citizens of Rottweil. The Rottweiler has enormous pulling power, pulling up to 15168 lbs. (6880 kg).

Alternative Theories: Did the Rottweiler Really come from the Molossus of Ancient Greece and Rome?

From the above, we’ve established a possible line of events over centuries for the early Rottweiler that looks like this:

  1. A giant mastiff-type dog evolves in the Himalayas with an unknown canine ancestor this dog is what we call the Tibetan Mastiff today.
  2. This dog spreads mainly across the Balkans and eventually arrives in Greece, where it developed as the Molossus of Epirus and is associated with the war dogs of Alexander the Great. Light-colored dogs were used for livestock, while dark-colored Molossians were used to guard the home.
  3. The Mollosus eventually becomes the guardian of Ancient Rome and often served as a livestock drover for the army and a dog of war.
  4. When Romans occupy Germany and establish a city in Rottweil, they take the Molossus with them and many centuries later, it becomes the Rottweiler we know today.

This version of events, more or less, is roughly what many doggy historians accept about the ancient origins of the Rottweiler.  However, is it true? The problem is that some alternative theories and loose strings arrive in the form of another extinct Asian breed called the Alaunt.

To discuss, let’s go back to Alexander the Great. He had a dog called Peritas that he loved so much that he named a city after the dog when it died. Peritas is often called a Molossus (although he may have been Laconian). Assuming Peritas was a Molossus, where did he come from?

One story goes that when Alexander reached the area of modern Punjab, right between modern Tibet and Pakistan, the ruler of the area, Sophytes gave him 150 dogs famous for their fearlessness, that could fight lions. This story supports the idea that Alexander the great imported Mastiff-type dogs from India that created the Molossus.

However, Pliny writes that Peritas was a dog that the King of Caucasian Albania gifted to Alexander as it could fight an elephant and a lion. This still links Peritas, and perhaps all the Molossers, to the Balkan region. However, there was another extinct dog that is relevant here.

As far as we know, the Alaunt probably stemmed from the Alani tribes. Like today’s Rottweiler, the Alaunt was mesocephalic, meaning it had only a medium-length or a shorter one than breeds like the German Shepherd, but not as short as the Bulldog. They were large game hunters for the nomadic Alans.

The original Molossus of Epirus is located in Southern Albania and seems to date to 1200 BC, but these dogs had a long nose, and a shaggy mane. A tribe of Alans arrived in the area in 5th or 6th centuries BC.  So it is possible that the Molossus actually started with the Alaunt, since the Alaunt had a shorter nose and was often white, much like the dog that Varro described.

When the Alans were forced into the Balkans by the Hun invasion, their bloodlines may have started all the light-colored livestock guardians in the area that exist today.

The Western Alans raided most of Europe, leaving behind their dogs, including one of a mastiff-type, that had a shorter nose. This is worth considering as it’s important to note that people in the ancient world were often shifting and moving, through trade, invasions, warfare, and other pressures. This means that dogs were constantly moving too.

The Rottweiler may very well date back to the Molossus of Rome. But the breed probably had many influences before it became a formal breed. With its closest relations being the Doberman and the Schnauzer, we know the Rottweiler is just one small family tree branch dating back thousands of years.


Final Thoughts

It is commonly accepted that the Rottweiler today traces back directly to the Roman Molossus. This is entirely possible since the Romans did occupy Rottweil in Germany for 600 years. Some Rottweiler breeders today have even tried to recreate the original Roman Rottweiler.

However, there are many related explanations for how the Rottweiler came to be. Their relation to the Tibetan Mastiff and the Bernese Mountain dogs suggests that they may have had influences from a long line of mountain livestock guardians that were not necessarily brought by there by the Romans. We also can’t confirm that the Molossus was definitely the ancestor of the true mastiffs, as there are candidates like the Alaunt.

But the Rottweiler has been used for centuries as an all-purpose dog that guards, pulled carts, drove cattle, and guarded livestock. In modern times, it is still a dog of war, as it can still be used in the military. So functionally, the Rottweiler still fills the space of the ancient Roman Molossus and still steps in the extinct breed’s pawprints.




About Tamsin de la Harpe 17 Articles
Tamsin has worked extensively in dog behavior problems and is passionate about canine nutrition. She has worked with trainers who specialize in Shutzhund and protection training, and worked with many Rottweilers. Her passion for dogs shows in her writing and she loves sharing her knowledge with Rottie lovers!