One of the strangest aspects of ancient Roman religion was an annual sacrifice known as the “supplicia canum – the punishments of the dogs”, which an early Byzantine writer, John the Lydian (ca. 495-565), says took place on August 3rd. (Earlier sources give no specific date for it.) This consisted of suspending live dogs on a forked pole, and carrying them in a procession; at the same time, geese were dressed in gold and purple, the colors of royalty, and carried in a litter. This story was connected with one of the more famous episodes in the history of the early Roman Republic, the Gaulish invasion of Italy in the early 4th century BC, and the first sack of Rome.
When the Gauls had occupied most of the city, but not the fortress on the Capitoline Hill, they made an attempt on the hill at night, seeking to take it under cover of darkness. Neither the guards nor the watchdogs heard them approach, but the geese kept in the precinct of the temple of Juno did, and began to honk furiously, alerting the defenders of the citadel, and thus saving the day. Ancient writers understood that the supplicia canum was instituted to punish the dogs for their failure to do their duty as watchdogs. In the Natural History, Pliny the Elder writes:
“Et anseri vigil cura Capitolio testata defenso, per id tempus canum silentio proditis rebus, quam ob causam cibaria anserum censores in primis locant. – The vigilant guard of the goose is also well attested by the defense of the Capitol, at that time when the commonwealth had been betrayed by the silence of the dogs; for which reason, the censors attend first of all to the feeding of the geese. (10.26.22)
“De anserum honore, quem meruere Gallorum in Capitolium ascensu deprehenso, diximus. eadem de causa supplicia annua canes pendunt, inter aedem Iuventatis et Summani vivi in furca sabucea armo fixi. – We have already spoken of the honor paid to the geese, which they earned by detecting the Gauls in their attempt to scale the Capitol. For the same reason, punishments are yearly inflicted upon the dogs, by crucifying them alive upon a fork of elder-wood between the temple of Juventas and that of Summanus.” (29.14.57)
(Juno’s Geese Warn the Romans as the Gauls Attempt to Scale the Capitoline, 1883; lithograph after a lost painting by the French artist Henri-Paul Motte (1846-1922). Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
John the Lydian, however, also offers another explanation for this strange ritual. “…others say that they used to do this so that [the dogs] would not be troublesome to those who were ill at night. And others [say they did this] so that rabid [dogs] would not harm people. For at that time [of year] rises Sirius, which appears to cause rabies in them.” (De mensibus 4, 114; transl. by Mischa Hooker.) This later explanation is partly corroborated by another statement of Pliny (2.40.107), that at the rising of the Dog-star, “canes quidem toto eo spatio maxime in rabiem agi non est dubium. – There is no doubt that dogs throughout the whole of that period are specially liable to rabies.”
By a happy coincidence, the day after the supplicia canum is the traditional date of the feast of St Dominic, which is still kept on this date by many houses of his order, although he has been moved to the 8th on the general calendar of the Novus Ordo. A traditional story has it that when his mother, Bl. Juana de Aza, was pregnant with him, she had a dream that she gave birth to a dog with a torch in its mouth, which then ran out and set the world on fire. This was taken to symbolize that the preaching of St Dominic and the members of his order would set the world on fire with the love of God, much as Christ Himself said, “I am come to cast fire on the earth; and what will I, but that it be kindled?” (Luke 12, 49) The members of his order are called in Latin “Dominicani”; a popular medieval pun made this into “Domini canes – the dogs of the Lord,” referring to their zeal for the truth and the salvation of souls, which they pursued as eagerly as hunting dogs.
(St Dominic, ca. 1685, by the Spanish painter Claudio Coello (1642-93). Note the dog with the torch in its mouth at the lower left, with which it is about to set the world on fire for Christ. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)