Why The Romans Punished Dogs And Honored Geese

Sep 6, 2021 1 comments

On a warm summer day in August in ancient Rome, a brilliantly decorated litter is carried solemnly in the direction of Circus Maximum. Its occupant is neither a senator nor a highborn lady, but upon arrival at his destination he is revealed to be a humble goose, and he had arrived at the venue, now seated on a luxurious purple cushion, to watch the crucifixion of some dogs.

This macabre ritual, called supplicia canum (or “punishment of the dogs”) is celebrated to commemorate the anniversary of a traumatic episode in the history of Rome—the sacking of the city by the Gauls in 390 BC or 387 BC. Supplicia canum is supposed to serve as warning to dogs not to fall asleep on guard duty. In the same procession, geese were decked out in gold and purple, and carried in honor for alerting the last defenders of the city from falling into the hands of the Gauls.

Roman Imperial bronze goose at the Capitoline Museums. Photo: Marie-Lan Nguyen/Wikimedia Commons

The conflict between the Romans and the Gauls was started by an unfortunate incident. The Senones, one of many Gallic tribes, had crossed the Alps to Italy to sell their services as mercenaries. When the Senones appeared, the inhabitants of the Etruscan city of Clusium (present-day Chiusi, in Tuscany), frightened by those warriors, asked Rome for support to negotiate with them. The Romans sent ambassadors to Clusium, but in the midst of a brawl one of them killed a Gallic chieftain, sparking war between the Senones and the Romans.

As a condition of peace, the Gauls demanded that the culprit of the murder be handed over to them. But he belonged to an important lineage, the powerful Fabia family, and Rome refused to do so. In response, an army led by the Senones chieftain Brennus set out for Rome. The Romans tried to confront them on the banks of the river Allia, but suffered a great defeat forcing them to hastily withdrew. Most soldiers fled to the city of Veii, instead of Rome, but the despairing inhabitants of Rome, unaware of this fact, thought that the whole army had been wiped out and that there was no chance of resistance.

The Capitoline Hill. Photo: Giuseppe Di Paolo | Dreamstime.com

The leaders of the city ordered food, gold, silver and other possessions be taken to the Capitoline Hill, which was then fortified. The Senones broke down the city gates and pillaged the city for days, but they couldn’t take Capitoline Hill.

Meanwhile the Romans who had fled to Veii, regrouped and decided to relieve the siege of the Capitoline Hill. Cominius Pontius was sent as a messenger to the Capitoline Hill to tell the besieged about the plan and that the men at Veii were waiting for an opportunity to attack.

Pontius swam across the River Tiber and went up a cliff, which was difficult to climb. After giving his message, he returned to Veii. The Gauls noticed the track left by Pontius and decided to penetrate the fortress via the same route. That night the Gauls silently climbed the hill for the final attack. The sentries and the dogs that were supposed to guard the perimeter had fallen asleep, but the invaders ran into unexpected guards—the geese kept near the temple of Juno for the service of the goddess. Frightened by the intruders, the geese made a great ruckus that alerted the Romans, who were able to repel the attack.

Gallic chieftain Brennus and Romans argue about the weight of the gold that the Romans were forced to pay after defeat. Illustration by Paul Lehugeur, 1886.

The defenders were henceforth heralded as heroes of Rome while the night watchmen and the guard dogs were punished. In memory of the humiliation, the supplicia canum was instituted as an expiatory ritual in which the dogs of the Capitol were sacrificed for the failure of their predecessors, before the gaze of the sacred geese. Sources differ on the date of the ritual, but generally it is placed in the 18 of July or the 3rd of August. These types of expiatory sacrifices were common among several Mediterranean peoples and only fell into disuse with the advance of Christianity.

# Abel de Medici, The Geese That Saved Rome From The Gauls, Nat Geo
# Wikipedia


  1. Very interesting info! I will think about when i went to the Italy :) Thanks!


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