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Alexander the Great’s Best Friend

November 26, 2023

Of the various and numerous contributions to world culture Greeks have provided few have been as significant as those produced by Alexander the Great and the Hellenistic Period. Yet as various historians have long asserted, without Peritas at his side, Alexander might never have become ‘great’. Which is especially curious given that Peritas (Περίτας) was none other than Alexander the Great’s favorite war dog. How this specific dog and his kin have proved so influential to not only Alexander but to humanity, at large, is a tale worth telling.

To set the stage for this account it must be understood that war dogs were a commonplace in battle during this era of warfare. Alexander being both a noble and a military commander, he traveled into battle with nearly countless numbers of hunting dogs and war dogs. Still, given how Peritas is said to have ultimately served Alexander, it is strange that the existing accounts on this specific animal are so few and varied in their details. A sifting of source material and a combination or compilation from various authors is the best, from this distance in time, that can be had.

To begin with, we have no source from Hellenistic times that reports on Peritas’ actual breed. Some writers report that Peritas was a Molossian, an enormous and powerful breed of dogs of ancient Greece that were specifically bred as war dogs. Other accounts attest that Peritas was but one of a number of dogs given to Alexander as tribute upon his arrival in lands north of present-day India. Then again, various sources attest these dogs were a mix of kangals and Persian mastiffs, also known as Sarabi dogs.

One writer posits that “though not a specific breed as we know them, Peritas probably resembled a Dogue de Bordeaux, Mastiff or Neapolitan Mastiff on steroids. Enormous, powerful dogs were bred specifically to go into battle beside men and to fight as hard as those with swords and axes did. The war dogs of this era were expected to show no fear and fight any opponent – including elephants, lions, and armed warriors (https://theblissfuldog.com).”

Another source, the American Kennel Club reports, “Alexander is known to have crossed the giant Macedonian and Epirian war dogs with the short haired ‘Indian’ dogs to create the [now extinct] Molossus. This animal is easily recognized as the great forefather of the Neapolitan Mastiff.”

Still another account exists asserting that it was Alexander’s uncle who gave him Peritas since the dog had managed to attack and beat both an elephant and a lion. In truth, however, only one account from Hellenistic times of Peritas exist that identify this loyal and courageous animal by name. Whatever the case may have been, all subsequent writings agree that Alexander and Peritas had a special bond.

Accounts exist that attest such was Peritas’ deep affection for his master that he always slept at Alexander’s feet in the royal tent while campaigning. Interestingly, while written accounts of Peritas and his relationship with Alexander are few and far between it is said that “his portrait is in many a freeze on walls depicting Alexander’s battles (www.quora.com).”

The only undisputed source we have on Peritas is by Plutarch. While he is the only ancient scholar to specifically mention this hound, he does so in a curiously off-handed manner. While describing Alexander’s relationship to his favorite horse Bucephalus and this animal’s ultimate fate, we hear of Peritas, but curiously only in the most cursory and really passing manner. Ancient historical accounts state that Bucephalus’ breed was that of the best Thessalian strain. During the Battle of the Hydaspes in 326 BC Bucephalus died along the banks of river for which this battle is named in what is now Punjab, Pakistan. Alexander was so grieved at the loss of his much-beloved horse that he built a special tomb for his fallen steed. Then, around this tomb Alexander founded a city he named Alexandria Bucephalus.

Boukephala (Ancient Greek: Βουκεφάλα) and Nikaia (Νίκαια) were two cities founded by Alexander the Great on either side of the Hydaspes (modern-day Jhelum River, Pakistan) during his invasion of the Indian subcontinent. The cities, two of many founded by Alexander, were built shortly after his victory over the Indian king Porus at the Battle of the Hydaspes in early 326 BC (Wikipedia).

Plutarch, in his description of Bucephalus’ ultimate fate, ever so briefly, comments in passing of the existence and ultimate fate of the heroic Peritas. As in previous conflicts Peritas took part in the Battle of Guagamela in 331 BC against Darius III. During this battle an elephant charged at Alexander. With a howl Peritas grabbed the elephant by the lip, stopping its charge. Strange as it may seem from our vantage point in history, it was expected that the greatest of the war and hunting dogs were those who fought elephants and lions. While this hound’s act of heroism saved Alexander’s life, Peritas was killed. It was this specific battle that led to the fall of the Achaemenid Empire and of Darius III.

Now Plutarch’s account of how Peritas died in battle is but one version of how this dog saved Alexander’s life. Another version of Peritas’ valor asserts that “Alexander was trapped a considerable distance from his troops, and that Leonnatus (one of Alexander’s officers), who heard Peritas howling behind him, told the dog to run to Alexander. Peritas fought his way to his wounded master and was able to hold the Mallians off long enough for Alexander’s men to arrive and save him. When the men arrived Peritas, who was badly wounded, had his head on his master’s lap and died (http://dogs-in-history.blogspot.com).” Various other accounts attest that Peritas had been struck by a javelin on his way to his master, thus making his defense of Alexander all the more heroic.

Other writers go so far as to claim that had Alexander not survived this battle, via Peritas’ ultimate sacrifice, civilization as we know it may never have developed. Then, just as with Bucephalus, Alexander had a fine tomb built for the dog and then, once again, founded a city he named Peritas around this hound’s elaborate resting place. According to some sources, the only difference with Peritas’ tomb, which is said also featured a statue, was that Alexander had it placed at the very entrance to this newly established city. But once again, details concerning Peritas actions, life, and Alexander’s efforts to honor his beloved dog vary. Some sources report that Peritas’ monumental tomb was to be found in the very center of the newly established city. Curiously, not much is known about the city of Peritas, so it is not surprising to learn that for reasons never outlined or explained, the city of Peritas did not survive into modern times.

The history of men and dogs is complex and of deep antiquity. As we know from Alexander’s campaigns, dogs played a definite role in battle. With the specific case of Peritas it is safe to say no matter which source one cares to cite, this dog saved Alexander the Great’s very life. What more could be asked?

 

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