The dogs of war (phrase)

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Punch cartoon from 17 June 1876. Russia preparing to let slip the "Dogs of War" and its imminent engagement in the growing Balkan conflict between Slavic states and the Ottoman Empire, while policeman John Bull (Britain) warns Russia to take care. The Slavic states of Serbia and Montenegro would declare war on the Ottoman Empire two weeks later.

The dogs of war is a phrase spoken by Mark Antony in Act 3, Scene 1, line 273 of English playwright William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar: "Cry 'Havoc!', and let slip the dogs of war."


In the scene, Mark Antony is alone with Julius Caesar's body, shortly after Caesar's assassination. In a soliloquy, he reveals his intention to incite the crowd at Caesar's funeral to rise up against the assassins. Foreseeing violence throughout Rome, Antony even imagines Caesar's spirit joining in the exhortations: "raging for revenge, with Ate by his side come hot from hell, shall in these confines with a Monarch's voice cry 'Havoc!' and let slip the dogs of war."[1]


In a literal reading, "dogs" are the familiar animals, trained for warfare; "havoc" is a military order permitting the seizure of spoil after a victory and "let slip" is to release from the leash.[2][3][4] Shakespeare's source for Julius Caesar was The Life of Marcus Brutus from Plutarch's Lives, and the concept of the war dog appears in that work, in the section devoted to the Greek warrior Aratus.[5][6]

Apart from the literal meaning, a parallel can be drawn with the prologue to Henry V, where the warlike king is described as having at his heels, awaiting employment, the hounds "famine, sword and fire".[7]

Along those lines, an alternative proposed meaning is that "the dogs of war" refers figuratively to the wild pack of soldiers "let slip" by war's breakdown of civilized behavior and/or their commanders' orders to wreak "havoc", i.e., rape, pillage, and plunder.[8][9][unreliable source][unreliable source]

Based on the original meaning of "dog" in its mechanical sense ("any of various usually simple mechanical devices for holding, gripping, or fastening that consist of a spike, bar, or hook"),[10][full citation needed] the "dogs" are "let slip" as an act of releasing. Thus, the "dogs of war" are the political and societal restraints against war that operate during times of peace.

In popular culture[edit]

The phrase has entered so far into general usage that it is now regarded as a cliché.[11]

Many books, films, video games, songs, and television episodes are titled using variations of the phrase “Dogs of War.”

Victor Hugo used "dogs of war" as a metaphor for cannon fire in chapter XIV of Les Misérables:

Another cannonade was audible at some distance. At the same time that the two guns were furiously attacking the redoubt from the Rue de la Chanvrerie, two other cannons, trained one from the Rue Saint-Denis, the other from the Rue Aubry-le-Boucher, were riddling the Saint-Merry barricade. The four cannons echoed each other mournfully. The barking of these sombre dogs of war replied to each other.[12][13]

The phrase was used by Christopher Plummer's character General Chang in the film Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, in a scene which featured Chang's Klingon Bird of Prey attacking the USS Enterprise.[14]

Jeremy Clarkson used the phrase during a Top Gear special, before attempting a speed run at the Bonneville Salt Flats in a Chevrolet Corvette C6 ZR1, adding "They probably think that's a Bon Jovi lyric here."[15]

Sterling Archer misquotes the phrase before embarking on a rampage to find the chemotherapy drugs for his aforementioned breast cancer.[16]

Kevin Spacey on his role as Frank Underwood in the Series "House of Cards - Season 2 - Episode 12" used the phrase as he began a political attack to undermine the power of the President of the United States and move forward on his silent plan to take control of the White House and the executive power.

In 2017, it was used on a tifo at the King Power Stadium during the Champions League last 16 match featuring Leicester City and Sevilla FC. The tifo displayed a person holding onto dogs via a chain, with the phrase "Let Slip the Dogs of War" underneath.[17][18]

The term “Dogs of War” is used in the boardgame Warhammer as a colloquial for various mercenary groups selling their swords for loot, plunder, and adventure. [19]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Shakespeare, William (1996). The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. Wordsworth Editions. p. 597. ISBN 978-1-85326-895-3.
  2. ^ "dog, n1 1(d); havoc, n". Oxford English Dictionary (2nd ed.). Oxford, England: Oxford University Press. 1989. esp[ecially] in Shakespearian phr[ase] the dogs of war
  3. ^ From the fourteenth century an unauthorised call to "havoc" during battle was punishable by death. Keen, Maurice (1995). "Richard II's Ordinances of War of 1385". In Archer, Rowena; Walker, Simon (eds.). Rulers and Ruled in Late Medieval England: Essays Presented to Gerald Harriss. London: Hambledon Press. pp. 33, 36. ISBN 1-85285-133-3.
  4. ^ Bate & Rasmussen (2007), p. 1834.
  5. ^ Bate & Rasmussen (2007), p. 1803.
  6. ^ Plutarch (1926) [1914]. "The Life of Aratus". Parallel Lives. Translated by Bernadotte Perrin. Loeb Classical Library. 24 – via University of Chicago.
  7. ^ Cornwall (1843), p. 517.
  8. ^ Martin, Gary. "The phrase 'Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war'". The Phrase Finder. Retrieved April 2, 2021.
  9. ^ Peter Pappas, "Shakespeare for All Time" blog. "Cry Havoc and Let Slip the Dogs of War".
  10. ^ "Definition of DOG".
  11. ^ Partridge, Eric (1940). A Dictionary of Clichés. London: Routledge. p. 253. OCLC 460036269.
  12. ^ "Les Misérables, Five Volumes, Complete by Victor Hugo".
  14. ^ "Star Trek VI: General Chang as Shakespeare | Transmedial Shakespeare". Retrieved 2018-10-03.
  15. ^ "Bonneville Salt Flats, USA Muscle Car Road Trip". Youtube. Top Gear. Retrieved 19 November 2021.
  16. ^ "Placebo Effect". FX. 24 March 2011. FX.
  17. ^ Butler, A (14 March 2017). "Leicester unveil enormous pre-match Shakespeare-related tifo". Dream Team FC. Retrieved 19 November 2021.
  18. ^ "Leicester's giant banner has got everyone a bit confused". Irish News. 14 March 2017. Retrieved 19 November 2021.
  19. ^ Warhammer Armies: Dogs of War (5th Edition), ISBN 1-872372-02-3


External links[edit]

  • The dictionary definition of cry havoc at Wiktionary