The history of the Maltese Breed

The History of the Maltese

The Maltese breed has existed for at least 29 centuries. Dating back so far has caused a bit of debate as to the exact origin of this dog.

Map of Origins for Maltese Dog
As you have probably guessed the name ‘Maltese’ derives from Malta.

If you look far back, long ago descendants are thought to be Spitz-type dogs, possibly from Sweden. Another possible ancestor is the Tibetan Terrier from ancient Asia. Both theorised ancestors are much larger dogs. So, like most of the toy breeds that you see today, centuries of development bred the dog down in size. No doubt also refined the coat colour to white. No matter his ancient descendants, evidence shows that the Maltese breed most definitely became abundant on the Island of Malta. This is a small, beautiful isle off the coast of Italy.

The Maltese descends from one of the most ancient dog breeds to be found in recorded history. It has been estimated that the breed originated around 6,000 B.C., or 8,000 years ago. Although the ancient Greeks and Romans believed the dog originated on the Island of Malta–they called the breed the Melitaie Dog. Melitaie being the ancient name for Malta. There is really no evidence that proves the dog was indigenous to the Island. Rather that the Maltese is descended from a Spitz-type dog bred by the peoples of the area. Which is now south central Europe.

The breed was eventually distributed as an exotic article of trade from the ancient island trading centre of Malta. From there they migrated by caravans to the farthest reaches of the civilised world, including: The Middle East, Tibet, China, the Philippines, and Japan. 

Maltese Dog in the 17th century

The earliest known representations of Maltese dogs on artefacts found at Fayum, Egypt (600-300 B.C.). They suggest that the Maltese was one of the dogs worshipped by the ancient Egyptians. Numerous pictorial representations of the Maltese occur in Greek ceramic art, such as the vases found at Vulci (about 500 B.C.). The dog is also mentioned in the writings of many Greek and Roman philosophers, and other ancient poets and historians, including: Aristotle, Timon, Callimachus, Aelian, Artimidorus, Epaminodus, Martial, Strabo, Pliny the Elder and Saint Clement of Alexandria. Notable ancient owners of Maltese include Roman Emperor Claudius and Publius, Roman governor of Malta.

The Maltese emerged untarnished from the Dark Ages and  recorded as a prized dog. Especially by the upper class, aristocrats, states persons and royalty. Maltese were believed to possess medicinal powers of healing. The ailing would place the dog on their stomach or chest for comfort. Because of this practice, and the dogs warm, affectionate nature and small size, which made it easy to hold in ones arms or lap, the Maltese became known as the “Comforter.” The dog was particularly popular in England during Elizabethan times (the late 16th century). Two notable owners of Maltese in those times Queen Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots.

Maltese dog in a basket pictured in 1855

1800 – 1900

Beginning around the mid 1800’s and into the early 1900’s there was great debate among the noted dog writers and dog authorities concerning the question of “which dog family the Maltese belonged”.  A large group, especially the dog fanciers of England, felt that the Maltese belonged in the Terrier family due to their terrier-like temperament.   As with the English terrier breeds, the Maltese of the period was an excellent ratter and exhibited great fearlessness, despite his small size.  Others disagreed and felt that the Maltese, because of his body and coat type, were spaniel in nature.  Ultimately, in the early 1900’s, the conclusion was that the “Maltese dog” was neither terrier or spaniel.  Rather, the correct reference should be the “Maltese dog”.