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The Elephant in Rome

"The elephant is the largest of them all, and in intelligence approaches the nearest to man. It understands the language of its country, it obeys commands, and it remembers all the duties which it has been taught. It is sensible alike of the pleasures of love and glory, and, to a degree that is rare among men even, possesses notions of honesty, prudence, and equity; it has a religious respect also for the stars, and a veneration for the sun and the moon."

Pliny, Natural History (VIII.1)

Romans first encountered the elephant in 280 BC. Pyrrhus had transported twenty of the beasts to Italy by ship and, at the Battle of Heraclea, the unfamiliar animals routed the Roman cavalry; "their horses, before they got near the animals, were terrified and ran away with their riders" (Plutarch, Life of Pyrrhus, XVII.3). The next year at Asculum, there was another Pyrrhic victory, "the greatest havoc was wrought by the furious strength of the elephants, since the valour of the Romans was of no avail in fighting them, but they felt that they must yield before them as before an onrushing billow or a crashing earthquake, and not stand their ground only to die in vain, or suffer all that is most grievous without doing any good at all" (XXI.7).

In 218 BC, Hannibal crossed the Alps with thirty-seven elephants and defeated the Romans at Trebbia. Indeed, had not a wounded elephant thrown the others into confusion, the Roman losses would have been even greater (Zonaras, Epitome of History, VIII.13, who also relates that the soldiers fought from towers on the backs of the elephants).


Whereas the Greeks and Carthaginians used elephants mainly in war, the Romans used them primarily for spectacle, the first time in 275 BC, when those that had been captured from Pyrrhus were displayed in triumph. In 55 BC, when Pompey dedicated his theater, the events in the Circus included venationes. Plutarch says that five hundred lions were killed, but there was "above all, an elephant fight, a most terrifying spectacle" (Life of Pompey, LII.4). Cicero, who was present, wrote to a friend that there were two animal hunts a day, which lasted for five days. "The last day was that of the elephants, and on that day the mob and crowd were greatly impressed, but manifested no pleasure. Indeed the result was a certain compassion and a kind of feeling that that huge beast has a fellowship with the human race" (ad Familiares, VII.1).

In his Natural History, Pliny records the same poignant event (VIII.7.20). Twenty or so elephants were cruelly killed and, "when they had lost all hope of escape tried to gain the compassion of the crowd by indescribable gestures of entreaty, deploring their fate with a sort of wailing, so much to the distress of the public that they forgot the general and his munificence carefully devised for their honour, and bursting into tears rose in a body and invoked curses on the head of Pompey."

Seneca, too, refers to the slaughter in De Brevitate Vitae (XIII),

"...does it serve any useful purpose to know that Pompey was the first to exhibit the slaughter of eighteen elephants in the Circus, pitting criminals against them in a mimic battle? He, a leader of the state and one who, according to report, was conspicuous among the leaders of old for the kindness of his heart, thought it a notable kind of spectacle to kill human beings after a new fashion. Do they fight to the death? That is not enough! Are they torn to pieces? That is not enough! Let them be crushed by animals of monstrous bulk! Better would it be that these things pass into oblivion lest hereafter some all-powerful man should learn them and be jealous of an act that was nowise human. O, what blindness does great prosperity cast upon our minds! When he was casting so many troops of wretched human beings to wild beasts born under a different sky, when he was proclaiming war between creatures so ill matched, when he was shedding so much blood before the eyes of the Roman people, who itself was soon to be forced to shed more. He then believed that he was beyond the power of Nature. But later this same man, betrayed by Alexandrine treachery, offered himself to the dagger of the vilest slave, and then at last discovered what an empty boast his surname was."

The elephants, writes Cassius Dio, "were pitied by the people when, after being wounded and ceasing to fight, they walked about with their trunks raised toward heaven, lamenting so bitterly as to give rise to the report that they did so not by mere chance, but were crying out against the oaths in which they had trusted when they crossed over from Africa, and were calling upon Heaven to avenge them" (XXXIX.38).

And so they were: Seven years later, Pompey was stabbed to death in Egypt.


"For they [the Ethiopians] state that there are to be seen in their country snakes so great in size that they not only eat both oxen and bulls and other animals of equal bulk, but even join issue in battle with the elephants, and by intertwining their coil about the elephants' legs they prevent the natural movement of them and by rearing their necks above their trunks they put their heads directly opposite the eyes of the elephants, and sending forth, by reason of the fiery nature of their eyes, brilliant flashes like lightning, they first blind their sight and then throw them to the ground and devour of the flesh of their conquered foes."

Diodorus Siculus, Library of History (III.37.9)

Pliny goes on to relate the natural antipathy of the Indian elephant and the serpent, "the serpents also being of so large a size that they easily encircle the elephants in their coils and fetter them with a twisted knot. In this duel both combatants die together, and the vanquished elephant in falling crushes with its weight the snake coiled round it."

This image, which is in the Carthage Museum, is from a large mosaic depicting animals being hunted and captured for the amphitheater. Here, an elephant, its wrinkled skin represented by cross-hatching, is being cruelly bitten by a boa that has entwined itself around the hapless beast.


In 153 BC, there also was a measure of revenge, as Appian relates in his account of the wars in Spain. The Romans had taken elephants right up to the wall of a besieged town when

"one of the elephants was struck on the head with a large falling stone, when he became savage, uttered a loud cry, turned upon his friends, and began to destroy everything that came in his way, making no longer any distinction between friend and foe. The other elephants, excited by his cries, all began to do the same, trampling the Romans under foot, wounding them and tossing them this way and that. This is always the way with elephants when they are frightened. Then they take everyone for foes; wherefore some people call them the common enemy, on account of their fickleness."

Roman History (VI. 46)

Livy, too, speaks of this uncertainty in recounting the battle of Canusium (209 BC) between Claudius Marcellus and Hannibal.

"...these animals cannot be depended upon. Not only the men who first attacked them, but every soldier within reach hurled his javelin at them as they galloped back into the Carthaginian ranks, where they caused much more destruction than they had caused amongst the enemy. They dashed about much more recklessly and did far greater damage when driven by their fears, than when directed by their drivers. Where the line was broken by their charge, the Roman standards at once advanced, and the broken and demoralised enemy was put to rout without much fighting."

History of Rome (XXVII.14)


Aelian, On the Characteristics of Animals, writes that the elephant is terrified of a squealing pig, which is how the Romans put to flight the elephants of Pyrrhus. Indeed, when Antigonus II (Gonatas), the grandson of Antigonus I (Cyclops), was besieging Megara, pigs were released, their squeals assured by the fact that the unfortunate creatures were smeared with oil and set afire. Pliny, too, tells of the ability of a squealing pig to startle an elephant, and Procopius, in The Gothic War, relates how a war elephant approached the wall of a besieged town, looming over it, only to have a squealing pig thrust in its face, which panicked the beast.

There were more murderous ways to dispatch an elephant than to frighten it with a pig, as Vegetius relates in De Re Militari (III.24).

"Many expedients have been used against them. In Lucania a centurion cut off the trunk of one with his sword. Two soldiers armed from head to foot in a chariot drawn by two horses, also covered with armor, attacked these beasts with lances of great length. They were secured by their armor from the archers on the elephants and avoided the fury of the animals by the swiftness of their horses. Foot soldiers completely armored, with the addition of long iron spikes fixed on their arms, shoulders and helmets, to prevent the elephant from seizing them with his trunk, were also employed against them.

But among the ancients, the velites usually engaged them. They were young soldiers, lightly armed, active and very expert in throwing their missile weapons on horseback. These troops kept hovering round the elephants continually and killed them with large lances and javelins. Afterwards, the soldiers, as their apprehensions decreased, attacked them in a body and, throwing their javelins together, destroyed them by the multitude of wounds. Slingers with round stones from the fustibalus and sling killed both the men who guided the elephants and the soldiers who fought in the towers on their backs. This was found by experience to be the best and safest expedient. At other times on the approach of these beasts, the soldiers opened their ranks and let them pass through. When they got into the midst of the troops, who surrounded them on all sides, they were captured with their guards unhurt.

Large balistae, drawn on carriages by two horses or mules, should be placed in the rear of the line, so that when the elephants come within reach they may be transfixed with the darts. The balistae should be larger and the heads of the darts stronger and broader than usual, so that the darts may be thrown farther, with greater force and the wounds be proportioned to the bodies of the beasts. It was proper to describe these several methods and contrivances employed against elephants, so that it may be known on occasion in what manner to oppose those prodigious animals."


References: Cicero: Letters to Friends (2001) translated by D. R. Shackleton Bailey (Loeb Classical Library): Mosaics of Roman Africa: Floor Mosaics from Tunesia (1996) by Michèle Blanchard-Lemée, Mongi Ennaïfer, Hédi Slim, and Latifa Slim; Seneca: Moral Essays(1932) translated by John W. Basore (Loeb Classical Library).

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