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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.i.1)

"Elephants, when tamed, are employed in war, and carry into the ranks of the enemy towers filled with armed men; and on them, in a very great measure, depends the ultimate result of the battles that are fought in the East. They tread under foot whole companies, and crush the men in their armour."

Pliny, (VIII.ix.27)

Romans first encountered the elephant in 280 BC, when Pyrrhus, king of Epirus in western Greece, transported twenty of the beasts to Italy (Pliny, VIII.vi.16), where, at the Battle of Heraclea, they 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), frightened by the elephants' "huge bulk and ugliness and also by their strange smell and trumpeting" (Florus, Epitome of Roman History, I.13.8). Routed, the panicked soldiers were slain by those riding in the towers on the backs of the elephants or were trampled and crushed underfoot by the elephants themselves (Zonaras, Epitome of History, VIII.3).

In fact, it only was the trumpeting of a wounded elephant, which threw the rest into confusion, that kept Pyrrhus from pursuing the fleeing Romans. The victory was a costly one, however, so much so that Pyrrhus, who himself was severely injured (Justinus, Epitome of the Philippic History, XVIII.1), lamenting the loss of his officers and men, said that "if he should ever conquer again in like fashion, it would be his ruin" (Dio, Roman History, IX.21). Although the Romans were dismayed "on account of the elephant, a kind of beast they had never before seen," they nevertheless took heart in "the fact that no animal is superior to man, but that all of them in every way show inferiority, if not as regards strength, a least in respect of intelligence" (IX.26). That having been said, Pliny introduces his long discussion of the elephant with the observation that "it is the nearest to man in intelligence" (VIII.i.1).

The next year at the Battle of Asculum, there was another victory but it, too, was a Pyrrhic one: "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" (Plutarch, XXI.7). This time, there were nineteen elephants, which the Romans defended against by fitting three hundred ox-drawn wagons with upright beams, from which movable poles tipped with iron tridents or spikes and scythes could be freely maneuvered. More poles projecting from the front of the wagons had grappling hooks wrapped in pitch-soaked cloth, which then were set afire and thrust in the faces and eyes of the elephants (Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, XX.1.68). (Because both battles took place in the region of Lucania in southern Italy, which had allied itself with Pyrrhus, the name "Lucanian ox" originally was given to the unfamiliar and terrifying animal, Varro, On the Latin Language, VII.39.)

Pyrrhus finally was defeated by Curius Dentatus in 275 BC at the Battle of Beneventum (the name of the town having been changed from Maleventum, which the Romans regarded as inauspicious, cf. Livy, The History of Rome, IX.27.14). Injured by a javelin, a young elephant trumpeting in pain was heard by its mother, who rushed to defend it—which caused the others "to wheel about and run back through the ranks of their own men, thus causing disorder and confusion there" (Plutarch, XXV.5; also Florus, I.13.12; Dionysus of Halicarnassus, XX.12.3; Dio, X.6.48; Zonaras, VIII.6). As Florus neatly summarized the conflict between Pyrrhus and Rome: "the same beasts which deprived the Romans of their first victory and equalized the second battle, gave them undoubted victory in the third fight (I.13.12). As terrifying as elephants were to those who had not encountered them before, resolute legionaries could defend against them, often turning back the enraged creatureswith unpredictable results for both sides.

Four of the elephants captured at Beneventum were sent to Rome (Zonaras says eight), the first to be seen there, when they were exhibited in a triumphal parade celebrating the victory (Pliny, VIII.vi.16; Eutropius, Abridgement of Roman History, II.14). Indeed, "upon nothing did the Roman people look with greater pleasure than upon those huge bests, which they had feared so much, with towers upon their backs, now following the horses which had vanquished them, with heads bowed low not wholly unconscious that they were prisoners" (Florus, I.18.28). Such a humiliating display, in fact, was essential in demystifying an animal that had caused such grief.

After the Roman defeat at Asculum in 279 BC, Carthage, then the dominant power in the western Mediterranean, was apprehensive that Pyrrhus would turn his attention to western Sicily, where there were Carthaginian settlements, and so offered to help Rome, ostensibly as an ally but, in fact, that "Pyrrhus might be detained by a war with that people in Italy, and prevented from crossing over into Sicily" (Justinus, XVIII.2). Polybius even had found a treaty to that effect preserved on bronze tablets stipulating that "both shall make it an express condition that they may go to the help of each other in whichever country is attacked" (The Histories, III.25.1ff; Livy, Periochae, XIII.10). It was the fourth and final treaty with Carthage, although neither party offered any real assistance to the otherother than the transport of some Roman troops to put down a rebellious tribune whose garrison had been appointed to guard Rhegium against Pyrrhus (Diodorus Siculus, Library of History, XXII.7.5). With the defeat of Pyrrhus, however, Rome turned its attention to Carthage and the eventual conquest of Sicily in the First Punic War (264–241 BC).

Having landed on Carthaginian soil at the coastal town of Aspis in 256 BC, the Romans set about plundering the countryside, destroying luxurious country villas and capturing cattle and more than twenty thousand slaves. Confident of further success, the Romans then withdrew half of their legions and most of the fleet, sailing away with the prisoners. Fifteen thousand infantry and five hundred cavalry were left behind under the command of Marcus Atilius Regulus who, rather than maintain his position, advanced inland, where they besieged Adys. There, the waiting Carthaginians had positioned themselves on a hill, where the rough terrain rendered the elephants completely useless, and they again were defeated (Polybius, I.30.11). Regulus' terms of surrender was so harsh, however, that the Carthaginians resolved to continue to fight.

Xanthippus, a Spartan mercenary, was hired to reorganize and train the army—which confronted the Romans with nearly one-hundred elephants at the Battle of the Bagradas River in 255 BC. Drawn in a single line in front of the Carthaginian forces, the Romans were pushed back. "Trodden under foot by the strength of the animals....the greater number were trampled to death by the vast weight of the elephants" (I.34.5, 7). Regulus himself was captured and all but two thousand Romans killed. The Roman fleet, which had returned to evacuate those survivors who had retreated to Aspis, was caught as well that July "by so fierce a storm and so terrible a disaster that it is difficult adequately to describe it" (I.37.1). Of 364 ships, only 80 were saved, a hard lesson for the Romans, whose unwarranted daring "makes them think they can sail and travel where they will at no matter what season" (I.37.10). Hearing of the destruction, the jubilant Carthaginians immediately sent a force to Sicily with 140 elephants (I.38.2).

But there they were defeated by Caecilius Metellus in 250 BC at the Battle of Panormus (Palermo), the wounded elephants having "turned on their own troops, trampling down and killing the men and disturbing and breaking the ranks" (I.40.13). The surviving animals were rafted to Italy, where all of them were displayed in the Circus Maximus. There, they were driven around the arena, goaded by men with blunted spears "for the purpose of increasing the feeling of contempt towards them" and then slaughtered with javelins simply because "it was not known what use to make of them" (Pliny, VIII.vi.17).

Pliny says that 142 (or 140 "by some accounts") had been transported; Seneca (On the Shortness of Life, XIII,8) and Livy (XIX.1) that 120 were displayed, after they had been paraded in a triumph; Florus (I.18.28) "about a hundred"; and Diodorus Siculus (XXIII.21), 60. Whatever their number, the debasement and death of the elephants in Rome signified the figurative treatment of the Carthaginians themselves—who, in turn, tried to maintain the elephant's mystique. Pliny tells of a Roman soldier being forced by Hannibal to fight against an elephant in exchange for his freedom. When, improbably, he killed it in the arena, the freed man was murdered in turn when it was realized that "reports of this encounter would bring the animals into contempt" (VIII.vii.18).

Hannibal was Rome's other great enemy and famously had used elephants when he crossed the Alps with thirty-seven of them and defeated the Romans at Trebia in 218 BC, again panicking the horses with their strange appearance and unfamiliar smell but also being being thwarted by being struck under their tails (Polybius, III.42.11; Appian, War Against Hannibal, I.4; Livy, The History of Rome, XXI.55.7). Had not a wounded animal again thrown the others into confusion, the Roman losses would have been even greater (Zonaras, VIII.13, who relates that the soldiers fought from towers on the backs of the elephants, which likely were a smaller forest subspecies of the African elephant).

Only one elephant survived this campaign, Surus ("The Syrian," presumably an Indian elephant), ridden by Hannibal himself and regarded as the bravest in battle but which had a broken tusk (Pliny, VIII.v.11, preserving a fragment from Cato). Ennius, one of the earliest Roman poets, makes a play on words when he says in another fragment that "one Syrian to carry a stake, still he could defend" (Annals, 484). Here, there is a pun on the Latin sūrus (stake), which were carried by legionaries to construct defensive palisades when encamped, with Surus (Syrian), which had its own "stake" to defend the Carthaginians. (Or it is possible that "Stake" simply was a Roman nickname for the elephant.) Such was the fascination with Surus that, in 191 BC, the Roman playwright Plautus has the very mention of the animal freezes the heart in fear (Pseudolus, IV.7, line 1215).


In 153 BC, ten elephants provided by the king of Numidia were used by the Romans themselves in besieging Numantia in Spain. The Celtiberian defenders, who never had seen such creatures before, were amazed and fled on their terrified horses. But then, as the Romans advanced upon against the city walls "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" (Appian, The Wars in Spain, IX.46). Pliny agrees that, when wounded and panicked, elephants in war "become no less formidable for the destruction which they deal to their own side, than to their opponents" (VIII.ix.27).

Nevertheless, the Romans primarily used elephants for spectacle. The first actually to fight in the Circus was in 99 BC; twenty years later, an elephant fought against bulls (VIII.vi.19). By such displays, the Romans were able to demonstrated their dominance over nature. Because of its symbolic significance as both a threat to human security (its wild and alien nature) and an agent of military opposition (employed against Rome by its enemies), captured elephants often was tormented and tortured. Even the antics of a trained elephant, whether pulling a chariot or walking a tightrope (Pliny, VIII.ii.1), were intended to humiliate it.


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).

Pliny records the same poignant event (VIII.vii.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,

"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" (XIII).

The elephants, writes 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.


Almost a decade would pass before the next great spectacle involving elephants took place—at Caesar's triumphs in 46 BC. Dio relates that elephants carried torches as he processed to his newly constructed forum (XLIII.22.1). Later, there was "even a fight between men seated on elephants, forty in number (XLIII.23.3). Appian, too, speaks of the combat: twenty on a side (The Civil Wars, II.102). Suetonius has Caesar flanked by forty elephants, each carrying lamps (Life of Julius Caesar, XXXVII.2) and, in the Circus Maximus, the turning posts being removed and, in their place, two camps situated, with opposing armies of five-hundred soldiers, twenty elephants, and thirty horsemen on a side (XXXIX.3). Pliny says, rather, that twenty elephants fought against five hundred soldiers and, on another occasion, that twenty elephants carrying towers, each defended by sixty men, were opposed by the same number of foot soldiers and an equal number of horsemen (VIII.vii.22). He goes on to say that, during the reigns of Claudius and Nero, single-handed combat against an elephant was the consummating exploit of the gladiator.

These seem to have some of the last contests for which there are any specific details, although coins issued by Antoninus Pius in AD 149 celebrating his decennial the year before show an elephant on the reverse. And Commodus was said to have killed elephants with his own hand (Historia Augusta: Life of Commodus, XII.12), Dio mentioning two on as many days (LXXIII.x.3). Although elephants continued to be mentioned in passing, there was less and less to say about them.


Pliny relates that the slightest sound of a grunting pig frightens an elephant (VIII.ix.27). A more disturbing story is recounted by Polyaenus, who dedicated his Stratagems of War to Lucius Verus and Marcus Aurelius, who were about to set out against the Parthians in AD 163. When Antigonus II besieged Megara in 266 BC, his elephants were confronted with pigs that had been covered in pitch and then set afire. Grunting and shrieking, they raced away from their tormenters toward the frightened animals, which broke ranks and ran off in confusion. Consequently, pigs were kept with young elephants as they were trained to accustom them to the sound and so lessen their innate fear of them (IV.6.3). Aelian repeats the story, adding that this preternatural fear is "either because Elephants by some instinct hate and loathe pigs, or because they dread the shrill and discordant sound of their voices" (On the Characteristics of Animals, XVI.36). It was said, too, that squealing pigs (and horned rams) were how the Romans put to flight the elephants of Pyrrhus in 275 BC (I.38). As late as the sixth century, Procopius tells how an elephant, approached the wall of a besieged town, looming over to batter it, only to have a squealing pig thrust in its face, which panicked the beast (History of the Wars, VIII.xiv.35–37).


There were more murderous ways to dispatch an elephant, however, than to frighten it with a pigas 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."


The cognomen of Manius Curius Dentatus, who fought Pyrrhus at the Battle of Beneventum, was given because he had been born with teeth (Pliny, VII.xvi.68). Curiously, Pyrrhus himself was said to have had no teeth in his upper jaw, having been born with only a bony ridge "on which the usual intervals between the teeth were indicated by slight depressions" (Plutarch, III.4).


A Pyrrhic victory, in which victory is attained at such cost as to be tantamount to defeat, derives from Pyrrhus, who lamented after the Battle of Asculum that "'If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined'" (Plutarch, XXI.9). Originally, however, such an outcome was called a "Cadmean victory," signifying that "the victors suffer misfortune, while the defeated are not endangered because of the magnitude of their dominion" (Diodorus Siculus, XXII.6.1). This phrase derives from Cadmus, the legendary founder of Thebes, whose men had been sent to fetch water from a spring but were killed by the dragon (a son of Ares, the god of war) that guarded it. Cadmus slew the monster in turn, sowing the ground with its teeth, from which grew the Sparti ("sown"), ancestors of the Thebans (Apollodorus, The Library, III.4.1; Hyginus, Fables, §178; Pausanias, Description of Greece, IX.5.3). According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term first appeared in English in 1603, no doubt because Philemon Holland was the first to translate Plutarch's Moralia. Curiously, "Pyrrhic victory" is not recorded in English until 1885.


The mosaic is in The National Bardo Museum (Tunisia).


References: The Elephant in the Greek and Roman World (1974) by H. H. Scullard; Cicero: Letters to Friends (2001) translated by D. R. Shackleton Bailey (Loeb Classical Library): Mosaics of Roman Africa: Floor Mosaics from Tunisia (1996) by Michèle Blanchard-Lemée, Mongi Ennaïfer, Hédi Slim, and Latifa Slim; Seneca: Moral Essays(1932) translated by John W. Basore (Loeb Classical Library); "Elephants as Enemies in Ancient Rome" (2008) by Jo-Ann Shelton, Concentric: Literary and Cultural Studies, 32(1), 3-25; "Carthage and the Indian Elephant" (2014) by Michael B. Charles, L'Antiquité Classique, 83, 115-127; "'Magister Elephantorvm': A Reappraisal of Hannibal's Use of Elephants" (2007) by Michael B. Charles and Peter Rhodan, The Classical World, 100(4), 363-389.

See also the bestiary elephant.

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