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Amazing information about elephants from Romans

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Roman mosaic depicting the scene of an elephant being boarded or unloaded
Roman mosaic depicting the scene of an elephant being boarded or unloaded

Thanks to the preserved work of Pliny the Elder – “Natural history” – we get to know many interesting observations that people had in ancient times regarding many animals. A great example of “unusual” behaviour is information about elephants.

In book eight, Pliny focuses on land animals. He chose elephants for a reason, because from time immemorial people have respected these animals for their size and intelligence. Pliny reports that on one occasion an elephant was unable to properly follow the trainer’s commands, for which he was regularly beaten. The animal was so aware of the mistake that it began to train itself at night, which was observed by humans.

Pliny also reports that, according to the three-time consul Mutianus, one of the elephants was intelligent enough to learn to write Greek; apparently he could write: “I have myself written these words, and have dedicated the Celtic spoils”.

Another curiosity that Pliny left us about the elephants is the fact that the animals were frightened when they descended from the ship on the platform, realizing the distance between the land and the ship. The presented mosaic may in fact show not the process of bringing animals onto the ship but bringing them ashore1. The animals going backwards did not panic, and the visible men on the left could additionally prevent them from returning to the ship.

  1. William Epplett, Animal spectacula of the Roman Empire
  • Pliny the Elder, Natural history, VIII.3

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