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Tragic games of elephants

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Elephant on Roman mosaic
Elephant on Roman mosaic

Elephants were exotic animals that often appeared in the arenas of Roman amphitheatres and circuses. The enormous size and unusual appearance made the Roman crowd loved to watch them.

They first appeared in Rome in 275 BCE, after Roman legions captured several in battles with Pyrrus ; the crowd of Romans then had a chance to see them triumphant.

In 55 BCE one of the greatest games in Rome’s history was held, organized by Pompey the Great. As Plutarch reports, 500 lions were killed then, but it was the fighting and the death of elephants that caused the greatest emotions among the audience. Cicero, who saw the events with his own eyes, described to his friend how elephants were just dying in the arena on the last day. It is said that the crowds expressed sorrow and compassion (misericordia ) over the fate of the “great beasts”, and some even expressed solidarity (societas ).

Pliny the Elder in “Natural History” describes this day in even more detail. Apparently, about 20 elephants were trapped in the arena; the animals, sensing their end, desperately “begged” for grace, raising their trunks to heaven and making terrible sounds. The crowd was so shocked that it even started to curse Pompey.

  • Cicero, ad Familiares,VII.1
  • Pliny the Elder, Natural history, VIII.7.20
  • Plutarch, Pompey, LII.4

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