Elephants and Ancient Rome

Elephants and the Romans

A Carving of Pliny the Elder, the Roman author who believed Elephants could inspire us to be kinder to one another

It seems that even in Ancient Rome the elephant was already held in high esteem by writers and scholars.  The Roman author and naval commander, Gaius Plinius Secundus – known as Pliny the Elder – wrote enthusiastically about elephants in his major treatise on natural history “Naturalis Historia”, which was one of the largest single works to have survived from the Roman Empire to the modern day. The first 10 books of the treatise were published in AD 77, the year before Pliny died during the eruption of Vesuvius. His son published the remaining work posthumously.

Pliny the Elder thought that elephants were the closest of all animals to humans in intelligence; he wrote that they understand the language of their own country; that they are wise and just, they remember their duties, enjoy affection, and respect religion.

It’s likely that Pliny never actually saw an elephant because he also got plenty of facts wrong: for example, elephants are frightened by mice, they live for 300 years and they have no knees. But he did stress their virtues, which he described as “rare even in man: honesty, wisdom, justice”. He also made the inspiring comment that if man can respond with kindness to animals he can fight his greatest vice – man’s cruelty to man.

[Click on photos below to enlarge.  Main photo courtesy of Wikkimedia]