Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Lamentation of Elephants

Ancient historians tell this sad story about the twenty or so elephants used in a Roman spectacle In 55 BC, when Pompey dedicated his theatre.  Animals had been rounded up from all over Africa and brought to Rome for a staged hunt and slaughter.  We unexpectedly find that, despite this unprecedented slaughter and barbarism, it was the doomed elephant's pleas for mercy that moved the Roman people.
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"

When the elephants in the exhibition given by Pompeius had lost all hopes of escaping, they implored the compassion of the multitude by attitudes which surpass all description, and with a kind of lamentation bewailed their unhappy fate. So greatly were the people affected by the scene, that, forgetting the general altogether, and the munificence which had been at such pains to do them honor, the whole assembly rose up in tears, and showered curses on Pompeius, of which he soon afterwards became the victim.
Pliny the Elder, "Combats of Elephants," chap. 7 in Nature of Terrestrial Animals Book 8 of The Natural History
"The elephants 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" (Cassius Dio XXXIX.38).


  1. That deserves an 'interesting' check!

  2. I thought it was.. It is rare that you see such a sideline event covered by three different historians.

  3. Not only interesting but incredibly moving


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