Elephants as Enemies in Ancient Rome
By Jo-Ann Shelton
Concentric: Literary and Cultural Studies, Vol. 32.1 (2006)
Abstract: The ancient Romans enjoyed watching spectacles in which elephants were tormented or killed because these animals had been endowed with symbolic significance. They were identified as agents both of a hostile nature which threatened human security, and of the human military opponents which had challenged the Romans in the third century BCE. The purpose of this paper is to explore the identification which the Romans made between elephants and enemies and to propose that this identification caused them to view elephants as a particularly satisfying target for abuse. I will examine how ancient writers reflected, fostered and exploited the association of elephants with adversaries, and I will discuss how the ability to dominate elephants in an arena spectacle symbolized Rome’s ability to conquer, to civilize, and to bend both the natural and political worlds to its will.
Introduction: Throughout our history as agriculturalists and pastoralists, humans have divided animals into two categories: domesticated species, which we have valued because their easy management and dependably docile natures have enabled us to exploit them for food, clothing, labor, and companionship; and wild species, which we have been eager to exterminate because they consumed our food supplies, threatened our lives, or occupied land that we wanted to inhabit. Designation as a domesticated species has not guaranteed humane treatment for an animal, but it has brought food, shelter, protection from predators, and encouragement to reproduce. Designation as a wild species, on the other hand, has made an animal a target for annihilation. With our anthropocentric vision, we have imagined and depicted the survival behavior of wild animals as being hostile or adversarial to us. In many cases, we have demonized wild species and portrayed them as consciously plotting our destruction, even as, ironically, we were plotting theirs. The big, bad wolf of Western folk tales, which cunningly lured children into deadly traps, was a beast created by human minds that attributed human-like malice and treachery to an animal. In turn, our construction of the wolf as evil made us even more determined to eradicate it. Wild animals have been feared and loathed because they remained beyond our control and because we could therefore not predict how they would behave. We have consequently been ruthless and relentless in our quest to destroy them. Of course, in today’s highly urbanized and industrialized societies, we have now begun to view wild animals’ independence from us as a positive thing. Wolves, lions, tigers, whales, eagles—these species have become, at least among urban dwellers, symbols of a natural world that is free of human contamination. And certainly it is easy to imagine and then cherish these animals as symbols of freedom because their activities no longer pose a risk to those of us who live in cities. Moreover our human activities have reduced the populations of many wild species to a number so small that we can, in fact, “manage” them. For most of our history, however, we have perceived wild animals as enemies