Peter Jones

Pliny on the joy of elephants

Pliny on the animal ‘closest to man in disposition’

In order to deter poachers, hundreds of tons of elephants’ tusks are being incinerated in Kenya. But even for Romans, elephants were special: of all the animals cruelly slaughtered in the Roman arena, it was only the elephants that, on one occasion, moved the crowd to pity when they were put up against 20 armed gladiators.

In Book 7 of his encyclopaedic 37-book Natural History, Pliny the Elder (killed in the explosion of Vesuvius in AD 79) turns from describing the physical world to the animal world and, first and foremost, man. His account is by no means an encomium — of all creatures, Pliny remarks, none ever shows more cruelty to its own species than humans. Then in Book 8 he turns to the rest of the animal kingdom, starting with the animal ‘closest to man in disposition’. Which might that be? Yes, the elephant.

Not only does it understand the language of its own country, obey orders, remember duties it has been taught, and show pleasure at affection and marks of honour, but Pliny also affirms that it possesses virtues ‘rare even in man: honesty, wisdom, justice, respect for the stars and reverence for the sun and moon’. Elephants, he says, can walk on tightropes, and pick their away among guests at a party to take their place without spilling anyone’s drink. One even learned Greek.

Furthermore, they know how valuable their tusks are, and bury them when one falls off. When a herd is surrounded by poachers, they post those with the smallest tusks to the front to show that the herd is not worth the effort. Elephants have a sense of shame; they are modest, mating in secret; they do not commit adultery or fight over females; they are naturally gentle, moving sheep out of the way if they find themselves in a flock; and so on.

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