History of elephants in Europe

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A Romanesque painting of a war elephant. Spain, 11th century.
The Cremona elephant as depicted in the Chronica maiora, Part II, Parker Library, MS 16, fol. 151v
Sketch of Hanno and mahout, after Raphael, c. 1514.

The history of elephants in Europe dates back to the time of the Roman Empire, but previously, during the Ice Age, relatives of elephants inhabited areas across Asia and Europe, such as mammoths (proboscideans related to elephants) which roamed the northern parts of the Earth, from Europe to North America. There was also the dwarf elephant of Cyprus (Cyprus dwarf elephant), Sicily-Malta (Palaeoloxodon falconeri) and mainland Europe (Palaeoloxodon antiquus). However, these became extinct several thousand years ago, and subsequently the presence of actual elephants in Europe was only due to importation of these animals.


Europeans came in contact with live elephants in 327 BC, when Alexander the Great descended into India from the Hindu Kush, but Alexander was quick to adopt them. Four elephants guarded his tent, and shortly after his death his associate Ptolemy issued coins showing Alexander in the elephant headdress that became a royal emblem also in the Hellenized East. Aristotle depended on first-hand information for his account of elephants, but like most Westerners he believed the animals live for two hundred years. Roman scouts in the royal Syrian parks shortly before the last of the Seleucids fell to Rome had orders to hamstring every elephant they could capture, and while elephants performed in the circuses of Rome, Shapur's war elephants in the mid-4th century numbered in the hundreds (Fox 1973 p 338).

Elephants largely disappeared from Europe after the Roman Empire. As exotic and expensive animals, they were exchanged as presents between European rulers, who exhibited them as luxury pets, beginning with Harun ar-Rashid's gift of an elephant to Charlemagne.


Historical accounts of elephants in Europe include:


  1. ^ Contemporary accounts report a significantly higher number of elephants: Pliny the Elder records 142 "or, as some say", 140; in the Epitome of Livy and by Seneca, the number is 120; Florus says that they were "about a hundred".[1]
  1. ^ "Pliny the Elder, The Natural History, BOOK VIII. THE NATURE OF THE TERRESTRIAL ANIMALS., CHAP. 6. (6.) —WHEN ELEPHANTS WERE FIRST SEEN IN ITALY". www.perseus.tufts.edu.
  2. ^ Lane Fox, Robin (1973). Alexander the Great. Penguin. p. 339. ISBN 9780140088786. The most notable elephant in Greek history, called Victor, had long served in Pyrrhus's army, but on seeing its mahout dead before the city walls, it rushed to retrieve him: hoisting him defiantly on his tusks, it took wild and indiscriminate revenge for the man it loved, trampling more of its supporters than its enemies in the process.
  3. ^ Lister, Adrian; Bahn, Paul G. Mammoths: Giants of the Ice Age. p. 116.
  • Saurer, Karl and Elena M.Hinshaw-Fischli. They Called him Suleyman: The Adventurous Journey of an Elephant from the Forests of Kerala to the Capital of Vienna in the middle of the sixteenth Century, collected in Maritime Malabar and The Europeans, edited by K. S. Mathew, Hope India Publications: Gurgaon, 2003 ISBN 81-7871-029-3
  • Robin Lane Fox, 1974. Alexander the Great. Chapter 24 contains an excursus on Alexander and the elephant in Europe,
  • The Story of Süleyman. Celebrity Elephants and other exotica in Renaissance Portugal, Annemarie Jordan Gschwend, Zurich, Switzerland, 2010, ISBN 978-1-61658-821-2
  • Scullard, Howard Hayes (1974). The Elephant in the Greek and Roman World. London: Thames and Hudson. ISBN 0-500-40025-3.

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