c. 200 | Rome

Dancing Elephants

Aelian observes a Roman spectacle.

Elephants love music, have a willingness to obey commands and a remarkable ability to learn things that are difficult even for humans to master. Moving in a chorus, dancing, marching in time, telling different notes apart, knowing when to change pace, enjoying the song of a flute—these are all things an elephant knows how to do, and can do without making a single error. Nature has made the elephant the largest of all creatures, but this learning has made the elephant gentle and harmless. Now, if I had started to write about the elephants of India or Libya or Ethiopia, you might have accused me of making up some self-serving story, but I hunt for knowledge and love the truth, and because of that I have taken pains to say only what I have observed about them at zoos in Rome.

Here are some facts. Germanicus Caesar, the nephew of the emperor Tiberius, once put on a show. There were several adult male and female elephants in Rome at the time, and from them were born offspring; and when their limbs began to gain strength, a man came up to train them, teaching them in a quiet but firm voice to mind his instructions and then giving them all kinds of delicious treats, thus persuading them to give up their wildness and become tame—really, more like a human than an elephant. What they learned was not to go crazy at the sound of flutes or the beating of drums, and to be calm around the sound of marching feet and even off-key notes, and not to fear large groups of humans. Their training was human too, in that they learned not to react in rage to a blow or to respond in anger when ordered to dance or at least to sway in time to a song. To behave with equanimity is the sign of inborn nobility in humans. Anyway, this master taught the elephants to be gentle, and they did just as he taught them, making the money spent on their education a good bargain. The elephant troupe numbered twelve, and they came into the theater on the left and right sides in two groups, mincing, swaying gently, dressed in dancers’ flowing robes. They formed a line when the instructor told them to, and formed a circle, and moved offstage on command. They even sprinkled flowers on the stage floor, dancing a really wonderful rhythmic dance.

Happiness is a warm puppy.

—Charles Schulz, 1971

What followed, however, was even more spectacular. On the theater’s sand floor low couches had been set up, covered with fine pillows and fabrics that spoke to great wealth. Nearby were set gold and silver bowls full of water, and beside them lemonwood and ivory tables piled high with meat and bread and other foods. The elephants came back in, the males garbed in male clothing, the females in female raiment, and they paired off and sat down. On a signal, they ate with great delicacy and politeness, using their trunks without the slightest sign of gluttony or greediness. When they wanted to drink, they took in water almost daintily with their noses, spraying some on the attendants in affection, not as a challenge.

I have heard plenty of similar stories that show the astounding intelligence of these creatures. I even saw an elephant writing Roman letters on a tablet with its trunk. True, the instructor was moving the trunk, but the animal was intent at the task and kept a careful eye on the page. If you had seen it, you would have said that the animal had been taught the alphabet.

© 2011, Translated by Gregory McNamee. Used with permission of Trinity University Press.

Contributor

Aelian

From On the Nature of Animals. The Roman author and teacher of rhetoric earned the epithet “Honey-tongued” because he spoke and wrote Greek so fluently. In addition to his encyclopedic work on animals, Aelian published Indictment of the Effeminate, an attack on the recently deceased emperor Elagabalus, and Rustic Letters, a compilation of twenty missives about Attic country life. Of bees he wrote that they “dislike foul odors and sweet perfume alike, just as modest young girls do.”