Ancient Britons Killing Roman Elephants? June 15, 2010Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient , trackback
In 43 AD, the Romans finally – after decades of flip-flopping – decide to conquer Britain. The British-Celtic tribes in the island would, however, be confronted not only by a professional Roman army that was about 50,000 strong. The Romans decided to also bring some war elephants along for the ride. Beachcombing has always wanted to know what on earth the Britons did when they saw these frightening and unfamiliar creatures.
Cassius Dio, our main source for the invasion tells how, 60.21, the elephants came to the island in the second stage of the campaign. The Roman commander Aulus Plautius had halted his troops after fording the Thames and had then sent for the Emperor Claudius. And it was Claudius who arrived with ‘extensive equipment’, ‘including elephants’ to finish off the Britons of the south. The elephants in Britain may have even been part of the Emperor’s order of battle: there is certainly something characteristically Claudian about their presence – academically perverse (they fit well into this blog), sadistic, potentially silly…
Unfortunately, Cassius Dio does not tell us how the natives reacted to an animal – these would have been African forest or Asian elephants, animals that the Britons must have either equated to a very large cow or a land whale. Indeed, the only written record we have of an ancient British reaction to the elephant comes in the work of Polyaenus (fl. 2nd century AD), 8, 23 who describes a British war party fleeing before a single elephant ‘equipped with armour and carrying archers and slingers in its tower’. But Polyaenus had an unreliable source as he wrongly credits Caesar with bringing said elephant to the island. (Beachcombing can well believe that Caesar would have been up to such a trick, but Beachcombing cannot believe that the boastful general would have forgotten to mention it in his memoirs of the British campaigns.)
So did the British Celts run? For about half an hour this afternoon Beachcombing thought he had come across some evidence that, at least on one occasion, the British held their ground and took one of the thick-skinned bastards down. We quote from a letter written in 1715 by the antiquarian John Bagford to Thomas Hearne: read by Beachcombing in Notes and Queries 1 (1886), pp. 1-2.
‘And here I cannot forget to mention the honest Industry of my old Friend Mr. John Conyers, an Apothecary formerly living in Fleet-Street, who made it his chief Business to make curious Observations, and to collect such Antiquities as were daily found in and about London… ‘Tis this very Gentleman that discovered the Body of an Elephant, as he was digging for Gravel in a Field near to the sign of Sir John Old-Castle in the Fields, not far from Battlebridge, and near to the River of Wells, which tho’ now dryed up was a considerable River in the time of the Romans. How this Elephant came there is the Question. I know some will have it to have layn there ever since the Universal Deluge. For my own part I take it to have been brought over with many others by the Romans in the Reign of Claudius the Emperour, and conjecture (for a liberty of guessing may be indulged to me as well as to others that maintain different Hypotheses) that it was killed in some Fight by a Britain. For not far from the Place where it was found, a British Weapon made of a Flint Lance like unto the Head of a Spear, fastned into a Shaft of a good Length, which was a Weapon very common amongst the Ancient Britains, was also dug up, they having not at that time the use of Iron or Brass, as the Romans had. This conjecture, perhaps, may seem odd to some ; but I am satisfied my self, having often viewed this Flint Weapon, which was once in the Possession of that Generous Patron of Learning, the Reverend and very Worthy Dr. Charlett, Master of University College, and is now preserved amongst the curious Collections of Mr. John Kemp… This discovery was made in the presence of the foresaid Mr. Conyers, and I remember that formerly many such bones were shown for Giants-Bones, particularly one in the Church of Aldermanbury which was hung in a Chain on a Pillar of the Church; and such another was kept in St. Laurence’s Church, much of the same Bigness.’
A dim recollection then of a Cockney Eleazar, the Jewish Zealot who killed a Persian elephant by charging under it and pushing a spear into its belly? Beachcombing knew in his heart that the theory was too good to be true. And this was confirmed once he saw that ‘flint lance’ was actually a Stone Age axe, the kind that were employed a couple of thousand of years before the Romans were even dreamt of. The ‘elephant’ was presumably one of the last British mammoths.
So how did the Britons deal with those ghastly Roman monsters from afar. Well, Beachcombing suspects that Polyaenus was as close to the truth as we are likely to get: the British-Celts watched the piles of tusked blubber paddling horribly towards them across an Essex river and then sensibly fled for the hills…
Any other evidence about Roman elephants use in northern Europe in antiquity – especially archaeological evidence – would be gratefully received. Beachcombing has repeatedly drawn a blank here [drbeachcombingATyahooDOTcom].