As part of the far too random reading I’ve been doing for my dissertation I stumbled on a fascinating detail of ancient history: apparently* elephants took part in the siege of Colchester in AD43. Somewhere outside the town, the Roman Army were kicking their heels, unable to get on with taking Colchester until the main man, the Emperor Claudius rocked up, and then, with elephants, the town was taken and Emperor Claudius went off back to Rome to collect his triumph, leaving the Roman Army to continue the invasion. Nothing further is said about the elephants.
Perhaps the elephants should be considered merely an enlivening detail that makes entertaining an otherwise serious yarn about the Roman conquest, a detail that historians perhaps ought to scorn as frivolously popular in a discipline which must be dull to be worthwhile. But why? I am intrigued. Elephants. In Colchester. How utterly unlikely. I imagine them, unhappy monsters brought from hot climes far away to a bloody end in Britain. But questions tumble at random through my head. Which ‘hot climes’? How were they brought – did they come mostly by sea or by land, and by which route? Did they march North through Africa and progress up through the Italian provinces, or wind their way along the trade routes from the East? Were they a spectacle meant on the way to impress Romans and conquered peoples alike, these powerful beasts a symbol of imperial power, a display like the wild beast shows at Rome? Did they need expert keepers, slaves perhaps, to accompany them and make sure they survived until they were needed? Did they get seasick, even? And what happened afterwards? Were there survivors, simply shipped back to Rome to end their days in an arena – not the Colosseum for sure, as that was built later, but in the type of shows for which the Colosseum was needed? Was there even more than one elephant? Or perhaps just the one, a diva with a whole entourage anxious for its survival until the battle and depending on it.
So many questions to try to answer, even if many claims about the elephants have been overtrumpeted. I thought it might be too much to hope for that we may dig up elephant bones near Colchester, but yet. And perhaps we could look at the rubbish heaps near Rome, where the bones of exotic animals might help say which type of elephants were used in shows at that time. They must have been kept somewhere, in one of the marching camps and what about the ships. If there really were elephants, perhaps there were not, Cassius Dio wrote much later. But why say so then? Someone or something must have suggested to him that here be elephants.
And the questions go on and on unanswered, a skein of questions glistening in in the dark, a lead that can take us deeper into the unknowable labyrinth of our past. Entertaining perhaps, but there seems nothing frivolous seeking real answers to tell a true story about Colchester’s elephants.
*According to Cassius Dio