First Elephant in Britain?

Lisa the Iconoclast
Image via Wikipedia

As I dig deeper into my pile of things I’ve marked with little purple question marks, I find an interesting item I first came across toward the end of May. Something called the Londonist had a feature called An Historic London Elephant Parade which included this in its timeline:

43 AD: Emperor Claudius brings the first recorded elephant to England during the Roman conquest. It journeys to Colchester but would have probably passed through the London area.

I thought it was interesting, and checked what Wikipedia had to say:

The first historically recorded elephant in northern Europe was the animal brought by emperor Claudius, during the Roman invasion of Britain in AD 43, to the British capital of Colchester. At least one elephant skeleton with flint weapons that has been found in England was initially misidentified as this elephant, but later dating proved it to be a mammoth skeleton from the stone age.[1]

Now one expects touristy type sites to take this to some extreme, e.g.:

Visit Colchester, Britain’s oldest recorded town and soak up its history. Discover the secrets of William the Conqueror’s impressive castle, which lay hidden for centuries. Walk through the Roman streets where Emperor Claudius once rode triumphantly in on an elephant.

But let’s see what the pros do … the Colchester Castle Museum includes this on their FAQ page:

6. Did Claudius really bring elephants with him when he invaded?

Yes he did, we are told that elephants were involved in his triumphal entry into Colchester or Camulodunum as it was called. Imagine being a Briton and watching those enormous animals marching past you.

Okay … we’ve gone from bringing elephants to having a ‘triumphal entry’. The Time Team folks echo something that is seen on several other sites, however:

Colchester is the oldest garrison town in Britain, the site of the most famous event during the Roman invasion, where Claudius rode in on the back of an elephant.

Similiter, the Colchester Archaeological Trust:

Fund-raising events in the pipeline include a reception at the Mayor’s Parlour, and Mrs Bailey said she would also like to recreate Claudius’ entrance to Colchester with elephants in an effort to raise awareness of the campaign.

So we’ve gone from Claudius being the first to bring elephants to Britain, to him including them in some ‘triumphal’ procession, to him — despite his famous disabilities — actually riding into Colchester on one.

Now here’s what I don’t get … as far as I’m aware, the ONLY statement about Claudius bringing elephants in his invasion of Britain comes from Cassius Dio 60.21 (via Lacus Curtius):

Shortly afterwards Togodumnus perished, but the Britons, so far from yielding, united all the more firmly to avenge his death. Because of this fact and because of the difficulties he had encountered at the Thames, Plautius became afraid, and instead of advancing any farther, proceeded to guard what he had already won, and sent for Claudius. For he had been instructed to do this in case he met with any particularly stubborn resistance, and, in fact, extensive equipment, including elephants, had already been got together for the expedition.

That’s all that is said about Claudius’ elephant(s), as far as I’m aware and it has clearly been witness to some ‘expansion’. But even the claims about this being the ‘first’ seem to be challengeable … In Polyaenus’ Stratagems 8.23.5 we read (via Attalus):

When Caesar’s passage over a large river in Britain was disputed by the British king Cassivellaunus, at the head of a strong body of cavalry and a great number of chariots, he ordered an elephant, an animal till then unknown to the Britons, to enter the river first, mailed in scales of iron, with a tower on its back, on which archers and slingers were stationed. If the Britons were terrified at so extraordinary a spectacle, what shall I say of their horses? Amongst the Greeks, the horses fly at the sight of an unarmed elephant; but armoured, and with a tower on its back, from which missiles and stones are continually hurled, it is a sight too formidable to be borne. The Britons accordingly with their cavalry and chariots abandoned themselves to flight, leaving the Romans to pass the river unmolested, after the enemy had been routed by the appearance of a single beast.

Polyaenus was writing during the time of Marcus Aurelius … Cassius Dio was writing in the first couple of decades of the third century. Both were very far removed from their subject matter, so you can take either claim with as many grains of salt that you care to. And just in case you were curious about ‘elephant fossils’ mentioned in the Wikipedia article, one of the (many) references to same that I came across was in The Monthly Review from May-August of 1826:

Now normally I’d put this sort of thing — especially considering the ongoing campaign to raise awareness of Colchester Roman Circus — in the same category as Lisa Simpson (in Lisa the Iconoclast) eventually put the Jebediah Springfield/Hans Sprungfeld revelation that the ‘myth brought out the good in everyone’, but since the folks in Colchester seem themselves to have been angry at the British Museum for suggesting no Roman circus had ever been found in Britain, I’m not so charitable … come on … elephants in the invasion are amazing enough; no need to claim priority (especially when there is competing evidence of equal weight) nor force us to imagine the physically disabled Claudius somehow getting up on the back of a pachyderm …

4 thoughts on “First Elephant in Britain?

  1. Claudius probably rode into Colchester in a chariot pulled by horses, or exotic animals like camels or elephants.
    But why doubt that he could have ridden on an elephant: “nor force us to imagine the physically disabled Claudius somehow getting up on the back of a pachyderm …”
    I thought that Claudius was lame, not as disabled as FDR.
    When Caligula was assassinated Claudius was fund hiding behind a curtain in an upper story of the palace, where he had probably walked up one or more flights of stars to get to.
    When gladiators refused to fight Claudius supposedly went down in the arena and limped around beating them with his cane and ordering them to fight.
    If being less than perfectly fit made it impossible to get on an elephant’s back, how did thousands of small children get on Jumbo’s back to ride him?
    If being less than perfectly fit made it impossible to get on an elephant’s back, how did elderly, sick, injured, obese, or otherwise unfit maharajahs get on elephants’ backs for processions?
    If being less than perfectly fit made it impossible to get on an elephant’s back, how did DEAD maharajahs get on elephants’ backs for funeral processions?
    And even if Claudius was as disabled as FDR, it would be simple to have his elephant kneel, bring Claudius in a litter beside the elephant, raise up the litter to the level of his seat on the elephant’s back, and have someone pull Claudius over onto his seat on the elephant.

  2. First elephant in Britain? I’ve just done a story for the Guardian on the recreation of some fossil bones stolen from Joint Mitnor cave in Devon, including straight tusk elephant bones from roughly 120,000 BC…

  3. We have a large tooth ploughed up in Aythorpe Roding near Gt Dunmow not sure if it is an Elephant or a Mammoth tooth. We have sent info to The Natural History Museum for their comments and advice

    Wyn Jones

  4. It was difficult enough to get men and horses across the channel. Getting a frightened elephant across 5 hours of rough water in a relatively small boat just beggars belief.

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