Ptolemaic Polar Bear?

Taxidermied polar bear head
Image via Wikipedia

Deep in my ‘to blog’ file is an item clipped from the Telegraph, inter alia:

Polar bears have been kept in menageries for millennia. The Egyptian king Ptolemy II kept one in Alexandria in the third century bc.

To which I naturally responded, “Whaaaaaaa?” … some poking around, though, found the source: Athenaeus’ Deipnosophistae. Here’s the relevant section in translation (via Lacus Curtius 5.201 … not really sure how refs to Athenaeus work):

After he has spoken of very many other things, and enumerated many droves of animals he adds: “One hundred and thirty Aethiopian sheep, Cthree hundred Arabian, twenty Euboean; also twenty-six Indian zebus entirely white, eight Aethiopian, one large white (51) she-bear, fourteen leopards, sixteen genets, four caracals, three bear-cubs, one giraffe, one Aethiopian rhinoceros. Next in a four-wheeled cart was Dionysus at the altar of Rhea, having found refuge there while being pursued by Hera; he had on a gold crown, and Priapus stood at his side, with a gold ivy-crown.

In the note referenced there, the Loeb editors suggested a polar bear or albino syrian bear. The Greek (also via Lacus Curtius) simply says:

ἄρκτος λευκὴ μεγάλη μία

i.e., one large, white (female) bear.

Could it have been a polar bear? Perhaps … plenty of sites on the web which talk about polar bears seem to think so. Some even go so far as to have the white bear leading a phallic procession involving a 55 metre long gilded phallus (copressing this section of Athenaeus big time). Another possible polar bear mention is in Calpurnius Siculus’ seventh Eclogue, which describes (inter alia) some wild-beast-hunt-type activities in some amphitheatre … here’s lines 57-72 (Lacus Curtius):

ordine quid referam? vidi genus omne ferarum,
hic niveos lepores et non sine cornibus apros.
hic raram silvis etiam, quibus editur, alcen.
vidimus et tauros, quibus aut cervice levata
deformis scapulis torus eminet aut quibus hirtae
iactantur per colla iubae, quibus aspera mento
barba iacet tremulique rigent palearia setis.
nec solum nobis silvestria cernere monstra
contigit: aequoreos ego cum certantibus ursis
spectavi vitulos et equorum nomine dictum,
sed deforme pecus, quod in illo nascitur amne
qui sata riparum vernantibus irrigat undis.
a! trepidi, quotiens sola discedentis harenae
vidimus inverti, ruptaque voragine terrae
emersisse feras; et in isdem saepe cavernis
aurea cum subito creverunt arbuta nimbo.

… and a translation from the same source:

Why narrate each sight in order? Beasts of every kind I saw; here I saw snow-white hares and horned boars, here I saw the elk, rare even in the forests which produce it. Bulls too I saw, either those of heightened nape, with an unsightly hump rising from the shoulder-blades, or those with shaggy mane tossed across the neck, with rugged beard covering the chin, and quivering bristles upon their stiff dewlaps. Nor was it my lot only to see monsters of the forest: sea calves also I beheld with bears pitted against them and the unshapely herd by the name of horses, bred in that river whose waters, with spring-like renewal, irrigate the crops upon its banks. Oh, how we quaked, whenever we saw the arena part asunder and its soil upturned and beasts plunged out from the chasm cleft in the earth; yet often from those same rifts the golden arbutes sprang amid a sudden fountain spray (of saffron).

I guess the assumption is that the bears fighting the ‘sea cows’ (i.e. seals) must be of the polar variety, even if their colour isn’t specified. First to make the suggestion appears to be George Jennison in his very brief,”Polar Bears at Rome. Calpurnius Siculus, Ecl. VII. 65-6″ Classical Review 35 (1922), 73. Jennison notes there is no evidence of exhibition of “animals from the distant north” in Nero’s (and Calpurnius’) time but that they do become frequent in the time of Gordian I and beyond.

I’m coming up empty on the northern animals from Gordian I and on side of things …

One thought on “Ptolemaic Polar Bear?

  1. I think it rather more likely that these were melanistic brown or black bears. They’re like white lions; not albinos, but white. There’s a population of them in British Columbia today, and they crop up from time to time in other populations. Maybe there was one such in Northern Europe in ancient times, one that probably got hunted to extinction for menageries.

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