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The [Not] Cuirassed Elephant

Representations of elephants occur frequently on Roman coins. Romans used elephants in war, in triumphs, in funerals, and in the amphitheater. For Romans, the elephant was a symbol for Africa, for eternity, and for honor.

Julius Caesar, Imperator and Dictator, October 49 - 15 March 44 B.C., silver denarius, Crawford 443/1, Sydenham 1006, RSC I 49, Sear CRI 9, BMCRR Gaul 27, Russo RBW 1557, SRCV I 1399, military mint, traveling with Caesar, 49 B.C.; obverse elephant walking right trampling on a carnyx ornamented to look like a dragon, CAESAR below; reverse implements of the pontificate: culullus (cup) or simpulum (ladle), aspergillum (sprinkler), securis (sacrificial ax), and apex (priest 's hat).

Minted after his invasion of Italy and crossing of the Rubicon on 10 January 49 B.C. until his defeat of Pompey at Pharsalus, this was the first coin type issued in Caesar 's name. Caesar 's elephant is trampling a carnyx (a Celtic war trumpet) and the obverse symbolizes Caesar 's victory over the Celtic tribes of Gaul. Elephants were sometimes used to pull the chariots of the Caesars, in their triumphs or consular processions. When he returned to Rome, Julius Caesar ascended the Capitol illuminated by forty elephants bearing torches.

The ancients believed elephants lived two or even three hundred years. Pliny, quoting Aristotle says, their longevity exceed that of all other animals. For that reason, elephants were employed in the funeral processions of emperors and empresses and on the occasion of their apotheosis. On some consecration issues, the elephant appears either singly, with or without a driver, or in a biga or quadriga pulling a vehicle carrying an image of the deceased.

Despite their symbolism, popularity, and potential longevity, displays of elephants at games typically ended in slaughter.  A letter from Cicero to Marcus Marius described elephants in the games of Pompey held in October 55 B.C., the year of Pompey 's consulship. Cicero personally witnessed the event.

Ad Familiares VII.1.3: "Extremus elephantorum dies fuit: in quo admiratio magna vulgi atque turbae, delectatio nulla exstitit; quin etiam misericordia quaedam consecuta est atque opinio eiusmodi, esse quandam illi beluae cum genere humano societatem."

"The last was the day of the elephants: on which there was great astonishment of the common people and crowd, although no pleasure existed; rather the contrary, a certain sympathy overtook it and a feeling of the kind that there was some link of that beast with humankind."

This story got better in the telling.  Here is Pliny the Elder 's version of the same event written over 120 years later:

Pliny N.H. 8.21: "sed Pompeiani amissa fugae spe misericordiam vulgi inenarrabili habitu quaerentes supplicavere quadam sese lamentatione conplorantes, tanto populi dolore, ut oblitus imperatoris ac munificentiae honori suo exquisitae flens universus consurgeret dirasque Pompeio, quas ille mox luit, inprecaretur."

"But when Pompey 's elephants had lost all hope of escape, they entreated the pity of the crowd by an indescribable sort of behavior, trumpeting their sorrow at their fate, and so upsetting the crowd that, oblivious of General Pompey and the magnificent spectacle he had devised for their honour, they rose as one man with tears in their eyes and showered awful curses on Pompey 's head, curses for which soon afterwards he paid the penalty."  (Translation by David Stockton.)

Roman Republic, Q. Caecilius Metellus Pius Scipio, Imperator 47 - 46 B.C., silver denarius, SRCV I 1379, Sydenham 1046, Crawford 459/1, RSC I Caecilia 47, BMC Africa 1, Vagi 77, Africa, Utica mint, 47 - 46 B.C.; obverse Q. METEL PIVS, laureate head of Jupiter right, beard and hair in ringlets; reverse elephant walking right, SCIPIO above, IMP in exergue.

On denarii of the Caecilia gens, elephants walking, both singly and in a biga are typified to attest victories gained by the Metelli, in Sicily and appear in the center of a shield on other coins of the same family, allusive to the successes of its celebrated members over the Macedonians.

The round ears may indicate the elephant depicted is a North African Forest Elephant. The species is thought to have become extinct around the 1st or 2nd century A.D. If the Romans used them in the Colosseum and other games, it would go some way to explain their extinction around that time. A hippopotamus species from Lower Egypt and a lion species from Mesopotamia are also suspected to have been butchered to extinction in Roman games. The extinct North African Forest Elephant is known to have been smaller than both the modern African Bush and Forest species and to have had more rounded ears. In the still existing species, the lower portion of the ears have a distinctly triangular shape.

Titus, 24 June 79 - 13 September 81 A.D., silver denarius, RIC II-1 115; RSC II 303; BMCRE II 43; BnF III 37; SRCV I 2512, Choice EF, weight 3.339g, maximum diameter 18.2mm, die axis 180o, Rome mint, 80 A.D.; obverse IMP TITVS CAES VESPASIAN AVG P M, laureate head right; reverse TR P IX IMP XV COS VIII P P, elephant standing left.

The fantastic elephant on the reverse boasts of the spectacular grand opening of the Roman Colosseum, which had the capacity to seat 50,000 spectators. Construction, begun by Vespasian c. 72 A.D., was completed by Titus in 80. The spectacular games, held for the dedication, lasted 100 days and nights, consisting primarily of gladiatorial combats and wild animal fights. Some 5,000 animals, including elephants, were slaughtered. Martial tells of an elephant, who after dispatching a bull in the arena, knelt before the emperor!

The elephants depicted on this Titus type also have round ears, perhaps indicating they too were North African Forest Elephants.

Septimius Severus, 9 April 193 - 4 February 211 A.D., silver denarius, RIC IV 82, RSC III 348, BMCRE V 168, SRCV II 6317, Hunter III -, Rome mint, 197 A.D.; obverse L SEPT SEV PERT AVG IMP VIII, laureate head right; reverse MVNIFICENTIA AVG, elephant walking right.

MVNIFICENTIA means, "He gave shows to the people." In 197, Septimius Severus returned to Rome and executed about 30 of Albinus ' supporters in the Senate. After his victory he declared himself the adopted son of the late Marcus Aurelius and held games held to celebrate his victory over Albinus.

Note that the elephant 's ears on the Septimius Severus type are not round like most of the earlier depictions. The North African Forest Elephant is believed to have been extinct by the time of Septimius Severus.

Due to the cross hatching, as seen on the both the Titus and Septimius Severus types above, numismatists have frequently described elephants on these coins as cuirassed.

Forum, too, in the past, described elephants with this cross hatching as cuirassed. We copied Mattingly 's descriptions in Roman Imperial Coinage, Vol. II: Vespasian to Hadrian.

Mattingly presumably copied Cohen. Cohen 349 says, "Elphant cuirass droite." But in other adjacent descriptions Cohen omitted the word "cuirassed," so Mattingly wrote "sometimes cuirassed."

Nor was Cohen the first to call such an elephant with cross-hatching cuirassed; he was merely following his numismatic predecessors, who had been doing so for centuries. Eckhel VII, c. 1796, p. 20, has some comments on cuirassed elephants, and refers to a previous discussion by Spanheim I, 1706, p. 182.

As, however, has been repeatedly discussed and convincingly proven on FORVM 's Classical Numismatics Discussion, the cross hatching does not indicate armor but rather was a artistic convention for showing the wrinkles on the elephants skin. The strongest evidence for this is depictions of elephants in Roman mosaics and that elephants actually do have very wrinkly skin that resembles cross hatching.


The Roman mosaic on the left was discovered in Lod, Israel. The mosaic on the right, from the Piazza Armerina villa, is a Tetrarchic or Constantinian mosaic of Africa with her identifying attributes. In both of these mosaics, the elephants are not shown in the arena or in battle, but rather in their natural state, making clear that the hatching is bare skin. Further on both mosaics and coins, the hatching sometimes extends to the ears and trunk, which probably would not have been cuirassed on even the most heavily armored war elephant. J.M.C. Toynbee 's, Animals in Roman Life and Art, 1973, p. 21, writes, "All three elephants in the great hunting mosaic in Piazza Armerina have a net-like cross hatching that covers their entire bodies; that was the conventional way in Roman art to depict the elephant 's wrinkly skin."

As seen in the photos above, elephant 's skin actually is very wrinkly and the cross hatching in Roman art, while stylized, is not too far from reality.

Pliny, Natural History, 8:10: The skin of the back is extremely hard, that of the belly is softer. They are not covered with any kind of bristles, nor yet does the tail even furnish them with any protection from the annoyance of flies; for vast as these animals are, they suffer greatly from them. Their skin is reticulated, and invites these insects by the odor it exhales. Accordingly, when a swarm of them has settled on the skin, while extended and smooth, the elephant suddenly contracts it; and, in this way, the flies are crushed between the folds which are thus closed. This power serves them in place of tail, mane, and hair.

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