The elephants who appealed to the gods: Animal agency in the Roman arena and the human perception of it
Keywords:Animal agency, animal entertainment, animal violence, Roman arena, Greco-Roman naturalism
According to our Roman sources, especially the account of Pliny the Elder, an unusual feature of the appearance of elephants in a staged hunt in Pompey’s games of 55BCE was sympathy for them shown by the crowd. With a particular emphasis on this incident and elephants, this article discusses the agency of nonhuman animals who were required to do tricks, fight with one another and with humans, and act as executioners in the Roman arena, and the perception of it by the crowd and Roman authors. The main purpose of the shows was to satisfy the potentially disruptive urban masses and more fundamentally, to emphasize the power of Rome to control forces beyond its administrative authority and external to its cultural mores. Animals were not able to understand the forces that brought them to the arenas or resist in any organised manner, but as sentient beings they did act in ways the trainers could not predict or control. In so doing, in all cases but refusal to attack they contributed to the excitement of events, and in the case of the elephants of the 55BCE games, even caused the normally hostile spectators to empathize with their plight. When Roman spectators or writers attributed human-like traits to animals who did extraordinary things they tacitly acknowledged animal agency, but this was not transformed into any general acceptance that animals might have any moral sense or cognitive abilities comparable in any way to humans.
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