Accepted Papers:

Gifts of war and death: the elephants of Pyrrhus at Capena  


Carrie Roth-Murray (University of Wales, Lampeter)

Paper Short Abstract:

Animals were sometimes used as symbols for conveying power through acts of gift giving and public display in antiquity. Before Rome held animal hunts in amphitheatres, or Hannibal marched through the Alps, Pyrrhus of Epirus introduced Rome to his army of elephants when he sailed to Italy in 280 BC.

Paper long abstract:

In the ancient world, animals could be utilised to create and maintain powerful statuses. Amassing animals could demonstrate complete control over the landscape and all living things. The gift giving of animals to another person could be enacted as a display of generosity and, in the case of potentially ferocious animals, the ability to empower another person. On the other hand, the person who received animals from afar could then display the animals as exotic, and perhaps dangerous, treasures under his control. In this case, Pyrrhus received elephants as a gift from a Ptolemy (the identity of which Ptolemy is the subject of debate). This was done in aid of Pyrrhus raising an army to answer the cry for help from the Greek peoples of South Italy against the attacks of Rome. In the end, Pyrrhus and his army of men and elephants were unsuccessful against the Romans, but this became a momentous episode in the Roman imagination. A case in point is the Pyrrhus plate from Capena, a Faliscan town north of Rome, which depicts two of Pyrrhus' elephants. The plate is normally seen as commemorating Roman victory over Pyrrhus. On closer inspection, however, the symbolism could be interpreted as expressing something quite different, related to the entrainment of animals into history. The ancient views of Pyrrhus and his elephants will be explored through ancient literary sources and the Pyrrhus plate. This will be considered within a broad framework where both archaeological and the ethnographic perspectives are mutually beneficial for understanding the social consequences of animal gift giving.

panel P15
Humans and other animals