From Fortean Times 216 (December 2006):

(Trunk-ated from: Aelian, On Animals; Pliny, Natural History, esp. bk8 chs 1-13; Plutarch, On Animals' Cleverness, esp. ch97: also historians Arrian, Livy, and Polybius) "Nature's great masterpiece, an elephant/The only harmless great thing" - John Donne.

FT's (198:10-11) prancing pachyderms have nothing on classical jumbos, often described as ancient tanks or the world's biggest scrum halves. Various armies used them down to the sixth century AD. Sometimes they earned their hay: in the `Battle of the Elephants' (275/4 BC), Macedonian beasts routed Gallic scythed chariots, thanks to equine elephantophobia

They in turn were stampedable by mice and porcine oinkings, as the Romans soon discovered. Their tender tootsies were hurt by carpets of sharp objects, causing panic and indiscriminate trampling of friend and foe alike. At the Metaurus river battle (Rome v. Carthage, 207 BC), "More were killed by their own riders than by the Romans, their mahoots being armed with mallets and chisels to dispatch them in the vulnerable ear-neck region" (Livy, bk28 ch49 para1) - What would Sabu think?

Elephantine loyalty worked both ways. Indian King Porus's mount (fighting Alexander) pulled out the javelins from his master's flesh, kneeling to allow him easy alightment. When fleeing Argos in Sicily, the troops of King Pyrrhus (of 'Pyrrhic Victory' fame) were hampered by one creature seeking its unseated rider, while a fallen second one blocked the main gate.

"Nearest to man in intelligence" (Pliny). Their already proverbial memories (e.g. recognising humans from years before) enabled them to master complex entertainments for Roman circus crowds. Emperors Nero and Galba exhibited funambular elephants, notably a quartet bearing a litter containing a fifth dressed up like a lady. Others juggled shields, put on chimpanzee tea party-like shows, and traced personal messages in Greek and Latin on the sand.

One slow-witted jumbo, rebuked by his trainer, was later seen in the moonlight voluntarily putting in extra practice - an example to Premier League mastodons everywhere.

In classical elephant lore, they have two hearts (regenerated Time Lords?), gestate two to 10 years, mature at 60, and live to 300, African ones migrating to an Atlas Mountains geriatric Eden where they self-baptise and worship the Sun. Transplanted ones often expire from nostalgia or go blind through weeping. They get violently drunk on wine. Libyans give special honours to people killed by them. Duelling one was a Roman gladiator's ultimate moment - Where are you, Russell Crowe?

Maritally faithful, they copulate only five times a year: "Such is the male's pudicity that he never covers the female so long as anyone appears in sight" (Dr Johnson's Dictionary). Their strict moral code compelled elephants to unmask human crimes, from one exposing his trainer's short-changing of rations to the pair in India and Rome (AD 79-81) who impaled trainers' adulterous wives and lovers with their tusks, leaving the corpses to be found by the wronged husbands.

Despite their sexual continence, males frequently were smitten by human females, especially flower-sellers. One became locked in a romantic triangle with the famous grammarian Aristophanes of Byzantium. Another brought his inamorata fruit and would fondle her breasts with his trunk - Nowadays, it would be: "Dumbo Charged With Sexual Harassment"...

(Clipping from the Sun - date mislaid: Thai chef Kim Lee Ching, 61, gaoled for attempting sex with an elephant - surely the ultimate macho ambition? - claimed it was his wife reincarnated: "I recognised the naughty glint in her eye.")

"I'd not be much more preposterous if I should tell of an elephant that had produced two bicycles and a baby elephant"
Fort, Books p611.

Barry Baldwin
(reprinted with permission of the Author; blame any typically graphic transcription errors on dm)