Monday, November 17, 2014

The Extinction of Compassion: A Story of Empires and Elephants 1/2

by Nomad

In this first of a two-part post, I want to go back to one of the most important moments of Western history, when the Roman Republican was beginning to unravel  and the small but surprising part that elephants had to play in the story.


History has all kinds of hidden treasures. One thing that I find exciting is discovering some forgotten tale with a nice mix of drama and effect.

The one I am about to tell takes place in the last years of the Roman Republic. It involves the cruel and arrogant politicians, a desensitized public that suddenly awoke and the lamenting tears of elephants preparing to die. First of all, we need to set the stage. 
Literally, in this case.

Roman Politics and the Theater
Politics in ancient Rome down through the centuries was rarely very stable, the situation at Rome In the spring of 55 BC, was  particularly strained. The Roman Republic was in disarray and many worried, (rightly so, as it turned out) that it could not be restored.

The Roman general and consul Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (better know as Pompey) was preparing the dedication of his great theater project the first stone theater in Rome. 
To prevent Rome falling into tyrannical monarchy- something that patriotic Romans feared above all else- a joint rule was established between the generals. It was called by later historians as the First Triumvirate. It was made up of Pompey, Marcus Licinius Crassus, who was also the wealthiest man in Roman history, and Gaius Julius Caesar

That arrangement was never official approved by. the Senate. Out of necessity, the three-way leadership  was for some time kept secret from both the people and the Senate.
Actually, that alliance was much more like modern day gangsters agreeing on territories. than a military overthrow. 

What might have seemed like a good idea at the time, soon began to show cracks. Pompey and Crassus had never liked one another, both extremely jealous of their power. Having stood on the sidelines for some time, Caesar was eventually forced to use his personal charm to get them to patch up their differences.

Things weren't all that much better between Pompey and Caesar. At one time Pompey and Julius Caesar had, in fact, been good pals but, because of their competitive natures, that friendship had, by 55 BC also begun to turn rancid. Suspicion plagued the political system. Both the Senate and the ruling class began to ask questions about Caesar's ambition. They had begun to fear that he aimed to install himself as a Supreme leader. 

Under the terms of the renewal of the original alliance a year before, the lands under Roman control would be divided among the three of them. If that plan was supposed to bring harmony, then it was a failure.

In that year, Pompey dedicated his magnificent building project known as Pompey's Theater.   In the spring of 55 BC, all of Rome was preparing for the theater's opening. Its formal dedication and the celebrations that followed were to be the event of the year. For Pompey, it was an attempt to impress and to win over the Roman people to Pompey' side, to gain more influence than either of his rivals.
In addition to its entertainment value, the theater was also to be as a means of spreading propaganda, favoring Pompey and subtly manipulating public opinion against his rivals.
Meant to convey a message of strength, success, and wealth, the Theater of Pompey was built to glorify the achievements of its patron on the battlefield and to win the public’s and the aristocracy’s favor.
The theater was, even for the ostentatious tastes of the time, an architectural marvel. We know from the records that the stage was enormous: almost 100 meters wide.  

The structure rose to  about  forty-five meters and was could seat up to 20,000 spectators. At the rear of the stage-building was a large, colonnaded portico, which housed artworks, shops and outside were fountains and gardens. Within the theater there were statues of  the goddess Victory and personifications of the nations that Pompey had subdued in battle. It was to provide a model for all future Roman theaters for the next few centuries. 

The Days of the Venationes
Following the ceremony, he had arranged celebrations in the nearby Circus Maximus.  According to Roman historians, the five-day event was  for its time, an extravaganza with an mock Trojan Horse and lots of flowing wine. 

Those festivities  also included venationes, battles to the death between captured wild animals and the animals and men, usually captives, condemned criminals, or professional animal hunters. 

 Events of this kind did not come cheaply but precisely because of their expense, they served to advertised the wealth of the officials who had sponsored them. In addition to that, as one scholar notes "the inclusion of exotic species (lions, panthers, rhinoceri, elephants, etc.) also demonstrated the vast reach of Roman dominion." 

Of the three members of the alliance, Pompey held armies in both Africa (and Spain). In the earlier years of his long military career, he had won fame for successful military campaigns there. Perhaps for this reason, Pompey wished to underscore to the public his Roman dominance of Africa in this vivid slaughter of its wildlife. The message was clear: brute power and unlimited conquest by Roman might.

The highly lucrative trade in wild animals originated in the distant edges of the known world. Locals would capture and cage  animals of all kinds, specifically for slaughter as entertainment (sometimes as part of an elaborate menu). During the Imperial Roman age, the animal trade became so organized and widespread that many of the great wild animals from Africa and Asia quite nearly went extinct. Indeed entire species of animals actually did disappear  from their native habitats. 
(Under the rule of emperors, this extermination process became far worse.)

The historian Plutarch records that, on this occasion, five hundred lions were killed. An eyewitness, Cicero, in a letter to a friend states that there were  two animal hunts per day. 
The main attraction was to be held on the closing day- the elephant fights which as one historian called "a spectacular full of horror and amazement." 

The Day of the Elephants
In his description of the incident, Cicero writes:
"The last day was that of the elephants, and on that day the mob and crowd were greatly impressed, but manifested no pleasure.
Eighteen elephants, having been rounded up and transported from Africa, were pitted against criminal prisoners in an imitation or staged battle.

Sitting among the cheering crowds, Cicero himself was not at all impressed. In a letter to a friend he writes:
But for a cultured person, what pleasure could there be when a helpless person is mangle by a powerful beast, or when a splendid beast is transfixed by hunting spear?"
The average Roman however seemed to revel in any spectacle, but especially the most violent. And that's what they got when elephant was matched against the fighters.

One Roman writer gives a vivid description of the battle on that day. At first it seems as though the spectators were swayed by efforts of the hunters. The elephants were proving to be much more of a match than anybody had expected.
It was a great performance.
One of the elephants, according to the story, was wounded in the feet and was forced to crawl on its knees as it fought against its attackers. Then, it managed to snatch away a shield with its trunk and fling it into the air, much to the awe of the crowds. The crowd roared as one elephant fell with a single thrust of a javelin through its eye and into its brain.
At this point, all hope was lost for the elephants. The surviving animals rushed to opposite side of the arena, to break down the iron gates. It was to no avail. 
Historian Cassius Dio picks up the story:
"The elephants were pitied by the people when, after being wounded and ceasing to fight, they walked about with their trunks raised toward heaven, lamenting so bitterly as to give rise to the report that they did so not by mere chance, but were crying out against the oaths in which they had trusted when they crossed over from Africa, and were calling upon Heaven to avenge them."
 Pliny tells us that when the elephants..
...had lost all hope of escape tried to gain the compassion of the crowd by indescribable gestures of entreaty, deploring their fate with a sort of wailing, so much to the distress of the public that they forgot the general and his munificence carefully devised for their honour, and bursting into tears rose in a body and invoked curses on the head of Pompey."
If only for a moment, the conscience of the Roman people- so used to cruel blood sport of man and animal- was awakened by elephants' lamentation in the arena. 
They seemed to go from shock to compassion to revulsion and then to anger.
It was suddenly clear that Pompey's bid for public admiration had backfired spectacularly.

A century later, the writer and court favorite of Nero, Seneca refers (in perhaps a veiled and prophetic warning to Nero himself). to the incident with the elephants Seneca asked what useful purpose to  a leader of the state did it serve to exhibit the slaughter of the elephants as entertainment? 

The elephants' pleas for mercy denied had, at least for a moment, turned the   public against the power-hungry Pompey who had decided to shed "so much blood before the eyes of the Roman people, who themselves would soon to be forced to shed more."



In Part Two, we will follow the historical events to their logical conclusion and see how the curse the elephants cast that day played out for the principle characters. 
Then we will compare those tragic days to the present day.

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