Julius Caesar’s Elephant

Caesar once crossed the Thames on the back of an animal previously unseen by Britons. Here, C.E. Stevens assesses just how much of a historical anomaly this pairing was.

A coin minted in Italy around 49 BCIf one wants to know where Julius Caesar crossed the Thames in 54 B.C., somewhere near Lambeth Bridge is the most likely answer and this is becoming common knowledge. That an elephant crossed with him is not common knowledge, and some people would say that this was just as well. But there is literary evidence for the elephant which I shall try to take seriously - and there may be other evidence, too.

The literary evidence comes from the collection of accounts of military stratagems made in the second century A.D. by the Greek Polyaenus. He derived his materials - some good, some bad - from all kinds of places: 'theories about his sources,' said W. W. Tarn, 'are useless.' Here - in the translation of Monumenta Historica Britannica (1848) - is what he says: (VIII 23, 5) 'Caesar attempting to pass a large river in Britain, Cassoellaunus, king of the Britons, obstructed him with many horsemen and chariots'.

Caesar had in his train a very large elephant, an animal hitherto unseen by the Britons. Having armed him with scales of iron, and put a large tower upon him, and placed therein archers and slingers, he ordered them to enter the stream. The Britons were amazed on beholding a beast till then unseen, and of an extraordinary nature. As to the horses, what need to write of them?

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