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10 Amazing Animal Tales from the Ancient World

by Ben Gazur
fact checked by Darci Heikkinen

People in the ancient world were fascinated by animals. They lived in a world where animals were everywhere in a way that they are not for most of us today. We’re lucky if we see a few birds or pet a dog. However, in the ancient world, farm animals walked through the streets of cities, and there were still dangerous wild animals roaming around Europe.

Animals offered a strange mirror to humans as people could read into their beastly ways all sorts of lessons. Fables were told, myths were created, and “scientific” inquiries were made into the animal kingdom. Some animals even got to play important roles in history.

Here are ten tales of animals from ancient Greece and Rome.

Related: Top 10 Ancient Discoveries That Pack an Ironic Twist

10 The Rediculus Raven

Ravens and crows are devilishly clever birds able to do everything from using tools to mimicking human speech. Anything that blurred the line between the animal and human worlds interested the ancients, so it is unsurprising that a talking raven once caused a near riot.

According to Pliny the Elder, one day, a raven landed in a cobbler’s shop; he raised the bird and taught it to speak. Each day, the bird flew into the center of Rome and greeted the emperor and people of the city by name before retiring to the cobbler’s home. But a rival shoemaker became jealous of the fame the bird brought to the other’s shop and decided to kill the bird. He pretended the raven had defecated on his shoes and slew the bird in revenge.

As soon as people found out about this, the bird killer was driven from his home and put to death. A grand funeral was held for the raven, which saw its body carried in procession on a pile of flowers with thousands in attendance. A tomb was erected where the raven was buried, known as the Field of Rediculus.[1]

9 Ring-Eating Fish

Polycrates and his Unfortunate Good Luck || Dael Kingsmill

The ancients knew that nothing lasted forever. It was a piece of common wisdom that a run of good fortune had to come crashing down in the end. Herodotus tells us how Polycrates, the Tyrant of Samos, tried to ward off bad luck ever reaching him.

Polycrates had managed to have an endless series of successful wars and was fabulously wealthy. When Polycrates offered to form an alliance with the Pharaoh of Egypt, the Egyptian turned Polycrates down because when fate caught up with the tyrant, he might end up pulling his allies down with him. The Pharaoh suggested that Polycrates should take his most valuable possession and toss it away to keep the gods from punishing him.

So Polycrates went out to sea and dropped his large emerald ring into the waters. Polycrates sailed home happy that having suffered a loss, he could return to enjoying his fortune. As if to prove luck was still with him, a fisherman arrived at the palace with a beautiful fish he had just caught and offered it to Polycrates. As soon as the cooks cut into the fish, the precious ring fell out, and Polycrates knew he was doomed.[2]

8 Boy-Loving Dolphin

The ancient writer Aelian collected a huge number of weird animal tales and loved to examine how humans and beasts interacted. He recounts how a dolphin once tragically fell in love with a handsome boy.

One day, a boy in the town of Iasus was exercising and decided to cool himself down by bathing in the sea. A dolphin spotted the boy and was so charmed that he began to hang around each day until the boy returned. Soon, the pair were often seen swimming together, and the dolphin would carry the boy far out on his back.

Disaster struck when the boy, tired after a long day of nautical frolicking, flopped forward onto the dolphin’s back and was impaled on the dolphin’s fin. The dolphin felt the life bleed out of his friend and carried his body back to shore. Seeing his beloved was dead, the dolphin threw himself onto the shore and died along with his friend. The locals were so touched by this act of devotion that the two were buried in the same grave.[3]

7 Elephant Entertainers

Exotic Animals in Ancient Rome

When elephants appeared in Italy as part of Hannibal’s invading army, they terrified the Romans. But as Romans came to dominate their world, elephants became just another animal that entertained the crowds in the arena.

Pliny the Elder tells many tales about elephants as tall as the beasts themselves. We learn that elephants reverently bury their tusks if they fall out, they have sex in private because they feel shame, and they can live for 300 years. These ideas persisted despite elephants actually turning up in Rome on a fairly regular basis.

Pliny recounts how elephants in the arena had been seen walking on tight ropes—both backward and forward. Other elephants were taught to dance complex steps to a dance. One was even said to have learned how to write, in Greek, on the sand, “I have myself written these words.” Not profound, perhaps, but still impressive.[4]

6 Constantinople’s Moby Dick

An Ancient Terror at Sea: The Mysterious Whale That Hunted Ships of the Roman Empire

The seas were among the most dangerous places for the ancients. Their ships were relatively flimsy, and storms wrecked many vessels, sending their crews to the deep. So whales, with their vast size and unpredictable natures, must have struck panic into most sailors who encountered them.

According to the writer Procopius, when Justinian I was emperor, a whale known as Porphyrios turned up in the waters outside Constantinople and began to terrorize the shipping heading for the port. Over a fifty-year period, the whale was said to surface and attack ships at random. This became a problem for the emperor when trade began to falter due to captains avoiding the city. Despite Justinian’s calls for the whale to be killed, it always escaped.

When Porphyrios the whale accidentally beached itself on the shore, the locals saw their chance to get revenge. A mob descended on the whale, butchered it, and feasted on its flesh.[5]

5 An Equine Favorite

The Roman Emperor Who Tried to Make His Horse Consul

The Roman emperor Caligula has become a byword for twisted and tyrannical despotism. While historians question whether Caligula could really have been as unhinged as our ancient sources paint him, the tales of his madness became legendary. None more so than Caligula’s affection for his horse Incitatus.

According to various ancient writers, Incitatus was Caligula’s favorite horse and, as such, was lavished with unimaginable luxuries. Incitatus was housed in a stable lined with polished marble and fed from an ivory manger. Nor was his food the standard meals served to horses—flakes of gold were mixed in with his oats. Gems and costly fabrics were draped over the horse at a time when many people struggled to make enough to buy a loaf of bread.

The most infamous aspect of Caligula’s equine obsession was his promise to make Incitatus a consul, the highest position in the Senate. Historians wonder whether Caligula was playing a joke on the Senate when he said he would do this, suggesting he thought even a horse could do their job.[6]

4 Tame Lions

The History of Lions in Europe

In The Iliad, Homer often uses lions as the most terrifying beasts to compare raging soldiers. Despite these similes and lions’ reputation for ferocity, the Romans seemed to be fascinated by the ability to tame lions.

Pliny tells us that the way to capture lions and render them harmless was accidentally discovered by a shepherd. When a lion charged him and his flock, the shepherd used the only thing he had on him and whirled his cloak over the lion’s head. Apparently, this confused the animal so much that it was rendered unable to defend itself. Whereas before, it had been almost impossible for hunters to capture lions, with this one simple trick, lions became almost too easy to catch. Mark Anthony is said to have ridden in a chariot pulled by lions.

When Hanno the Carthaginian displayed that he had tamed a lion by resting his hand on the lion’s head, he was immediately banished from his city. It was said that any man who could tame a lion would soon be able to tame his entire country.[7]

3 A Dog’s Life

History of Dogs in Ancient Roman Society and Mythology

Stories about the faithfulness of dogs, like Greyfriars’ Bobby sitting by the tomb of his master for years, have always been popular. The Romans loved their pooches, too. Some even set up marble tombs for their loyal companions, so accounts of devoted doggies were widely collected.

One of the most extraordinary involves a dog who stuck with its master even after the owner had been put to death for treason. When Titius Sabinus was executed for getting on the wrong side of Emperor Tiberius, his dog followed the body to the steps where the bodies of criminals were thrown. It pitifully whined beside the body and refused to leave. When the crowd who had gathered to watch gave bread to the dog, the dog took it but carried it to its master’s mouth as if trying to feed him. When Sabinus’s corpse was hurled into the river, the dog swam in and dragged it to the shore to rescue him.[8]

2 Ostentatious Peacocks

Why Peacocking in Ancient Athens might get you ostracised (ostrichsized?) | Curator’s Corner S8 Ep8

Peacocks are some of the most unappealing birds a person could imagine keeping. They are expensive, they do nothing, and their shrieking call is enough to cause a headache. They do have one thing going for them, however—their magnificent plumage.

In ancient Greece, the peacock was strongly associated with the luxurious empire of Persia, with whom the Greeks were often in conflict. When an Athenian named Pyrilampes was sent to Persia as an ambassador, he returned to the city with a pair of peacocks. These startlingly attractive animals created a sensation. Pyrilampes was accused of having used the peacocks to bribe women into bed, and the comic playwright Aristophanes said that the best way to get a boy to sleep with you was to offer him a peacock.

But the peacock was a dangerous animal for its owners. The Athenians perceived the birds as a corruption brought from Persia and used them to attack Pyrilampes’s son, Demus. He was accused of hoarding peacocks and refusing to let them be public animals, a charge which might have led to him being expelled from the city.[9]

1 An Octopus in the Toilet

Enormous Sewer Octopus Terrorizes Merchants in Ancient Italy

Most people are afraid, if they think about it at all, of spiders lurking in their toilets. It’s probably best not to consider the real cases of rats, snakes, and other creatures emerging from toilet bowls. For the Romans, one story tops all these, though—a large octopus creeping out to raid your home.

According to the writer, Aelian, a group of fish merchants was shocked one day to find all their supply had been stolen from their storeroom. They checked the doors, the walls, and even the roof, but no point of entry was found. To see what happened, they posted an armed guard in the room overnight in case the thief returned.

In the darkness, the guard saw a monstrously large octopus emerge from the sewer and begin to break open the jars where the fish was stored. Perhaps understandably, he was too scared to fight the large octopus alone. The next night, a team waited for the larcenous octopus and quickly blocked the sewer to stop it from escaping. Then, they rushed out to hack off its tentacles and finally slay the beast.

Pliny also tells the story of a large octopus that crept on land to steal from fish ponds. This octopus had to be hunted down by dogs before it was finally stopped.[10]

fact checked by Darci Heikkinen