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Keeping Luxury At Bay: Elephants in Megasthenes’ Indika

Clara Bosak-Schroeder

The elephants of Megasthenes’ Indika, a Greek treatise on India written c. 300 BCE and transmitted fragmentarily through later authors, are objects of modern historians’ ongoing attention; Paul Kosmin, for example, has recently argued that it was the exchange of Mauryan elephants for Seleucid-controlled land that inspired the writing of the Indika. This paper examines the Indika from a cultural and literary perspective. I argue that Megasthenes’ India responds to Herodotus’s concern that “soft lands produce soft peoples” (Hdt. 9.122) and that the Indoi’s decision to hunt, capture, train, and maintain elephants for war protects Indian society from degeneration.

Without wading into ongoing debates about the meaning and appropriateness of the end of the Histories (Dewald 1997, Gorman 2009), it is fair to say that Herodotus is interested in the relationship between natural abundance and enervation. Following Murray’s assertion that Hellenistic historiographers possessed “Herodotean eyes,” Priestley’s study of Hellenistic receptions of Herodotus, and the Herodotean allusions Kosmin has discovered in Megasthenes in particular, I argue that Megasthenes proposes India as a solution to the Herodotean problem of natural abundance. As weapons, Indian elephants protect the Indoi from outside attack; as natural foes, they prevent the Indian military from becoming lazy and effeminate.  

India is preternaturally fertile, yielding a variety of wild foods and minerals, plenty of fresh water, and two crops that can be successful harvested per year (F4, 35.3-6). Megasthenes describes the superiority of India’s products, including elephants which are “the largest” of all and “far surpass Libyan elephants in strength” (F4, 35.4). The Indian state trains and maintains the elephants (F4, 41.2), and it is their deployment that frightens off all potential  attackers, “since everyone fears the number and strength of the animals” (F4, 37.3). As a result of the fertility of the land and the protection of the elephants, the Indoi live easy and pleasant lives. But the ferocity that qualifies the elephants for war also makes them difficult to hunt, capture, and domesticate (F20a). While the Indoi use their store of tamed elephants to manipulate the newly captured animals, the drivers themselves must be quick and disciplined enough to “slip secretly under the belly of their mounts and tie together the feet” of those that are still wild (F20b, 42). The Indoi use the elephants to protect themselves from outside attack, but also to train themselves for war in the absence of human enemies. The fertility of India provides human beings with many pleasures, but also, through the elephant, an inoculation against sloth that pleasures sometimes produce.

Megasthenes’ India is clearly ideal (Zambrini 1983, Parker 2008), but the mechanisms of India’s idealization are significant, especially for understanding ancient Greek environmental thinking. Megasthenes’s India is not only a place that provides for human desires, but one that protects people against their worse inclinations. At the same time, it is the Indoi’s engagement and cooperation with their environment that allows the elephants to work to their advantage. If the Indoi did not personally hunt elephants and the Indian state did not prioritize the elephants’ training and upkeep, the mere presence of elephants in India would neither protect the Indoi from attack nor prevent them from degenerating. Thus, hyperabundance in the Indika is a blessing as long as people structure society to capitalize on the potential already present in the natural world to optimize human well-being.  

Session/Panel Title

Slavery and Status in Ancient Literature and Society

Session/Paper Number

29.4

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