A new book by Marina Belozerskaya, entitled The Medici Giraffe, and Other Tales of Exotic Animals and Power, includes a section on ancient elephants. William Grimes reviews it for the New York Times:
Perhaps most compelling, because least familiar, is the story of Ptolemy Philadelphos, ruler of Egypt in the late third century B.C. Ptolemy transformed Alexandria into the richest, most cosmopolitan city in the ancient world, building its famous lighthouse and turning its museum and library into renowned centers of learning. All was made possible by his relentless acquisition of elephants.
Alexander the Great had recognized the military potential of elephants when he first encountered them in battle against Darius of Persia. Like living tanks, they confounded the enemy and rolled over massed troops. Suddenly, the ruler with the most elephants enjoyed a tremendous tactical advantage.
As it happened, elephants came from India, and Antiochos of Syria, Ptolemy’s archenemy, controlled the supply. To achieve parity, Ptolemy sent trading parties all over Africa in search of alternative sources. In their quest, they forged commercial ties that enriched Egypt for years to come. They also secured the elephants, nearly a hundred of them, and a menagerie of exotic animals that, Ms. Belozerskaya writes, “formed a living library of the natural world,” and the archetype for modern zoos.