CENTAUR – Relict Centaurs In The Roman Empire (Adrienne Mayor)



Relict Centaurs In The Roman Empire



Adrienne Mayor


excerpted from

The First FossilHunters:

Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times.

(Princeton University Press, anticipated publication date, March 2000;

visit http://hometown.aol.com/afmayor/myhomepage/index.html)



With expanding exploration in the Roman era, information about exotic lands and incredible animals was eagerly consumed in Rome.  Not only was evidence piling up that giants and strange monsters had once populated the entire earth, but new zoological discoveries held out the possibility that some creatures of the mythic era, such as Centaurs, might have escaped prehistoric destruction to roam unexplored landscapes.


Speaking of Centaurs, the natural historian Aelian (AD 200) wondered if time and nature really produced populations of such strange creatures, just as the myths claimed.  If Centaurs were actually once prevalent in certain places and not just a figment of folklore, Aelian reasoned, then they must have been a temporary, extinct fauna of the deep past.  Hybrid beasts combining contradictory categories were singled out by the circle of distinguished natural philosophers as physiologically impossible.  So, while Plato, Aristotle, Palaephatus, and Lucretius heaped scorn the viability of mixed human-animal species, especially Centaurs, writers like Phlegon, Aelian, and others kept an open mind about seemingly incredible creatures, allowing the interplay of imagination and skepticism to fill in the blanks of the unknown. [1]


Palaephatus’s authoritative assertion in the fourth-century BC that if Centaurs ever did exist, then they would still be seen alive was turned on its head by Centaur sightings during the Roman empire.  During the reign of Claudius (AD 41-54), for example, officials in Arabia declared that a small herd of Centaurs inhabited Saune, a remote mountain wilderness.  One of these “living fossils” was captured and transported to Egypt as a gift for the emperor.  The Egyptians fed the wild Centaur its traditional diet of raw meat, but it could not tolerate the change in altitude and perished.  The prefect had the corpse embalmed and shipped to Rome, where Claudius exhibited the marvel in his palace.  Pliny the Elder went with friends to see the spectacle: the Centaur was completely submerged in honey.  (The antibacterial, anaerobic qualities of honey were well known in antiquity: honey was commonly used as a preservative for transporting cadavers long distances.)


Nearly a century later, through the reigns of nine emperors after Claudius, the embalmed Centaur of Saune could still be viewed, by special appointment, in the emperor Hadrian’s imperial storehouse.  Phlegon of Tralles, the compiler of giant bone discoveries who served on Hadrian’s staff (AD 117-138), described the marvel firsthand.  The Centaur was a bit smaller than one might expect from classical Greek art, but it had a fierce face and hairy arms and fingers.  The human ribcage and torso merged naturally with equine body and limbs and its hooves were still quite firm.  The man had originally been tawny but the entire body but the entire body had turned a very dark brown- -due, thought Phlegon, to the embalming process. [2]


There were also claims that ordinary mares gave birth to half-human colts, “throwbacks” that reverted to the forms of the long-vanished Centaurs.  In about AD 50, for example, the emperor Claudius received a dispatch from provincial Greek authorities that a baby Centaur had been born in Thessaly.  About fifty years later, Plutarch, perhaps inspired by that incident and the Centaur of Saune, engaged in a provocative thought experiment about Centaurs and philosophy.


In his historical fiction “The Feast of the Seven Sages,” Plutarch imagined how the world’s wisest man would have reacted to the sight of a live Centaur in the sixth century BC.  On their way to dinner, the philosophers are interrupted by their host, Periander of Corinth, to interpret the astounding birth of a Centaur to a mare in his stable.  The sages peer at the newborn monster swaddled in leather, held in the arms of the stablehand.  The half-human foal cries like a human infant.  One philosopher blurts out “God save us” and turns his face away.  Another worries about the symbolic meaning of the creature.  But dinner is waiting, so another sage dismisses the newborn Centaur with a crude joke about the stablehand’s unseemly romance with the mare.  Notably, the three reactions- -anxiety, pedantry, and mockery- -that Plutarch attributes to the philosophers is a neat recapitulation of the attitudes of the natural philosophers toward myths about bizarre creatures and toward the unknown. [3]




[1]  Aelian  On Animals  17.9.   The wording is obscure; it appears in the context of describing a weird half-human, half-equine creature of exotic climes, an animal called an Onocentaur.  It was thought to resemble the Centaur, but was probably a garbled account of a chimpanzee or gorilla.  See chapter 5 for philosophical reactions to the notion of Centaur-type hybrids.


[2]  Phlegon of Tralles Book of Marvels  34-35; Hansen 1996, 49, 170-71.  The location of Saune is unknown.  The corpse of Alexander the Great was supposedly preserved a honey-filled glass coffin: Statius Silvae 3.2.117.  It seems safe to assume that the Centaur of Saune, sent to Rome after embalming in Egypt, was an ancient Jenny Haniver concocted from mummified human and pony parts.  Immersion in honey would not only lend an aura of authenticity, but would blur close inspection of the illusion.


[3]  Pliny Natural History 7.3.35.  The birth of such a throwback was considered a bad omen.  Plutarch’s “Feast of the Seven Sages,” Moralia 149, seems to place him alongside other writers who noticed the philosophers’ silence on anomalous evidence.



[last update 11-02-99]