Luca bos

May 11, 2012 § Leave a comment

Pyrrhus’ elephants, animals not seen in Europe since the end of the Pleistocene, first encountered by Roman troops at Lucania in southern Italy, were dubbed “luca bos.” Commonly translated as Lucanian cow, or ox, they were terrifyingly big to the soldiers who faced them, bigger by far than the biggest ox.

These were Asian elephants, probably a sub species from Syria. According to linguist J.C. Billigmeier, the mahouts would have called the elephants lukabos, or something similar, in their own tongue.(1) Roman soldiers, perhaps prisoners of war, may have heard this word and repeated it when they got home.

Thus the etymology of the name may not be Lucanian, or Libyan or white cow as suggested by other scholars, but Lycian cow, since the mahouts were likely people of northern Syria who spoke a language close to Lycian.

(1) J.C. Billigmeier, Latin Lucabos “Elephant”, Studies in Anatolian, Italic and other Indo-European Languages, Arbeitman, ed. 1988

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