We first meet elephants in western historical accounts during the conquests of Alexander the Great. Elephants were deployed by the Persians at Gaugamela but seem to have had little impact on the battle. When Alexander reached India however, war elephants in their hundreds were arrayed against him. At the battle of Hydaspes in 327 BC against the rebellious Indian potentate Porus, Alexander's troops were able, by presenting the Indian battle elephants with a wall of spears and showering them with arrows and javelins, to drive them back upon their own side.
Raphia 217 BC
During the interminable wars of the successors following Alexander's death, war elephants made their way westwards with the army of Seleucus, who had obtained five hundred of the beasts from the Indian conqueror Chandragupta in return for ceding a swath of Alexander's conquests beyond the Indus. These would prove useful in the pivotal battle of Ipsus in 301 BC, helping to seal the fate of the Antigonid cause and establish the Seleucids as rulers of the east.
The Seleucids of Asia and the Ptolemies of Egypt would clash repeatedly in Syria and Palestine. At the Battle of Raphia in 217 BC the armies of Antiochus III and Ptolemy IV fought each other in what is the only known clash of African and Indian elephants. The Seleucids had the better of the battle with the 102 Asian war elephants of Antiochus seeing off Ptolemy's 73 African elephants. For a long time it was assumed that Ptolemy's force of elephants were north African forest elephants, a smaller, now extinct species native to northern Africa. Mitochondrial DNA research however, published in January of this year showed that the elephant population in Eretrea from where the Ptolemaic armies sourced their pachyderms, are descended from African savannah elephants. This begs the question as to why the larger African elephants were bested in battle. Perhaps the Asian elephants were better trained or better handled on the day?
The Romans first encountered elephants in the armies of Pyrrhus of Epirus during his invasion of Italy in 280 BC. Pyrrhus had just twenty battle elephants but they made quite an impression on the Romans who had never seen such terrifying beasts before. Nevertheless with typical ingenuity the Romans attempted to thwart the war elephants of Pyrrhus, albeit with limited success. At the Battle of Asculum the Romans came up with an ingenious counter to Pyrrhus’ elephants, adapting carts into mobile fortresses, filled with troops armed with missile weapons and protected by wicker screens. The carts were fitted with catapults which threw burning missiles at the elephants. This innovation ultimately proved to be of limited use as the troops mounted in turrets atop the elephants were still able to pick off the troops in the carts, which were then reduced to matchsticks by the enraged beasts.
Pyrrhus' victories over the Romans turned out to be, well, Pyrrhic and his Italian campaign ended in failure.
Elephants had their limitations as Pyrrhus found when he returned to Greece and attempted to the roll over the defences of Sparta with his elephants. A line of carts buried up to the axles and defended by the determined populace was sufficient to drive Pyrrhus off. He met his end in 272 BC in street fighting in Argos when he was felled by an old woman who hurled a roof tile at him. Ironically his troops were prevented from entering the city as quickly as they would have liked when one of his war elephants became stuck in the city gate.
The Romans most famously encountered elephants fighting against the Carthaginians. During the brief Roman invasion of Africa in 255 BC the forces of Marcus Attilius Regullus were comprehensively routed when the Carthaginian elephants sewed panic in the Roman ranks.
The beasts used as war elephants by the Carthaginians were most probably north African forest elephants. They were known to be more tractable than the African savannah elephant but still big enough to cause devastation in the ranks of the enemy when unleashed in a thundering, trumpeting charge.
Elephants required a great deal of care and fodder to keep them going but were well worth the trouble if they could be used successfully. In order to put them in a suitably foul mood the elephants were fed figs and given alcohol before battle. The figs caused diarrhoea which made the animals irritable and the alcohol fuelled their irritability and made them aggressive. All that then remained was to point them at the enemy and let them take out their drunken annoyance at the state of their bowels on the hapless enemy soldiers who were barged and trampled underfoot. Of course once in this state of mind, elephants had little concern for whether it was the enemy they were flattening or their own side, and if they could be driven off with missile weapons, they could just as easily turn and run amok amongst their own troops. Against this eventuality the Carthaginian mahouts carried a metal spike and a hammer and could if necessary drive the spike through the top of their elephant’s skull in order to kill it to prevent casualties by ‘friendly’ trampling.
Hannibal most famously deployed elephants against Rome. Having achieved the remarkable feat of getting a force of war elephants over the Alps, of which fifteen out of thirty survived to make it into Italy, he deployed them with great success at the Battle of the Trebia where they crashed through the allied infantry on the Roman wings. In the following months however, all but one of Hannibal's elephants succumbed to disease, highlighting the difficulty of keeping them fed and healthy on campaign.
Hannibal crossing the Rhone
Hannibal's last battle against the Romans at Zama in 202 BC demonstrated once again the dangers of elephants being turned back against their own side. Hannibal's opponent Scipio formed up his army in the usual triplex acies formation although as a counter to Hannibal’s eighty war elephants which were waiting to wreak havoc in his ranks, he abandoned the quincunx deployment and instead placed his maniples directly behind each other, leaving wide lanes through which the charging beasts could pass harmlessly. Velites were stationed ready to shower the elephants with pila and the opening Carthaginian attack came to little as the elephants naturally chose the path of least resistance and lumbered straight into a lethal storm of missiles. As the elephants nearest the flanks were driven back by volleys of pila they turned and stampeded back towards their own cavalry, causing panic and disorder. Immediately seizing the opportunity, Scipio's ally, the Numidian king Massinissa launched an attack on the cavalry opposing him and the Roman cavalry on the other wing followed suit. The result was a rout of the cavalry on both wings of Hannibal’s army, leaving his infantry to be carved up by the Romans in a long and bloody fight.
The use of elephants against them by their most terrible enemies Pyrrhus and Hannibal resulted in a deep mistrust and dislike of the beasts by the Romans. The Roman mob took particular delight in seeing elephants humiliated and slaughtered in the amphitheatre. Despite their reservations they did make some use of elephants themselves, most notably using a force of elephants loaned to them by Massanissa to shatter the Macedonian flank at Pydna in 168 BC.
Rome's ambivalent relationship with the elephant is perfectly illustrated by this incident related by Pliny the Elder in which Pompey, as part of his triumphal celebrations of 55 BC, attempted to stage a re-enactment of the battle of Zama. On this occasion the fickle Roman mob, instead of delighting in the suffering of the elephants, took pity on them. It is interesting that Pliny, understanding that elephants were highly intelligent animals, actually credits them with appealing to the sympathy of the crowd.
Twenty elephants fought in the Circus against men armed with javelins. The battle waged by one elephant was remarkable. When its feet had been pierced through, it crawled on its knees against its human opponents, snatched their shields, and threw them in the air. The spectators experienced pleasure when the shields, as they fell to the ground, made a loop, as if thrown by design, not by the rage of the huge animal. The elephants attempted to break out from the iron barricades which surrounded them, and this caused anxiety among the people. But when the elephants had lost hope of escape, they sought the compassion of the crowd and supplicated it with an indescribable gesture and bewailed their fate with a kind of lamentation. In contradiction to Pompey’s plan the wounded elephants were pitied by the people when they stopped fighting and walked around and stretched their trunks toward heaven. In fact, there was so much grief among the people that they forgot the generosity lavished in their honour by Pompey and, bursting into tears, all arose together and invoked curses on Pompey for which he soon paid the penalty.
Elephants in the arena
Like the Romans, when the armies of Islam set out to conquer the Sassanid Persian Empire, they were confronted for the first time by battle elephants and daunted by these terrifying beasts. At the Battle of the Bridges in 634 AD the Persian elephant corps played a decisive role in driving back the Arab forces. Arriving on the banks of the lower Euphrates, the Muslims found themselves faced with a Persian army complete with war elephants drawn up on the opposite bank. Undeterred, they charged across the river into withering Persian arrow fire but their horses baulked at the unfamiliar scent of the elephants and they were driven back. The Muslims continued fighting on foot against the advancing beasts but when their commander was trampled to death they lost heart and were routed with heavy losses as they fled back across the river. So ended the first Muslim invasion of the Persian Empire.
Two years later when the Persians and Muslims clashed once more at Qadisiyyah, the Persians began with the same tactics which had won the day at the Battle of the Bridges, driving forward with their battle elephants supported by archers. The Arabs however had learned from their previous defeat and had developed tactics for dealing with the elephants. As before the Arabs’ horses took fright but the infantry stood firm. Fighting with spears they stabbed at the elephants’ eyes and drove them back, whilst swordsmen risked a trampling by getting in close and cutting through the straps that held the howdahs in place upon the elephants’ backs to send the archers mounted atop them tumbling to the ground. The elephant corps sat out the second day of the battle, which was fought to a stalemate, repairing their gear.
The third day of battle was the fiercest yet and the Persians, having repaired their equipment once more, sent their elephants into battle. Just as before the Arabs were able to stand their ground, closing in fearlessly and urging each other on into ever bolder feats; hacking off trunks and jabbing spears into the elephants’ eyes, cutting the howdahs loose and once more creating havoc by sending the poor enraged beasts running amok. The battle started to swing the Arabs’ way but the fighting prowess of the Persians prevented them from gaining a decisive upper hand and once more the armies parted with the outcome of the battle still hanging in the balance. On the final day of the battle, with the elephant corps finished as a fighting force, the Arabs carried the day when the Persian commander Rustam was slain.
Zama 202 BC
DNA evidence for Ptolemaic war elephants
Elephants and the Romans
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