Military Use of Elephants in the Greek and Roman Period

12/1/86

The purpose of this work is to determine all of the military uses of the elephant, highlight its effects on the Greek and Roman mind, and offer theories to explain uncertainties about elephants. This information has been presented largely from the ancient sources’ point of view. This method increases the reader’s understanding of the impact that the elephant had upon the men of antiquity.

Two species of elephants were in existence during the Greek and Roman period: the Indian and African. Both species have survived to the present day. The back of the Indian elephant is convex. The cows have very small tusks or none at all. The highest point of its body is the top of its head and the forehead is slightly indented. The African elephant is distinguished by its large triangular ears and concave back. The African is divided into two subspecies: the Bush elephant and the Forest elephant. The major difference in the two subspecies is in the size. The average adult Bush is over eight feet at the shoulder, and the Forest is under that figure.1
The African elephants were taken from North and East Africa. The Ptolemies of Egypt exploited this group particularly. Elephants were widespread in Syria, but the myth of a Syrian elephant as distinct from the Indian and African must be dismissed. There is no evidence of such a difference.2


A variety of methods were employed in antiquity to trap elephants, such as pits, falling spears, bamboo ring traps, trunk snares, ham-stringing, fire, poisoned arrows, and the corral.3 Arrian records a method of hunting Indian elephants from which he quotes Megasthenes: “They choose a place that is level and open to the sun’s heat and dig a ditch in a circle wide enough for a great army to encamp within it. They dig a ditch and heap the dirt up on either side as a wall. They make shelters for themselves dug out of the wall on the outside of the ditch and place small windows in them; through these, the light comes in and they watch the animals entering. Then they leave three or four of their tamest females within the enclosure and leave only one entrance by the ditch, making a bridge over it; and here they heap much earth and grass so that the animals cannot distinguish the bridge, and so suspect any trick. The hunters then hide in the shelters dug under the ditch. And when the elephants approach the ditch and hear the trumpeting of the females and perceive them by their scent, they rush to the walled enclosure. When the hunters see that the wild elephants have entered, some smartly remove the bridge…”4

A more aggressive method of hunting was used by the Ethiopians to neutralize the African elephant. Diodorus provides an account: “The elephant fighter seizes the elephant’s tail with his hands and plants his feet against its left flank; he has hanging from his shoulders an axe, light enough so that the blow may be struck with one hand and yet very sharp, and grasping this in his right hand, he ham-strings the elephant’s right leg, raining blows upon it and maintaining the position of his own body with his left hand. The ham-strung beast often collapses on the spot causing the death of the Ethiopian with his own; sometimes squeezing the man against a rock or tree it crushes him with its weight until it kills him.”5

The elephant was used in battle because of its immense size and great strength. When the Romans encountered the elephants of Pyrrhus “some (Romans) were killed by the men in the towers on the elephants’ backs, and others by the beasts themselves, which destroyed many with their trunks and tusks and crushed and trampled under foot many more (Zonaras VIII, 3).” Aelian recorded Ctesias as saying that he has seen “date-palms completely uprooted by elephants.”6Also, Mago’s elephants “trampled to death twenty-two sons of nobles serving in the Roman cavalry (Livy XXX, 18).” Once one of Scipio’s wounded elephants was “crushing a sutler underfoot when a veteran in Caesar’s army distracted the beast which then lifted him in the air with its trunk; whereupon the soldier kept hacking at the trunk with his sword until pain caused the beast todrop him.”7

Elephants were sometimes equipped with frightening headpieces and breastplates for defensive armor. Arrian (Jact. 2.4) states that elephants’ tusks were armed with sharp iron, while the poet Silius Italicus (IX, 581-3) refers to spears fastened to the tusks. Elephants also wore clanging bells around their necks in battle. Sometimes war-elephants carried only a mahout (the keeper/trainer of the elephant, normally imported from India). At times the elephant carried on or more armed soldiers on its back while some had towers or castles containing warriors. The towers were fastened to the elephant’s back by means of ropes or chains which passed around its body on the front, middle, and backside.8

The elephant was a serious fighting machine in antiquity. Elephants could (and often did) almost solely determine the course of battle. After Antiochas had won an elephant-victory over the terrified Gauls, he wept and called out, “Shame my men, whose salvation came through these sixteen beasts. If the novelty of their appearance had not struck the enemy with panic, where should we have been?”9Had Antiochas not possessed his sixteen elephants, he might well
have lost the battle.

These animals had tremendous potential, but were also unpredictable in battle – which is why the Romans did not use the beasts until late; and when they did use them, it was always in small numbers. Elephants sometimes had to be killed by their mahouts if they got out of hand in battle. If an elephant was wounded in battle and reversed his course, breaking his own phalanx, the mahout was forced to drive a chisel down between the beast’s ears with a mallet (Livy XXVII, 46-49). Other elephant riders carried knives bound to their right hands in order to kill the unruly beast with a blow where the head joins the neck (Ammianus XXV, 1.4).

The elephant was a weapon. There were several different uses of the elephant on the battlefield. They were useful in attacking infantry and cavalry, in acting as a defensive screen against enemy missiles and cavalry, in storming camps, and in siege warfare.

In fighting Alexander in India, Porus used elephants to attack the Macedonian infantry. This may be the reason why Alexander used such a small part of his heavy infantry in this battle. In the battle between the Carthaginians and Regulus, the Spartan commander, Xanthippus, sent forth his elephants in advance of the phalanx; Regulus did not know that open order was the way to meet them, and they ploughed through the massed legionaries with a devastating effect.10The common phalanx was like a lengthy, mobile wall of shields were literally locked together beside one another. If the wall could be broken severely, then the attackers could often rout the enemy infantry easily.

Elephants were used effectively on many occasions to rout enemy cavalry. Antiochas triumphed over the Galatians this way. Lucian writes, “…A group of four or five elephants were sent against the cavalry on either flank, the remaining eight attacked the scythed and two-horse chariots… Neither the Galatians themselves nor their horses had previously seen an elephant, and they were so confused by the unexpected sight, that while the beasts were still a long way off and they would only hear the trumpeting and see their tusks gleaming… they turned and fled in a disorderly route before they were within bowshot. Their infantry was trampled by their own frightened cavalry.”11

The Macedonian powers used their elephants almost entirely as a screen against cavalry. The classical instance is Ipsus, where the 480 elephants that Seleucus brought into action formed a screen, which prevented Demetrius, after his victorious cavalry charge, from returning to the battlefield, though his horses were trained to elephants. In the battle at Paraitakene, both Antigonus and Eumenes attempted to use elephants as screens against the enemy cavalry. A development of the screen idea was shown by Pyrrhus at Heraclea, where he used his elephants to protect the wings of his phalanx.12

The Carthaginians under the command of Hanno stormed an entrenched Roman camp successfully. The survivors fled. When the Jugurthan army engaged the Romans, Bomilcar, who had been put in command of the elephants and part of the infantry, thrust between the two Roman detachments, and while the main battle was raging, he attacked Rutilius’ camp. As long as they felt protected by their elephants, the Numidians pressed on, but when they saw the elephants entangled in the branches of some trees and separated from one another, the fled. Livy gives an account of an incident in which Hannibal’s elephants broke into a Roman camp causing much confusion until driven out by fire and how in the Third Punic War, Aemilianus stormed the Carthaginian camp at Nepheris.13 Camp storming by an elephant army seems to have been a rare phenomenon which was used successfully on some occasions.

Elephants were sometimes used in siege warfare. Aristotle writes that “an elephant, by pushing with his big tusks, can batter down a wall and will butt with his forehead at a palm until he brings it down (Hist. Animal.IX.1).” The Macedonians began using elephants to break into fortified places. Perdiccas did this in his campaign against Ptolemy and Polyperchon at the siege of Megalopolis. The Carthaginians tried to force the Roman trenches outside Panoramus with elephants. The elephant was generally not very effective at siege warfare. The usual counter-methods were to pick off the drivers and to put down caltrops which lamed the animals.14

Armies used elephants in three other minor ways: execution of prisoners, fording rivers, and in training horses. Curtis records that thirty prisoners were “trampled to death by the feet of the elephants of the Macedonian commander, Perdiccas (X, 9.18).” Also, the Carthaginians, under Hamilcar, had some of their prisoners thrown to the elephants to be trampled to death in the war with the mercenaries. When the Macedonians were fighting the Egyptians, the Macedonian army attempted to cross the Nile, but the men were up to their chins in water and found the current too strong. So Perdiccas placed elephants in the river, upstream, to break the force of the water, while he put cavalry on the downstream side of his men to help those who were being swept away. Also, the Persian army placed elephants in both sides of the Phasis River as far as they could stand behind a barrier of stockades and boats in order to help the passage of the Persians against the current.15Every wise general in the Graeco-Roman period kept at least a few elephants with the army in order to train the cavalry for future elephant battles. Untrained horses would always flee elephants in battle.

Elephants were often held back behind the lines in reserve for a critical moment in battle. This was done especially if the number of elephants was small. Lucius Scipio kept his sixteen African beasts in reserve rather than have them face Antiochas/ fifty-four Indians.16 The Roman strategy of deploying only a small number of elephants on the battlefield worked quite well. The normal position of elephants was in front of the main battle-line or in front of part of it. They were not kept too close to the front line in order that they might have some room to retreat if necessary and also to allow the infantry ample time to open up the line to let them through. The non-elephant armies developed all sorts of methods of trying to cope with the onslaught of elephants. The military genius, Scipio Africanus, developed the solution to the problem of how an army should face elephants. He left lanes in his battle-line along which the elephants could be channeled to the rear and gotten out of the way.17 Scipio foiled Hannibal by using the tactic at the battle of Zama.

Armies developed anti-elephant weapons. In attack, the aim was to try to surround individual beasts, threatening them from the flank and rear. For this, special weapons might be devised, such as the scimitars and axes used by Alexander. Caesar used slingers who could aim at the mahout as well as the elephant. During the Sassanid Wars cataphracts (men armored with iron spikes which prevented the elephants from seizing them with their trunks) were used. The Romans were said to have deployed iron-pointed beams mounted on wagons against Pyrrhus. The ingenious Romans also used chariots drawn by armored horses, an arrow-firing catapult mounted on a vehicle drawn by horses or mules, and fire carts. Polyperchon used nail studded frames as moveable barriers at Megalopolis and Ptolemy laid an iron-spiked minefield at Gaza.18

The ancient sources are very clear in indicating that pigs were used to deter elephants in battle. Pliny writes “elephants are scared by the smallest squeal of a pig; and when wounded and frightened, they always give ground (VIII, 1.27).” Aelian says that “it was by these squealing pigs, they say, that the Romans turned to flight the elephants of Pyrrhus and won a glorious victory (1,38).” The most frequently told tale concerning pigs as a counter weapon to elephants may be represented by Aelian and Polyaenus: when Antigonas Gonatas was besieging Megara, the Megarians succeeded in routing the besiegers’ elephants by dousing pigs in oil and igniting them and then turning them loose against the elephants.

One might object that this is hardly a fair test of the elephant’s reaction to pigs per se; but both authors specifically state that the beasts were startled by the squeal rather than by the fire. The flames were simply a means of guaranteeing a satisfactory squeal. As a final instance of the effect of pigs on elephants in battle, it is feasible to examine Procopius’ account of events at Edessa. The city was being besieged by Chosroes, and an elephant with many soldiers on its back was driven up to the city wall and towered over it. The resourceful inhabitants thrust a squealing pig over the wall and into the face of the looming elephant. The result was panic and retreat.19 Altogether the pig seems to have been quite an effective weapon against the elephant, although its use does not appear to have been widespread in the ancient world.

An important aspect of the war-elephant was its psychological impact upon the opposing force. A certain part of every battle was fought in the minds of the armies. Elephants would always inspire confidence in an army in which they were a part, while they would have the opposite effect upon the enemy—especially if the enemy soldiers had never faced these juggernauts. The brilliant armor worn by the beasts added to the fear felt by an enemy infantryman. Diodorus states that the elephants of an Indian king were “equipped in an extremely splendid fashion with things which would strike terror in war (II,16).” Ammianus adds his view of approaching war-elephants: ”With the army, making a lofty show, slowly marched the lines of the elephants, frightful with their wrinkled bodies and loaded with armed men, a hideous spectacle, dreadful beyond every form of horror, as I have often declared. “20

Polyaenus records that “Caesar had one large elephant, which was equipped with armor and carried archers and slingers in its tower. When this unknown creature entered the river, the Britons and their horses fled and the Roman army crossed over (VIII, 23.5).” In this case the elephant was the sole reason for the advance. Clearly, the elephant had the ability to provoke fear in the enemy even if in reality the beast was an unpredictable weapon. Hannibal knew of this psychological effect as Pliny relates an account which declares that “Hannibal pitted a Roman prisoner against an elephant, and this man, having secured a promise of his freedom if he killed the animal, met it single-handed in the arena and much to the chagrin of the Carthaginians dispatched it. Hannibal realized that reports of this encounter would bring the animals into contempt, so he sent horsemen to kill the man as he was departing (VIII, I.16).” Obviously Hannibal was trying to protect the gruesome reputation of his living weapons.

W.W. Tarn states that “there is a modern belief that the elephant was the tank of antiquity” and that to compare the elephant with a tank is, in his opinion, “quite misleading.”21 Tarn, however, is entirely wrong. The elephant and tank bear in common all of the major uses I have outlined: infantry and cavalry attack, defensive screens, camp storming, and siege warfare. Megasthenes writes that “the elephant carries four persons, the driver and three bowmen (Strab. XV, 52).” The tanks of World War I and II often had a crew of one driver and several gunners. Although not nearly as heavy, elephants sometimes possessed armor. Elephants with towers that housed sharpshooters were even more like tanks.

Besides the tactical and physical parallels, the early tank had the same psychological effect as the elephant. A French tank commander during World War I gives this account: “We crossed the Soissons road in columns of half sections…where we moved east and deployed. The surprised Germans received us at first with machine-gun fire. A bullet came through the left visor and wounded my driver on the shoulder. The section by this time opened fire on the enemy who ran away panic stricken.”22 One would need only overlook the advanced machinery and technology for this account to sound exactly like an ancient elephant battle.

Both W. W. Tarn and the editors of The Oxford Classical Dictionary purport that the common idea that the African elephant was smaller and weaker than the Indian elephant is a “thoughtless literary cliché” and offer “heavy weights recorded for Ptolemaic tusks” as conclusive evidence.”23 However, Diodorus, Pliny, and others all agree that the African elephant is inferior in size and strength. Furthermore, H. H. Scullard refutes the tusk theory emphasizing that there are actually two subspecies of African elephants: the common Bush elephant and the smaller Forest elephant. The Forest elephant was the African elephant of the ancient world. Many have surmised that the battle of Raphia, where Indian and African elephants met, demonstrated that the African is inferior because of its defeat there. However, the Indians outnumbered the Africans significantly and therefore it is unfair to cite the outcome of the battle as a valid test as to which elephant was the best fighting machine.

When Pyrrhus was asked by Tarentum to help fight Rome, he sent a force of 25,000 men and 20 elephants from the Greek peninsula. He was faced with the problem of transporting the beasts to Tarentum. All of the ancient sources are silent on this matter. Clearly, the elephants must have crossed the Adriatic Sea somehow. This problem has baffled scholars for centuries. The shortest distance was forty miles across. When Metellus had to transport his elephants across the Straits of Messina for display in Rome, he constructed a raft made up of large jars which were fastened in such a way that they could not break apart or clash; this framework was then covered with planks; earth and brushwood were placed on top so that the raft looked like a farmyard. On this, the elephants ferried across. This method is the most plausible one for Pyrrhus to have used since the Mediterranean would have been calm during the spring. Also, elephant eyesight is weak in bright sunlight and thus the beasts could have been more easily tricked into entering the disguised barge. Moreover, the Carthaginians were later to transport their elephants from Africa to Sicily by sea. The raft method was used to cross rivers and to travel on the Red Sea by Ptolemy.24

The only non-military uses of the elephant were in circuses, games and religious processions. Occasionally a private individual would own an elephant for a luxurious mode of transportation. Horrifying spectacles of carnage were observed by those attending the Roman games. Cicero was repulsed by elephant fights in the arena and remarked “What pleasure can a cultivated man find in seeing a noble beast run through by a hunting spear? (Ad Familiares VII,1.3).” Despite all the carnage, elephants astounded audiences by kneeling before emperors, walking tightropes, and dancing. Representing symbols of light, forty highly trained elephants escorted Julius Caesar up to the Capitol with lighted torches in their trunks for his triumph. This type of procession was used earlier in the East.25

The elephant, with its many different functions, was an important shaper of history. This animal decided the fate of many battles in the Greek and Roman world. The use of elephants in the military forced the production of counter-weapons and thus stimulated technological developments. The elephant has a place in history, a large one.

Glossary

Adriatic Sea – the sea separating the Italian and Greek peninsulas
Aelian – Roman writer in the early third century A.D.
Aemilianus – Roman emperor in A.D. 253
Ammianus – noted Roman historian (A.D. 330)
Antigonus – son of Philip of Macedon and a commander in Alexander’s Army
Antiochas – son of Seleucas, a gneral in Alexander’s army
Arrian – historian and governor of Cappadocia under Hadrian in the second century A.D.
Bush elephant – the larger subspecies of the African elephant
Caltrop – an iron ball with four projecting spikes: threeon the ground and the fourth pointing upward
Cow – the mature female elephant
Ctesias – Greek doctor in the fifth century B.C.
Curtius – rhetorician and historian in first century A.D. Rome
Demetrius – Macedonian commander in the fourth century B.C.
Diodorus – Greek historian of the first century B.C. who wrote a world history
Eumenes – king of Pergamum in the third century B.C. who wrote a world history
Forest elephant – the smaller of the subspecies of the African elephant
Hamilcar – fifth century B.C. Carthaginian general
Hanna – Carthaginian general in the third century B.C.
Jugurtha – commander of the Numidians in the second century B.C.
Livy – great Roman historian (59 B.C.-A.D. 17)
Lucian – Greek writer of the second century A.D.
Lucius Scipio – son of Scipio Africanus, was captured in the war with Antiochas
Mago – founder of the military power of Carthage (520 B.C.)
mahout – the keeper/trainer of an elephant
Megasthenes – Ionian who wrote on the topography, religion, and customs of India (300 B.C.)
Metellus – Roman commander in the third century B.C. against Carthage
Perdiccas – commander of Macedonian infantry (321 B.C.)
Phalanx – the classic order of battle for infantry
Pliny – Roman writer in the first century A.D.
Polyaenus – Macedonian rhetorician and writer in the second century A.D.
Polyperchon – commander of a brigade in Alexander’s infantry
Porus – Paurava king who fought Alexander in the third century B.C.
Procopius – Byzantine writer in the sixth century A.D.
Ptolemies – Macedonian dynasty in Egypt
Ptolemy – third century B.C. Macedonian king
Pyrrhus – king of Epirus who assisted Tarentum against the Romans (280 B.C.)
Regulus – Roman consul in 267 B.C.
Rutilius – Roman commander in the early second century B.C.
Scimitar – curved Oriental sword with an edge on the convex side
Scipio – Roman commander in the third century B.C.
Scipio Africanus – Roman general (237 – 183 B.C.) who defeated Hannibal to end the second Punic War
Seleucus – Macedonian general who obtained the satrapy of Babylonia
Silus Italicus – Roman poet in the first century A.D.
sutler – a merchant who traveled with an army and provided food and supplies


Notes

1 H.H. Scullard, The Elephant in the Greek and Roman World (New York: Cornell University Press, 1974), pp. 23-24.

2 Scullard, pp. 25-26, 29-30.

3 Scullard, p. 58.

4 Arrian records Megasthenes, as quoted by Scullard, p. 56

5 Diodorus in Scullard, p. 128.

6 Aelian in Scullard, p. 34.

7 Scullard, p. 197.

8 Scullard, pp. 239-240.

9 Scullard, p. 122.

10 W. W. Tarn, Hellenistic Military and Naval Developments (New York: Biblo and Tannen, 1966), pp. 97-98.

11 K. Kilburn, Lucian(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1959), pp. 165-7.

12 Tarn, pp. 96-97.

13 Scullard, pp. 152, 193, 163, 249.

14 Tarn, pp. 95-96.

15 Scullard, pp. 153, 79, 206.

16 Toynbee, p. 37.

17 Scullard, pp. 246-7.

18 Scullard, pp. 112, 247-8.

19 David Bright and Barbara Bowen. “Emblems, Elephants and Alexander.” Studies in Philology, ed. Jerry Mills (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1983), pp. 19, 20.

20 John C. Rolfe, Ammianus Marcellinus (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1956), p.47.

21 Tarn, pp. 95-6.

22 Kenneth Macksey, Tank Warfare (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1971), p. 57.

23 M. Cary, J. D. Denniston, J. Wight Duff, A. D. Nock, W. R. Ross, H. H. Scullard, eds., The Oxford Classical Dictionary (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1968), pp. 312-313.

24 Scullard, pp. 16, 149, 152.

25 J.M.C. Toynbee, Animals in Roman Life and Art (New York: Cornell University Press, 1973), pp. 47, 48, 23.

 

 

Bibliography

Bright, David, and Barbara Bowen. “Emblems, Elephants, and Alexander,” Studies in Philology, (1983), 14-24. Cary, M., and J. D. Denniston, and J. W. Duff, and A. D. Nock, The Oxford Classical Dictionary. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1968. Halle, Armin. Tanks; an illustrated history of…. Greenwich: New York Graphic Society, 1971. Kilburn, L. Lucian. Lucian. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1974. Macksey, Kenneth. Tank Warfare. London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1971. Rolfe, John C. Ammianus Marcellinus, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1974. Scullard, H. H. The Elephant in the Greek and Roman World, New York: Cornell University Press, 1974. Tarn, W. W. Hellenistic Military and Naval Developments, New York: Biblo and Tannen, 1966. Toynbee, Jr. M.C. Animals in Roman Life and Art, New York: Cornell University Press, 1973.

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