The war elephant in antiquity. Part two.

(for Part One click here)

Pyrrhus in Italy.

Pyrrhus was one of antiquity’s more curious characters. Part Odysseus in his wanderings and Achilles in his fighting he was unfortunate to borrow from the character of Agamemnon when it came to politics. When a son asked him who he would leave his Kingdom to he answered “to whoever has the sharpest sword”. 

Pyrrhus avoided answering this delicate problem as he was forced from Epirus. He then became a general for hire.  Tarentum, a Greek city in southern Italy recruited him to combat a growing and belligerent neighbour to the north, Rome.

In 280 BCE Pyrrhus met a Roman force at the Battle of Heraclea. With a reasonably well-trained army (around 30,000) he could only field 20 elephants, which underpins a vital aspect concerning them. The Wars of the Successors had been fought in and around the Levant and Middle East, where elephants could be more easily recruited.

Fighting at such a distance from the eastern Mediterranean stretched the supply route. It became very difficult to source and transport elephants from the east. Still, the 20 elephants made a huge impression. The Roman cavalry bolted at the sight of them allowing Pyrrhus to win the day.

However, the Romans (as many other Europeans were to discover at their cost) were an ingenious bunch. In 279 BCE Rome fought Pyrrhus at Asculum but this time had a plan to deal with the elephants. As the elephants charged they encountered anti-elephant devices. Dionysus of Halicarnassus described them as:

wagons with upright beams which had poles which could be swung around. At the end of the poles were tridents or grapnels which had been daubed in pitch and set alight when the elephants came near[1].

Rome fielded approximately 300 of these chariots which were pulled by oxen. The chariots weren’t exactly mobile, perhaps wagons is a better word for them. They initially offered some protection against the elephants.However, Roman light infantry soon overran them.

 Elephants then tore through the Roman lines. Pyrrhus was victorious and once more it was use of the elephants which had turned the battle.

Faliscan plate depicting Pyrrhus’ elephants.

Pyrrhus in Sicily and Greece.

The Greeks on Sicily had taken note of Pyrrhus and recruited him to help them against the Carthaginians.  Pyrrhus was largely successful. However, his lack of political acumen saw him lose favour. In 275 BCE he was forced from Sicily. 

Pyrrhus returned to the Greek mainland and was hired to take the city of Argos. He decided to use stealth to take the city by night. Presumably he bribed a guard or two, in any case the gates were open. All that was left was for Pyrrhus to march his men in and storm the city.

What prevented him wasn’t a person, it was the height of the gates. These weren’t tall enough to let the elephants in. The towers (or howdahs) had to be taken off the animals. Unsurprisingly someone noticed and the alarm was sounded. Fighting filled the streets and the confined spaces of a city fight did not suit the elephants. They stampeded onto their own troops.

The calamitous nature of the battle hit new heights, literally. Pyrrhus met his end after being hit by a tile thrown from a rooftop possibly by the mother of a soldier he was fighting. 

In stark contrast to the early successes with elephants Pyrrhus’ final battle borrows more from Aristophanes than it does Homer. Aside from this Pyrrhus’ impact had cannot be denied. He brought Asian elephants to the Mediterranean and bested the Romans. Pyrrhus had also showcased the elephant as a military unit with some potential.

Carthage presumably noted the potential of the elephant, especially after its experience of Pyrrhus on Sicily. It had extensive trade networks, and may have considered importing elephants straight from Asia. However, this would have been a costly affair in terms of both money and time.

Carthage did have access to  a native species, the North African Forest Elephant (now sadly extinct). These were smaller than their Asian cousins, measuring 2.5 metres (8.2 feet) at the shoulders. The towers which were the signature of the Asian elephant were rarely, utilised by the Forest variety. Instead they were a more mobile unit.

Carthage and Rome.

With the outbreak of the first Punic War (264-241 BCE) Carthage shipped elephants to the general Hanno, who was fighting the Romans on Sicily. Polybius reports that Hanno had 50 elephants when attacking the Roman force besieging Agrigentum[2]

The Roman infantry broke the Carthaginian lines and they fell back on their own elephants causing further mayhem. Polybius’ account of the defeat outside Agrigentum presents the elephant as a liability.

Carthage understood it needed help in training its men and some military expertise. In response it hired Xanthippus, a Spartan mercenary. Rome landed a force in 255 BCE outside of Carthage and Xanthippus marched to meet them.

 Xanthippus  placed his elephants out in front of the Carthaginian force (around 100 animals). They formed a single line and at quite some distance from the army now behind them. Xanthippus presumably realised that if the elephant charge failed it would result in them retreating back across his own men. The distance therefore acted as insurance in case this happened.

There was no subtlety here, the job of the elephants was to crash through the line. They duly obliged. The Carthaginian following behind infantry fell upon the bruised and battered Romans. Polybius notes that of the 15,000 Romans only 2,000 or so survived[3]. It was a devastating defeat for Rome.

The effect of the elephant charge that day became something etched into the Roman psyche. Polybius’ commented that for two years following it the Roman forces back in Sicily avoided engaging Carthage on flat ground for this reason[4].

In 250 BCE a Carthaginian force attacked the area around the Roman occupied city of Panormus. Wisely the Romans in the city refused to leave the safety of it and Carthage allowed its elephants too close to the city walls.

Roman defenders on the walls peppered the elephants with javelins. The wounded elephants panicked and ran back onto the Carthaginian troops. The Romans saw an opportunity for a counter attack and sallied from Panormus, driving the Carthaginian force away and capturing most of the elephants. Polybius wrote that the success of the Roman forces at Panormus revitalised their confidence, particularly in the context of facing elephants[5]

Hamilcar and Hannibal.

After the Second Punic War Carthage engaged in a conflict with mercenaries it couldn’t pay. This became known as the Mercenary War and lasted from 240-238 BCE. Carthage showed little inclination in dropping the elephant from the army roster and employed them against the mercenaries. During the siege of Utica the Carthaginian general Hanno attacked the mercenary camp and used the elephants to storm it.

At an encounter in 240 BCE Hamilcar defeated a mercenary force at The Battle of the Bagradas River. His army contained 70 elephants, though the exact details of how these were used is debated. Hamilcar continued fighting the mercenaries and this concluded with his victory at the Battle of the Saw in 238 BCE.

In 237 BCE Hamilcar left Carthage for the Iberian Peninsula and took with him his young son, Hannibal. Carthaginian expansion in the south and south east of Iberia involved diplomacy and war (click here to listen to my podcast on this). By 221 BCE Carthage had established what might be considered a mini Carthaginian state, with Carthago Nova (Cartagena) as its capital.

Hamilcar’s son, Hannibal, was now in charge. Before he could leave for Rome and he needed to cement his power base further. Hannibal moved into the centre of Iberia and took Hermandica (modern-day Salamanca). He then headed back to Carthago Nova only to find an uprising had occurred which cut him off from his return.

Despite the immediate danger Hannibal crossed the Tagus, in the region near Toledo. He camped on the other side and waited for the oncoming enemy. The rebels saw this as easy pickings. For them a foreign force cut off from their base represented ample opportunity to win fame and pick up some nice trinkets. They were eager to engage, and Hannibal used this against them.

Hannibal had camped far enough from the river to encourage the rebels to cross it and the rebels duly obliged. As the rebels waded through the waters, he brought his army out to meet them. The Numidian cavalry picked off those fording the river and any who managed to cross had elephants facing them. Students of Hannibal might think of Trebia where a similar fate met the Roman force as they crossed the freezing waters.

Carthaginian coin minted 237BC-209BC (circa).

To Rome.

On his march to Italy Hannibal faced two geographical challenges in the context of elephantine logistics. The first sounds like a riddle. Hannibal needed to get his 37 elephants across the river Rhone.

Hannibal answered the conundrum with rafts. His men constructed these and piled earth on them so they resembled solid ground. Soldiers on the other side of the river pulled the rafts across using ropes. It was an ingenious solution. Even so it wasn’t a total success; some elephants fell in the river. The elephants didn’t mind this too much and made their way across. 

The second challenge was the Alps. Freezing temperatures and snaking mountain passes are not places where an elephant will excel. What made it worse was the tribes who harried and raided the exposed and strung out Carthaginian column. Yet elephants did provide some protection against this. The local tribes were scared of the elephants and didn’t attack sections of the column where they marched.[6]

The Battle of the Trebia.

At Trebia in December 218 BCE Hannibal caught the Roman force sent against him as it crossed the river (you can watch my vlog on this). According to Polybius the elephants were stationed in front of the two wings and pushed the Roman infantry back into the freezing waters[7]. Livy’s account differs slightly, he reports that the light infantry was able to repel them from the centre using javelins before Hannibal moved them to the wings[8].

A cruel irony is that it was a Pyrrhic victory for the elephants. Both historians recount how most of the elephants died from the freezing conditions. A single elephant nicknamed The Syrian was all that remained from those who had crossed the Alps.  

Following Trebia Hannibal won two major victories over Rome at Trasimene and Cannae. Elephants didn’t feature in either due to the losses of these he had incurred at Trebia. However, this paucity of pachyderms wasn’t to last. As Hannibal campaigned in southern Italy he was able to source fresh troops and elephants.

In the exchange at Nola in 215 BCE Livy drops in a mention of Hanno arriving with reinforcements from Carthage which included elephants[9]. The most likely conclusion is that these were brought by sea as opposed to the arduous march Hannibal had taken. Locri, at the toe end of Italy, is given as a place where similar reinforcements had landed[10].

The ability to move elephants across from Carthage to southern Italy might come as quite a surprise. After all, Polybius wrote how Hannibal had to solve the problem of getting them across a river. Yet moving elephants across the sea on ships certainly happened. It’s possible that the elephants were happy below deck as they couldn’t see the water around them.

Southern Italy.

Elephants therefore played a role in military manoeuvres with Hannibal in southern Italy. They were with him when he faced Marcellus at Numistro in 210 BCE and a year later at Canusium. Marcellus targeted the elephants and again the elephants stampeded on their own troops.  

Elephants were a liability if you could harass them at close range and force them to rout. Yet it wasn’t as easy as it sounded. The counter to the elephant was simple but dangerous. But it could be incredibly effective. 

Hasdrubal, Hannibal’s brother, crossed the Alps and brought into the Italian peninsula an army intended to meet up with Hannibal’s. Rome sent a force to intercept and the two armies met at the Metaurus river in central Italy in 207 BCE.

Initially the elephants charged the Roman line and succeeded in causing havoc. This didn’t last long and soon they routed. Boxed up in cramp conditions they caused as much damage to their own side as to Rome. 

Livy noted that it was their drivers who killed the majority of the elephants, using a mallet which they drove into the back of their heads[11]. This underlines the danger the rampaging elephants caused to the Carthaginians that day.

The last time Hannibal fielded elephants against Rome was back on African soil in 202 BCE at Zama. The wide plain allowed Hannibal to deploy his elephants and they charged at the Roman line. However, Scipio had a plan for this.

The Roman infantry opened corridors in their formation. The elephants simply ran down them. The charge had failed to impact on the Roman infantry. The battle raged for some time after before Scipio’s army managed to force the result. Hannibal escaped but Rome forced Carthage to surrender.

With Carthage reduced to another round of war reparations the elephant had lost its primary employer, in terms of warfare. Or at least in the Western Mediterranean.

 The Seleucids.

Though Carthage had embraced the elephant they were by no means the only practitioner. Other armies still recruited them. Across the Mediterranean, near modern-day Gaza, two sides met with elephants on either side.

Ptolemy IV and Antiochus III clashed at Raphia in 217 BCE. Each side boasted a large number of elephants, Ptolemy fielded 73 and Antiochus 102. It was more than just a clash of the two proponents as each army had sourced a particular species. Ptolemy preferred the African elephant, whereas Antiochus used the larger Asian elephant.

In this instance size did matter. Polybius reports that the north African elephants were scared of the Asian variety[12]. Further to his account Polybius wrote that there were towers on the African elephants. This is not a common feature on the smaller African elephant.

The Battle of Raphia provided a rare instance where two elephant species were deployed against each other. Ultimately the contest between them failed to make a wider impact as Ptolemy won the battle. Defeat didn’t stop Antiochus III and in 190 BCE he faced Rome at Magnesia.

Antiochus was able to deploy 54 Asian elephants. The Roman force included African elephants, possibly a first. Livy commented that they weren’t fielded due to the larger Asian elephant which faced them[13]. It’s also possible that Rome wasn’t keen in handling this type of unit. 

Livy’s account of the Asian elephants describes the large crests and towers on their backs. Rome had developed tactics and drills to face them, specifically attacking from the flanks and hamstringing the elephants[14]. This helped Rome win the battle and defeat left Antiochus as another Roman cash cow reduced to a paying a crippling war indemnity.

The Seleucid Empire and influence dwindled following its defeat by Rome. In Judea the Maccabee faction rose and revolted against the Seleucids. At Beth-Zechariah in 162 BCE the two sides met. The Maccabees faced an imposing army, numerically they were at a disadvantage and were more used to guerrilla strategies. The Seleucids soon had the upper hand and the Maccabees were being ground down.

In an attempt to inspire the troops and reverse the momentum Eleazar (the younger brother of Judah Maccabee) charged at the elephants, in particular one carrying the royal seal. The intention was to show that these beasts were beatable. It was a symbolic and heroic act. Eleazar made it underneath the elephant and succeeded in killing it by stabbing upwards into the belly.

Eleazar’s success was as short lived as Eleazar himself. The elephant duly collapsed, killing him as well. Though the Maccabees lost Eleazar’s charge became a byword for heroism. Where Eleazar had gained fame from charging an elephant an entire Roman legion achieved glory in an encounter with them.

Thapsus and Caesar.

In 46 BCE Julius Caesar fought those who his still opposed his rule following the Civil Wars. North Africa had become a refuge for those who still opposed him, and Caesar besieged the city of Thapsus. An army, led by Metellus Scipio, met him outside the city’s walls.

Scipio fielded 60 elephants, presumably the African variety and incorporated an unusual training drill with them. The elephants were lined up and slingers hurled stones at them, the intention being that they would be more resistant to a ranged attack [15]. It hadn’t just been Scipio who had incorporated a drill involving elephants.

Caesar also drilled his troops with elephants. He wanted to have his men accustomed to them so they would seem as intimidating. In particular Caesar’s cavalry ran mock fights with the elephants in order that the horses didn’t bolt at the sight and smell of them[16].

As the two forces lined up Scipio placed his 60 elephants on the wings (presumably 30 each). In response Caesar posted 5 cohorts of infantry in each wing along with archers, slingers and cavalry. Despite Scipio’s training the elephants panicked under the barrage of missiles and they began to crush their own troops.

The result was carnage for Scipio on his right wing. On the left wing the elephants came contact with the Roman infantry. Legio V Alaude, a legion composed of Gauls, resisted the charge and won fame by doing so. This, in itself, offers an interesting comment on the Roman war machine. Gauls recruited by a Roman general fought against a Roman force containing elephants, in North Africa. 

As a result Legio V Alaude took the elephant as their Legionary symbol to celebrate their bravery. The elephant wasn’t just a symbol for the soldiers of Legio V Alaude. Caesar issued a coin celebrating his victory which depicted the elephant.

Coin depicting the victory at Thapsus.

Elephants were a nightmare for a quartermaster. They needed a lot of food, were expensive to keep and had to be trained. An army on the march either had to slow to a crawl or leave them behind. Tactically they required a particular landscape to be effective and even then could still be a liability. It’s possible that by incorporating them into an army a general was making a statement about the resources available to him. 

This isn’t to say that they weren’t effective. In the right conditions elephants could deliver a hammer blow, but this could be easily registered on the wrong side. The size of the animals made for an easy target. 

The Romans weren’t keen on using the elephant in their armies. As such Roman dominance meant the elephant was safe from being enlisted. Sadly a greater threat came from the demands of the arena.

I mentioned at the beginning of Part One that the likes of Cicero and Pliny felt great respect for elephant.  Their reports of Romans watching elephants in the arena and feeling pity towards them is of some consolation. It took much to move the bloodthirsty crowds of the arena. That the elephant was able to do this points to how it could evoke a connection wherever it was encountered.

[1] Dionysus of Halicarnassus. Roman Antiquities. XX.1.7

[2] Polybius 1.19.

[3] Polybius 1.34.

[4] Polybius 1.39.

[5] Polybius 1.40.

[6] Polybius 3.53.

[7] Polybius 3.74

[8] Livy 21.55

[9] Livy 23.43

[10] Livy 23.41

[11] Livy 27.49

[12] Polybius 5.85

[13] Livy 37.39.

[14] Livy 37.42.

[15] Caesar. The African War. 25.

[16] Ibid. 72.