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Hannibal Riding a War Elephant

Hannibal Riding a War Elephant


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Study This Picture: Elephants Might Be the Most Insane War Weapon Ever

These beasts were formidable and could break the ranks of terrified enemy forces.

Key point: In ancient times, soldiers did ride horses into battle and facing a cavalry could be very scary. But imagine if instead you faced a wall of powerful, armored elephants?

Elephants were the tanks of the ancient battlefield.

An elephant charging into a group of soldiers or horses could decimate a formation. That’s assuming the sheer psychological impact of watching a giant war beast with pointy tusks—charging and shrieking like murder incarnate—didn’t first cause the opposing force to flee in terror.

This first appeared earlier and is being reposted due to reader interest.

They could smash fortifications, impale people on their tusks, and stomp people to death under their huge feet and enormous weight. They towered over the battlefield.

In addition to their brute strength and the inherent psychological impact on the enemy, elephants were incredibly useful for logistics. They’re also highly intelligent.

As recently as 2004, the U.S. Army even classed elephants as a pack animal, though also warned—in a field manual distributed to Special Operations Forces—that the giant herbivores “should not be used by U.S. military personnel” due to their endangered status and the inherent dangers in riding them.

But for 2,300 years, armies have used elephants to help fight wars. They have used the animals for fighting, hauling heavy equipment or working on construction projects. Elephants have a long and distinguished military career, from ancient conquests to well into the modern era.

On ancient battlegrounds

If there was one ancient general who was the most instrumental in the spread of elephants as a weapon of war, it was probably Alexander the Great.

The ancient king first encountered elephants during his conquest of Persia in the 2nd century BCE (Before the Common Era). Alexander was able to skillfully defeat the Persians and their elephants, but was nonetheless mesmerized by the terrifying beasts. He took the Persian elephants that survived the campaign—and attempted to build an army of his own elephants.

Alexander was always on the march, so he never had time to truly train his elephants into an effective combat force. Instead, he used them mostly for their logistical prowess and for the powerful psychological impact they had on their the enemies.

This began to change as Alexander marched into India and clashed with the elephant-equipped forces of King Porus of Paruava. Here Alexander saw what fully-trained war elephants could do in combat. His spear-armed troops fought them off by organizing into tight ranks—like a porcupine—but they did so at a terrible price.

After Alexander died and his kingdom splintered, an elephant arms raceensued throughout the ancient world. The animals served as a potent symbol of an army’s wealth, status and power. But as future campaigns would reveal, they also had their weaknesses.

More than a century later, Hannibal of Carthage led his daring march across the Alps with an army of elephants. Hannibal, one of antiquity’s most celebrated generals, hoped to meet his Roman enemies head on with his war beasts. Ironically—as Hannibal is famous for it—this feat turned into a major blunder.

Elephants, not historically known for living in cold, high-altitude environments, proved ill-suited to the task of scaling the Alps. Many died crossing the mountains. Even the ones who survived the trek came out famished, exhausted and sick. When Hannibal met the Romans in combat at the Battle of Zama, the elephants proved ineffective.

To make matters worse for Hannibal, the Romans had developed anti-elephant tactics learned after earlier campaigns against the Greek kingdom of Espirus.

Hannibal lined his elephants up in front of his army—a screening force except with six-ton, man-crushing animals. The Roman general Scipio Africanus responded by creating gaps in his lines. When the elephants charged, the Romans funneled them through these open gaps, and dispatched them in Scipio’s rear.

The Romans also outmaneuvered Hannibal’s elephants with javelin-throwing troops, and mounted spikes on their wagons in order to wound the animals. The Romans also set fires to frighten them away.

Hannibal’s campaign also revealed several other weaknesses.

For one, when put under extreme stress, elephants can become unruly and difficult to control. Some of the more aggressive male elephants would sometimes pick fights with each other, causing major disruptions to operations as well as putting friendly troops around them at risk.

After Hannibal, the Romans adopted elephants—poetically so—during their campaign to conquer the late Alexander’s kingdom of Macedonia. Yet the golden age of the war elephants was coming to an end, at least in Europe.

Elephants saw infrequent use during the Middle Ages. The Frankish king Charlemagne owned an Asian elephant named Abdul-Abbas—given to him by Harun Al Rashid, the caliph of Baghdad. This unfortunate pet met his end while marching north with his master during a war against King Godofrid of Denmark. Historians still debate whether Charlemagne actually intended to use Abdul-Abbas in battle or whether he was there as a status symbol.

Elephants were more common in Asia, where the Khmer fielded them to great effect during their 12th century conquest of the Chams. The Mongols encountered many elephants as they marched into southeast Asia—outmaneuvering them with archers in a manner similar to Roman javelins.

The advent of gunpowder made elephants even more of a rarity on the battlefield—as they became vulnerable to deadly musket volleys. But in the late 19th century, the Siamese army used the elephants against French colonial troops, sometimes even mounting musketeers on the elephants’ backs.

But elephants no longer had the same effect they once did. As the world became introduced to industrialized warfare in the form of machine guns, armored vehicles and chemical weapons, elephants suddenly didn’t seem so scary.

But that’s not to say that the armies of the world no longer had any use for their beasts of burden.

Elephants in modern warfare

Though the days of elephant offensive operations were over, elephants still proved useful in logistics and in support functions as pack animals. During World War I, armies pressed a few circus elephants into service to haul heavy equipment and artillery.

However, it was during World War II that a man named James Howard “Elephant Bill” William would show the world what elephants could do.

William was a British World War I veteran and infantry officer who supervised mules and camels while in the service. After the war, he moved to Burma and worked at the Bombay Burmah Trading Company, and became a supervisor of the company’s elephants, working to transport heavy goods and supplies through the jungle.

After the Japanese invasion and Allied retreat from Burma, William volunteered his services to the Allies, and became an adviser to the Royal Indian Engineers. His experience with elephants, and his fluent Burmese made him a valuable asset.

Elephants proved incredibly useful. Both Allied and Japanese forces fielded elephants in large numbers. They were able to move with relative ease through thick jungles—and could cross rivers that would otherwise mire vehicles.

As a result, elephants were instrumental in quickly moving heavy equipment and timber for construction projects. Elephants helped build bridges and roads necessary to move tanks and armored vehicles to the front.

Outside the jungle, the U.S. Army Air Corps used elephants at airfields in India. These animals hauled freight and helped load airplanes before their arduous journey across the Himalayas. In one case, the Americans even made use of elephants to conduct a salvage operation to reach a plane that crashed deep in a thick jungle, with a scout plane in the sky relaying instructions to elephant-mounted troops on the ground.

British Field Marshal William Slim, writing the forward for Elephant Bill’s autobiography, praised the contributions of the elephants.

“They built hundreds of bridges for us, they helped to build and launch more ships for us than Helen ever did for Greece,” Slim wrote. “Without them our retreat from Burma would have been even more arduous and our advance to its liberation slower and more difficult.”

But by far, the most famous individual elephant of the campaign was Lin Wang—an elephant who served on both sides of the war.

Lin Wang started his service as a pack animal for an Imperial Japanese Army unit. In 1943, Nationalist Chinese forces under the legendary Gen. Sun Liren captured Lin Wang, conscripting him and several other elephants into hauling supplies.

Lin Wang served under Sun for years. Chinese forces brought the animal across Burma to China—along with several other elephants—for use in construction projects. In 1947, Sun went to Taiwan, and brought the remaining three elephants with him, including Lin Wang.

The other two died of illness, and in 1952, the Nationalist army gave Lin Wang to the Taipei Zoo where he lived until 2003, dying at age 86.

The 1960s were the last time elephants were widely used in war.

Rebels employed elephants along the Ho Chi Minh trail—first by the Vietminh during the French Indochina War and later by both North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong forces throughout the Vietnam War—to move heavy ammunition and supplies.

During early stages of the war, South Vietnamese units occasionally used elephants in counter-guerrilla patrols, or would hire local elephant handlers to help them cross deep rivers or haul heavy equipment when conventional transport was unavailable.


4. He Rode on an Elephant

There are quite a few works of art depicting Hannibal on an elephant, but did he actually ride them? He most certainly did. Many of Hannibal’s elephants were of the smaller African variety, though there seems to have been at least one large Asian elephant as well. This large elephant seemed to have been the mount of choice for Hannibal. The elephant was named Surus, meaning “The Syrian” and was missing a tusk.

Hannibal likely rode the elephant as a status symbol. He recruited mercenaries from Spain and Gaul. The Gauls were often fickle with their alliances, and so the impressive show of a commander riding in on a massive elephant would help ensure that they would give continued loyalty.

Hannibal riding his elephant. The massive advantages gained from longer sightlines should not be underestimated. By Liftarn – CC BY 2.0

Hannibal rode the elephant through the swamps mentioned above and after he lost his eye he often rode into battle on his elephant to get a better view of the battlefield. At Cannae, especially, Hannibal was right behind his critically-positioned center, and his elevated view gave him the ability to send out precisely timed orders to his flanking units.

It is hard to tell how long Surus stayed alive as accounts of Hannibal’s elephants are conflicting and heavily debated. Surus may have died in the very first winter in Italy, or maybe it (likely a female) traveled all through Italy and back to Africa with Hannibal.

As a side note, both Livy and Polybius describe an elaborate method used to get the elephants across the Rhone river before crossing the Alps. Hannibal supposedly decorated the great barges to look like an extension of the land, with trees and earth. He then led a female elephant to the barge, causing the males to follow.

This is somewhat represented in the article’s cover image, though the reality was likely much more simple. Elephants are natural swimmers able to handle strong currents with ease. The elephants were probably just goaded to cross, though that may have required some special effort as well.


2,300 Years of Terror: Why You Don't Want to Fight an Elephant in a War

An elephant charging into a group of soldiers or horses could decimate a formation. That’s assuming the sheer psychological impact of watching a giant war beast with pointy tusks—charging and shrieking like murder incarnate—didn’t first cause the opposing force to flee in terror.

They could smash fortifications, impale people on their tusks, and stomp people to death under their huge feet and enormous weight. They towered over the battlefield.

In addition to their brute strength and the inherent psychological impact on the enemy, elephants were incredibly useful for logistics. They’re also highly intelligent.

As recently as 2004, the U.S. Army even classed elephants as a pack animal, though also warned—in a field manual distributed to Special Operations Forces—that the giant herbivores “should not be used by U.S. military personnel” due to their endangered status and the inherent dangers in riding them.

But for 2,300 years, armies have used elephants to help fight wars. They have used the animals for fighting, hauling heavy equipment or working on construction projects. Elephants have a long and distinguished military career, from ancient conquests to well into the modern era.

On ancient battlegrounds

If there was one ancient general who was the most instrumental in the spread of elephants as a weapon of war, it was probably Alexander the Great.

The ancient king first encountered elephants during his conquest of Persia in the 2nd century BCE (Before the Common Era). Alexander was able to skillfully defeat the Persians and their elephants, but was nonetheless mesmerized by the terrifying beasts. He took the Persian elephants that survived the campaign—and attempted to build an army of his own elephants.

Alexander was always on the march, so he never had time to truly train his elephants into an effective combat force. Instead, he used them mostly for their logistical prowess and for the powerful psychological impact they had on their the enemies.

This began to change as Alexander marched into India and clashed with the elephant-equipped forces of King Porus of Paruava. Here Alexander saw what fully-trained war elephants could do in combat. His spear-armed troops fought them off by organizing into tight ranks—like a porcupine—but they did so at a terrible price.

After Alexander died and his kingdom splintered, an elephant arms raceensued throughout the ancient world. The animals served as a potent symbol of an army’s wealth, status and power. But as future campaigns would reveal, they also had their weaknesses.

More than a century later, Hannibal of Carthage led his daring march across the Alps with an army of elephants. Hannibal, one of antiquity’s most celebrated generals, hoped to meet his Roman enemies head on with his war beasts. Ironically—as Hannibal is famous for it—this feat turned into a major blunder.

Elephants, not historically known for living in cold, high-altitude environments, proved ill-suited to the task of scaling the Alps. Many died crossing the mountains. Even the ones who survived the trek came out famished, exhausted and sick. When Hannibal met the Romans in combat at the Battle of Zama, the elephants proved ineffective.

To make matters worse for Hannibal, the Romans had developed anti-elephant tactics learned after earlier campaigns against the Greek kingdom of Espirus.

Hannibal lined his elephants up in front of his army—a screening force except with six-ton, man-crushing animals. The Roman general Scipio Africanus responded by creating gaps in his lines. When the elephants charged, the Romans funneled them through these open gaps, and dispatched them in Scipio’s rear.

The Romans also outmaneuvered Hannibal’s elephants with javelin-throwing troops, and mounted spikes on their wagons in order to wound the animals. The Romans also set fires to frighten them away.

Hannibal’s campaign also revealed several other weaknesses.

For one, when put under extreme stress, elephants can become unruly and difficult to control. Some of the more aggressive male elephants would sometimes pick fights with each other, causing major disruptions to operations as well as putting friendly troops around them at risk.

After Hannibal, the Romans adopted elephants—poetically so—during their campaign to conquer the late Alexander’s kingdom of Macedonia. Yet the golden age of the war elephants was coming to an end, at least in Europe.

Elephants saw infrequent use during the Middle Ages. The Frankish king Charlemagne owned an Asian elephant named Abdul-Abbas—given to him by Harun Al Rashid, the caliph of Baghdad. This unfortunate pet met his end while marching north with his master during a war against King Godofrid of Denmark. Historians still debate whether Charlemagne actually intended to use Abdul-Abbas in battle or whether he was there as a status symbol.

Elephants were more common in Asia, where the Khmer fielded them to great effect during their 12th century conquest of the Chams. The Mongols encountered many elephants as they marched into southeast Asia—outmaneuvering them with archers in a manner similar to Roman javelins.

The advent of gunpowder made elephants even more of a rarity on the battlefield—as they became vulnerable to deadly musket volleys. But in the late 19th century, the Siamese army used the elephants against French colonial troops, sometimes even mounting musketeers on the elephants’ backs.

But elephants no longer had the same effect they once did. As the world became introduced to industrialized warfare in the form of machine guns, armored vehicles and chemical weapons, elephants suddenly didn’t seem so scary.

But that’s not to say that the armies of the world no longer had any use for their beasts of burden.

Elephants in modern warfare

Though the days of elephant offensive operations were over, elephants still proved useful in logistics and in support functions as pack animals. During World War I, armies pressed a few circus elephants into service to haul heavy equipment and artillery.

However, it was during World War II that a man named James Howard “Elephant Bill” William would show the world what elephants could do.

William was a British World War I veteran and infantry officer who supervised mules and camels while in the service. After the war, he moved to Burma and worked at the Bombay Burmah Trading Company, and became a supervisor of the company’s elephants, working to transport heavy goods and supplies through the jungle.

After the Japanese invasion and Allied retreat from Burma, William volunteered his services to the Allies, and became an adviser to the Royal Indian Engineers. His experience with elephants, and his fluent Burmese made him a valuable asset.

Elephants proved incredibly useful. Both Allied and Japanese forces fielded elephants in large numbers. They were able to move with relative ease through thick jungles—and could cross rivers that would otherwise mire vehicles.

As a result, elephants were instrumental in quickly moving heavy equipment and timber for construction projects. Elephants helped build bridges and roads necessary to move tanks and armored vehicles to the front.

Outside the jungle, the U.S. Army Air Corps used elephants at airfields in India. These animals hauled freight and helped load airplanes before their arduous journey across the Himalayas. In one case, the Americans even made use of elephants to conduct a salvage operation to reach a plane that crashed deep in a thick jungle, with a scout plane in the sky relaying instructions to elephant-mounted troops on the ground.

British Field Marshal William Slim, writing the forward for Elephant Bill’s autobiography, praised the contributions of the elephants.

“They built hundreds of bridges for us, they helped to build and launch more ships for us than Helen ever did for Greece,” Slim wrote. “Without them our retreat from Burma would have been even more arduous and our advance to its liberation slower and more difficult.”

But by far, the most famous individual elephant of the campaign was Lin Wang—an elephant who served on both sides of the war.

Lin Wang started his service as a pack animal for an Imperial Japanese Army unit. In 1943, Nationalist Chinese forces under the legendary Gen. Sun Liren captured Lin Wang, conscripting him and several other elephants into hauling supplies.

Lin Wang served under Sun for years. Chinese forces brought the animal across Burma to China—along with several other elephants—for use in construction projects. In 1947, Sun went to Taiwan, and brought the remaining three elephants with him, including Lin Wang.

The other two died of illness, and in 1952, the Nationalist army gave Lin Wang to the Taipei Zoo where he lived until 2003, dying at age 86.

The 1960s were the last time elephants were widely used in war.

Rebels employed elephants along the Ho Chi Minh trail—first by the Vietminh during the French Indochina War and later by both North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong forces throughout the Vietnam War—to move heavy ammunition and supplies.

During early stages of the war, South Vietnamese units occasionally used elephants in counter-guerrilla patrols, or would hire local elephant handlers to help them cross deep rivers or haul heavy equipment when conventional transport was unavailable.


Hannibal Riding a War Elephant - History

Livy XXI, 55

The Carthaginians were first introduced to the war elephant while fighting Pyrrhus in Sicily during their short visit there in 278. By 262, the Carthaginians had acquired their own war elephants, and in a sense, were addicted to incorporating these unreliable and unpredictable beasts into their military arsenal from that time forward. Instead of of the grand Indian elephants used by their Hellenistic forerunners, the Carthaginians were forced to use the smaller, and now extinct, African forest elephant. African elephants were particularly unreliable in battle, often turning on their own side with devastating results when panicked or wounded. In an attempt to prevent this, their drivers carried a metal spike which they were expected to plunge into the soft nape of the elephant's neck with a mallet when they had lost control of their charges.

The war elephant was used by the Carthaginian army with some success during the First Punic War and in later campaigns in Spain and Northern Africa. For the Barcids the elephant became an emblem of their power on the Iberian peninsula: its image appears on many high-value coins minted under the authority of Hansdrubal and Hannibal. The war elephant was also seen as a bridge between the military aspirations of the Barcid clan and the great Hellenistic tradition of which these beasts and long been a symbol. The war elephant brought some traditional validity to their military and their great campaigns

The elephants employed by the Carthaginians were smaller than the Indian elephants used by the Hellenistic kings (African forest elephants measured about 8 feet high at the shoulders while the Asian species often exceeded 10 feet) and so had to be used in a different manner. There is much debate on exactly how Hannibal used his elephants while on military campaign, other than as a way to simply intimidate the enemy. Recent research does show, in contradiction to previously held views, that Hannibal's smaller African forest elephants may have carried a howdah with soldiers, just as their larger Indian cousins had done.

Below is my recently completed Carthaginian war elephant. The figures are by Gripping Beast and are excellent as always. The soldier standing with the spear was originally intended to ride inside the howdah, but for this scene I preferred to have him standing on the ground next to the elephant. I also added a supply of extra spears to the howdah, which I thought to be reasonable. I am very pleased with the results.


The War Elephant



Elephants in battle
War elephants were important, although not widespread, weapons in ancient military history. Their main use was in charges, to trample the enemy and/or break their ranks. War elephants were exclusively male animals, as they are faster and more aggressive.

War elephants were so important that they were frequently portrayed on coins . 

War elephants seem to have come to the West from India, via Alexander the Great and his successors. One of these Pyrrhus, invaded Italy using elephants - and the Romans were terrified of them. Polybius does mention that it was the Indoi (or Indians) that were riding these elephants.

The widespread use of elephants seems to died out after Hannibal.



Silver Double Shekel, Spain, c230 BC
British Museum
The beautiful coin above - dated around 230 BC and shown about twice its original size - was issued by the Barcas in Carthaginian Spain and was part of the Mogente Hoard found in Valencia.


The head is thought to represent the Punic (Carthaginian) god Melqart, portrayed as resembling the Greek hero Herakles with a club over his shoulder. It may also resemble the current ruler - who would have been Hamilcar, Hannibal's father.

On the reverse is a very clear picture of a war elephant, as used by Hannibal in his great campaign against Rome. It is an African elephant and the driver or mahout is shown with a pointed tool used for controlling the creature. This picture does not show any 'tower' or other structure on the back of the elephant.

The elephants figured on the coins of Alexander, and the Seleucid kingdoms invariably exhibit the characteristics of the Indian type, whilst those on Punic and Roman medals can at once be identified as African, from the peculiarities of the convex forehead and expansive ears. However, there is some doubt as to whether African elephants were ever trained and used as war elephants.

The following example is a silver half shekel from in the Enna hoard and other Sicilian hoards indicating that this coin was struck in Carthage for use in the Sicilian campaign of 213 - 210 BC. Experts disagree on the identity of the portrait many identifying it as the god Melquarth, others as Hannibal or his father, Hamilcar. The elephant is clearly African.

On the following depiction of one of Pyrrhus' elephants, a howdah can be seen on the back of the elephant, housing two archers.


How many elephants did Hannibal take over the Alps?

In a bold attempt to take the war directly to Rome, the Carthaginian general Hannibal marched an army across the Alps and into northern Italy.

There is no real certainty of the size of force that Hannibal took with him, though estimates range from 20-40,000 infantry, 6-12,000 cavalry and 40 elephants. As Carthage was in North Africa, elephants were commonly used in war. They were a deadly weapon designed to charge, trample and generally create a sense of panic in the enemy, but from a Roman perspective, their use was a bizarre novelty.

In the event, although Hannibal did successfully negotiate the Alpine passes, his losses were considerable. Over half his army died in the severe, cold conditions, Hannibal himself was blinded in one eye, and it is recorded that only one of his elephants survived the trek. This lone elephant was used by Hannibal to ride in triumph into the city of Capua.

What happened to the animal afterwards is unknown, although the elephant certainly didn’t participate in any of the subsequent fighting, which led to Hannibal’s eventual defeat.


Could a war pig really defeat a war elephant? – Amazing history

Horses were commonplace for many years in armies, but their use receded in the twentieth century. Even so, throughout history a variety of other animals have been involved in wars. Here Adrian Burrows shares the incredible tale of a battle between a war pig and a war elephant.

Ever since humans realized that riding a horse into battle was much more effective than running on their own feet, animals have been an effective and potent game changer in war. For Alexander the Great, the horse proved vital in carving out his empire in the ancient world. Alexander’s ‘Companian’ cavalry would charge forward in a wedge formation, their maneuverability allowing them to be the hammer to the foot infantry’s anvil and proving decisive in battles across Asia.

The use of the horse in warfare has continued to been seen in history, transitioning from use as cavalry to the transport of artillery after the invention of gunpowder and increasingly more effective long-range weaponry. But everyone knows about the horse in the use of warfare what I want to share is the use of slightly more bizarre animals.

A depiction of the mighty war elephant.

Pigs and Elephants

Pigs versus elephants. It would be an odd match up that’s for certain, so first it’s important to clarify why pigs would be fighting elephants in the first place. Around the fourth century BC (no one’s particularly sure when) some bright spark in India decided that fighting while sat on an elephant would be a good idea. Indeed the general thoughts of Indian Kings at the time were that, “an army without elephants is as despicable as a forest without a lion, a kingdom without a king or as velour unaided by weapons.”

The sheer mass and thick hide of an elephant meant that they could not easily be stopped by the spears of infantry (unlike the much smaller horse) elephants can also reach a rather astonishing top speed of 25 miles per hour. Imagine, if you will, fifteen elephants charging towards you at almost the same speed as Usain Bolt (his top speed being 27.44mph) - it would certainly leave quite an impression on anyone in their way, both physically and (if you managed to walk away from it alive) mentally.

This already formidable creature was then enhanced with weapons and armor. In India and Sri Lanka heavy iron balls were chained to the trunk of elephants, which the animal was then trained to twirl and swirl with great dexterity and skill. Kings of Khmer utilized the elephants as mobile artillery, placing giant crossbow platforms on their backs that could fire long armor piercing shafts at the enemy.

So as you had a 4,500 kg mace wielding and arrow firing elephant, what exactly could stop it? The answer was not a lot the elephant was the tank of ancient times. Even Alexander the Great respected the power of the war elephant, praying to the god of fear before going into battle against them for the first time at the battle of Gaugamela in 331 BC, and ultimately incorporating them into his own army as his campaign continued.

So how could a pig possibly hope to defeat an elephant?

The world found out during the War of the Diadochi, in which Alexander the Great’s generals fought over his empire after his death. The battle in question was the Megara siege in 266 BC, in which Antigonus II Gonatus advanced upon the city with a vast army, including a great number of formidable war elephants. The Megarians had to break the siege at any cost but how could they possibly hope to defeat such a vast and mighty army?

Enter the war pig. Just let that thought settle for a moment.

First question, why even think of sending a pig to go and fight an elephant? Well, the Siege of Megara was not the first time that it happened nor was it originally the Megarians idea to do such a thing. Instead it was Pliny the Elder (the Roman author, naturalist and natural philosopher) who determined that “elephants are scared by the smallest squeal of the hog” which led to Romans utilizing squealing pigs and rams to repel the War Elephants of Pyrrhus in 275 BC. For the Megarians under siege, sending war pigs to attack war elephants didn’t seem nearly bizarre or dangerous enough. Instead they coated their war pigs in a flammable resin and set them on fire. The war pig had just become the incendiary pig. The Megarians drove the flaming pigs towards the massed ranks of war elephants in a screaming, squealing cacophony of angry burning pork. Despite the forceful commands of the mahouts (drivers) sat upon them, the elephants bolted. They ran back through their own ranks, crushing both man and horse and effectively crippling Antigonus II Gonatus’ forces in just a few moments.

The pig had been victorious. In the battle of war pig versus war elephant it was clear who the champion was.

Final Thoughts

So why did the war pig not catch on? Why is it not known throughout the world as an animal used in battles and to takes its place alongside horse, dog, cat, pigeon, and elephant?

Well the problem with a flaming war pig is that they have a relatively short range, about 400 feet, before the flames consume them. The other problem is that once you’ve set a pig on fire it is really rather tricky to tell them where to go (I don’t recommend you try it at home as a barbecuing technique). There was just as much chance that the war pig would dash through friendly forces as enemy forces, causing fires and chaos for both sides.

So, the memory of the war pig has faded somewhat over the last two thousand years. But that’s the wonderful thing about history, it’s all still there waiting to be discovered. And you have discovered it, now you know how a pig came to defeat an elephant.


Beautiful examples of elaborate War Elephant Armor

Elephants have been used in warfare since around 1100 BC. When Alexander the Great fought against the Persian leader Darius III at Gaugamela in Northern Iraq, there were fifteen Asian elephants there to assist the Persians in the battle. Alexander’s forces, never having seen an elephant before, were initially afraid of the large beasts, but even so, Alexander’s army won the day.

When Alexander invaded Punjab, India in 326 BC, King Porus responded with over 100 archers and spear throwers riding atop elephants. Having experienced elephant warfare earlier, Alexander’s troops were not as intimidated as they were before. They were ordered to attack the elephants with javelins and spears and were able to drive the elephants out of the ranks to defeat the Indian troops. Alexander captured about 80 elephants to use in his own army.

Armor and weapons exhibit in the National Museum, New Delhi, India. Photo Credit

In 280 BC, during the Pyrrhic Wars, Romans had their first encounter with war elephants. The Roman horses were especially fearful and often turned back from battle. Because of this, the Romans learned how to make devices to defeat the huge animals. At the Battle of Asculum in 270 BC, the Romans employed fire pots and spiked weapons that injured the elephant’s soft foot pads.

One of the most famous incidents of elephant warfare was in 202 BC when Hannibal fought against the Roman general Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus in the Second Punic War. Elephants were employed to charge the enemy in battle, often grabbing soldiers with their trunks and flinging them away. Their large feet made it easy to stomp on fleeing soldiers. They were also used to move heavy equipment, batter fortifications, and transport soldiers across rivers and streams. Their thick skin easily resisted arrows and spears.

Indian styled elephant with howdah

To add to that, Indians began outfitting their elephants in armor. Most had elaborately-weaved face masks that covered the ears and most of the elephant’s trunk. Holes were fashioned to allow the elephant to see and for their tusks to protrude from the mask. The armor continued across the animal’s back and hung down to the knees. It was made with a variety of different materials – sometimes steel squares woven together with cloth or leather, or sometimes just padded cloth or leather with no steel plates.

Examples of elephant armor can be seen in many museums across India, and these show the great care taken in their design. Some were encrusted with semi-precious stones and jewels, with colorful tassels hanging from the corners of the body armor. Many had golden threads woven into the cloth, and a few even had spikes protruding from the armor to cause even more injury to the enemy forces. They also had spiked leg cuffs to protect the animal from ax wielders attempting to injure the elephant’s legs. Some particularly beautiful examples of war elephant armor can be seen at the National Museum in New Delhi and the Leeds Royal Armouries Museum in Yorkshire, England.

Stratford Armouries Elephant Photo Credit

Because of the length of time it takes for elephants to mature, the most efficient way of obtaining the animals for war was to catch wild elephants and train them. The males were preferred because of their large tusks and the fact that they were more aggressive than the females.

After the 15th century, the use of elephants as war animals began to decrease due to the advent of guns and cannons. Also, the decimation of herds for their ivory tusks was causing their numbers to decline. Horses were agile and easier to breed. With smaller feet, horses were also better able to cover varied types of terrain. They were more easily controlled than the elephants.

Elephant and driver, most likely from the Mughal Emperor’s stable with a hunting howdar, including pistol, bows and a rifle

Elephants were still used to transport troops and war materials well into modern times. They were employed in World Wars I and II to move weapons deep into the jungles, and the British even employed elephants to carry materials to build new roads on which the Allies could more easily reach the Axis troops. The Viet Cong used these animals to haul goods during the Vietnamese conflict. Elephants are currently being used for transport in Burma, helping the rebels in their struggle to bring down the current government.

The impact of elephant warfare can be seen in much of the older architecture of India. War elephants embellish military gateways such as that of Lohagarh Fort, which is now a resort and spa. Kumbhalgarh Fort in western India, now a World Heritage Site, still has the spiked gates designed to deter elephants from being used as battering rams. Old gates and arches still exist with enough height to allow elephants carrying soldiers and equipment to pass underneath, and these are adorned with representations of war elephants. Writer: Donna Patterson


Carthaginian War Elephant

Carthaginians first encountered war elephants in Sicily while battling Greek general Pyrrhus of Epirus in 278–276 BC. Daunted and impressed by the pugnacious pachyderms, they soon began importing North African forest elephants for their army, using Indian mahouts hired through Egypt, as well as riders from Syria, Numidia and other states. Tactical acumen in their use, on the other hand, took years and heavy casualties to perfect.

In 255 BC the Spartan mercenary general Xanthippus opened the Battle of Bagradas with a charge of some 100 elephants in the Carthaginian stomp of Consul Marcus Atilius Regulus’ Roman army. From then on both the Carthaginians and Romans overestimated the animal’s martial abilities. Four years later at Panormus (present-day Palermo), Sicily, Roman Consul Lucius Caecilus Metellus directed his entrenched light troops to harass the Carthaginian elephants with a rain of arrows and javelins, which caused the beasts to panic and turn on the Carthaginian troops, resulting in a rout that restored Roman confidence about facing elephants.

While Carthage ultimately raised a force of 300 war elephants, Hannibal took just 37 of them on his legendary 218 BC traverse of the Alps. Though most survived the arduous trek, they only figured significantly at the Battle of the Trebbia in December, when they panicked the Roman horses and auxiliaries. Many died in battle, and a subsequent cold snap killed all the rest but one.

When he returned to Carthage in 202 BC to face Consul Publius Cornelius Scipio at Zama, Hannibal gathered 80 elephants, though neither they nor their mahouts were experienced. Scipio sought to eliminate them as a factor by leaving lanes between his maniples, through which the beasts, lured by skirmishers, might charge without breaking up the Roman line. Scipio succeeded in his ploy and won the battle. MH


Watch the video: An Elephants Rage: Hannibals War Elephants (May 2022).