Whatever Happened to Hannibal’s Elephants?

In ancient times there was widespread use of elephants in warfare. The first use of elephants in military campaigns probably occurred in India sometime during the first millennium B.C. The practice eventually spread eastward to Burma, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos, and westward to Greece and North Africa. In 326 B.C. Alexander the Great invaded India, and he and his generals must have witnessed the use of war elephants by the native Indians. Evidently the Greeks were taken with the notion because slightly less than fifty years later we have accounts of Pyrrhus of Epirus, one of Alexander’s heirs, invading Italy and disconcerting the Romans with his use of elephants.
“He entered Italy with an army consisting of 3,000 cavalry, 2,000 archers, 500 slingers, 20,000 infantry and 20 war elephants in a bid to subdue the Romans.[4] The elephants had been loaned to him by Ptolemy II, who had also promised 9,000 soldiers and a further 50 elephants to defend Epirus while Pyrrhus and his army were away.
Due to his superior cavalry and his elephants, he defeated the Romans, led by Consul Publius Valerius Laevinus, in the Battle of Heraclea in 280 BC. There are conflicting sources about casualties. Hieronymus of Cardia reports the Romans lost about 7,000 while Pyrrhus lost 3,000 soldiers, including many of his best. Dionysius gives a bloodier view of 15,000 Roman dead and 13,000 Greek.”*1
It is from Pyrrhus that we derive the term “Pyrrhic victory.” His two victories against the Romans were so costly that he was heard to say: “One more such victory and we’re ruined!”
Carthage was a large city founded in 814 B.C. by Phoenicians on the north coast of Africa in what is now Tunisia. It was a wealthy city of some 750,000 souls and at the height of their power the Carthaginians controlled all of the western Mediterranean including the islands of Corsica, Sardinia, and much of Sicily. The Carthaginians were heavily into elephants. They used African elephants which were quite a bit smaller than their Indian counterparts, but still very imposing. The Carthaginians, however, actively recruited their mahouts, or elephant handlers, from India.
In 264 B.C. the Carthaginians went to war with Rome. The war lasted for twenty-three years and was fought on both land and sea. In their land battles the Carthaginians routinely made use of elephants while the Romans did not. Nevertheless, the Romans eventually prevailed and the Carthaginians made peace on Roman terms.
In 218 B.C. Carthage and Rome went to war again. The war was instigated by the Carthaginian’s brilliant young general Hannibal Barca. In 219 B.C. Hannibal attacked and destroyed the city of Saguntum in Spain, which had been politically allied with Rome. This resulted in a declaration of war by the Romans.
Hannibal evidently believed that elephants were indispensable to his war effort, because, along with some 80,000 recruits of various nationalities he brought along 37 war elephants on his long trek over the Pyrenees, through Southern Gaul and over the Alps into Italy. How did Hannibal get 37 elephants to cross the Rhone?
According to the Roman historian Livy “There is more reason to believe that they were conveyed across on rafts. . .They extended from the bank into the river one raft two hundred feet long and fifty broad, which fastened higher up by several strong cables to the bank. That it might not be carried down by the stream they covered them, like a bridge, with earth thrown upon it so that the beasts might tread upon it without fear, as over solid ground. Another raft equally broad and a hundred feet long, fit for crossing the river, was joined to this first; and when the elephants, driven along the stationary raft as along a road had passed, the females leading the way, on to the smaller raft which was joined to it, the lashings, by which it was slightly fastened, being immediately let go, it was drawn by some light boats to the other side.”*2
When it came to transporting elephants, you had to be creative.
It astonished his contemporaries, and still astonishes students of history to this day, that Hannibal got any of his elephants to survive the crossing of the Alps. Hannibal’s army was attacked on the way by local tribesmen. Frequently men lost their footing on the icy slopes and fell to their deaths. At one point they were completely stopped in their tracks by a stone wall created by an avalanche and for four days they had to carve their way through it by softening the stone with heated vinegar and hacking away at it to make a path wide enough for the men and the elephants. During the fifteen day passage across the Alps, Hannibal lost about half of his troops. Only about 40,000 made it to Italy. We don’t know exactly how many of the elephants survived, but it is clear that some did survived because the Romans under the Consul Tiberius Sempronius Longus faced them at the battle of Trebia in December of 218 B.C.
“A light-infantry detachment was sent out to stop the elephants. These they dealt with by volleying darts and jabbing under the tail. The elephants became wild, attacking both sides, until Hannibal ordered them driven off to the left to attack the Gauls fighting for Rome.”*3
The term “loose cannon” was obviously not in use in those days, but it would have been an apt expression for the functioning of elephants in battle.
Hannibal won the battle of Trebia decisively, with Roman losses of nearly 30,000 compared to about four or five thousand lost on his side. Unfortunately, soon after this battle a severe ice storm hit northern Italy and all but one of the elephants perished. This remaining elephant was named Serius, and he is known for carrying Hannibal on his back across an expanse of swampland which led to the fertile lands of Etruria. This enabled Hannibal to place himself strategically between the Roman Consul Gaius Flaminius and Rome, and lure the Consul into the disastrous battle of Lake Trasimene. Serius’ eventual fate is unknown.
While Hannibal was a smashing success during his first two years in Italy, winning four decisive battles and Ticinus, Trebia, Lake Trasimene and Cannae, things did not go as well for him after that. After fifteen years of war, the brilliant young Roman general Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus invaded Africa and began to wreak havoc on Hannibal’s homeland. The Carthaginian government insisted that Hannibal return to Africa and defend his city. In the final battle of the Second Punic War, at Zama, in 202 B.C. Hannibal faced off against Scipio with 45,000 infantry, 4,000 cavalry and 80 war elephants against Scipio’s 34,000 infantry and 6,000 cavalry. The first thing Hannibal did was amass his elephants and send them charging into the Roman lines. Unfortunately for the Carthaginian, Scipio had anticipated this maneuver and had planned for it. He had stationed his light infantry, known as velites, in between the Roman maniples with instructions that when the elephants charged, they were to run into the Roman line and clear a path for the elephants, which would then be driven behind the Roman lines and destroyed. He also had his cavalrymen blow loud horns to frighten the elephants and drive them back toward the Carthaginian lines. Both expedients worked well and the elephants did little damage to the Romans. Largely due to their superiority in Cavalry, the Romans won the day and the Carthaginians were once again forced to sue for peace upon Roman terms. One of the terms of the peace was that the Carthaginian’s war elephants must be destroyed.
After the battle of Zama I know of only two instances where war elephants are mentioned in the ancient literature-they were used at the Battle of Pydna between Rome and Macedonia in 168 B.C., and it is mentioned that Scipio Amelianus (Scipio Minor) came to Africa to procure elephants for a campaign in Spain in 149 B.C. Given their obvious liabilities it’s not unlikely that the use of war elephants went out of fashion after the second century B.C., at least in the west.

1) Wikipedia. Pyrrhus of Epirus.
2) Livy. Ab Urbe Condita. Book 21, Passage 27.
3) Livy. Ab Urbe Condita. Book 21, Passages 55, 56.


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  3. Ar least two things jump out at me straight away.

    One is where’s the evidence that mahouts were recruited from India? It’s extremely unlikely given the distance, the long history of North African domestication in place and that African elephants are temperamentally very different from the Indian elephant.

    The other is that the elephants were not the African elephants we know. They were a much smaller elephants of now extinct subspecies, the North African elephant. This stood only just over 8′ tall at the shoulder, compared the the modern elephant averaging just under’ 11′ and growing up to13′ tall.

    when you consider that the European Aurochs of the time stood nearly 6 foot tall then this isn’t quite as impressive at it might initially seem.


  4. I was also surprised to read that the Carthaginians recruited Mahouts from India. Of course, it must be remembered that Alexander The Great had reached India during the previous century and his followers brought back the custom of using elephants in warfare. They may have brought with them mahouts and their families to train and handle the elephants that they had acquired. Elephant handling was a complex skill and was probably an occupation passed down from father to son. If there were families of Indian Mahouts living in the Seleucid Kingdom, then the Carthaginians would not have needed to go all the way to India to recruit them. The elephants used by the Seleucids are known to have been of Indian origin and handled by Indian Mahouts. It is likely that the Carthaginians primarily used the smaller and now extinct North African elephant, but also imported some of the Asian elephants such as Surrus, along with their mahouts.

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