In war the elephant’s major function was to terrify the opposition, fear being the beast’s strongest weapon, and to wreak as much destruction as possible. They were used in two basic ways on the battlefield: as a screen against cavalry, horses, unless specially trained, disliking the sight, sound and smell of elephants; and to attack infantry, not least by offering a higher platform from which missiles could be launched. In these tactical roles the elephant was not conspicuously successful and its offensive promise never lived up to expectations. It was too vulnerable to missile weapons. It was also too slow, and well-trained infantry could successfully deal with them, and their tendency to run amok when panicked could wreak as much havoc among their friends as among their foes.
Certainly escorting infantry was deployed in elephant units. This was to try and prevent light-armed troops from getting too close to an elephant and hamstringing it. The Mahavamsa, a Buddhist chronicle from Tamraparni (later Ceylon, now Sri Lanka), has the war elephant burdened with no less than a dozen men, and an anonymous ancient commentator sensibly explains this as four riders and eight foot soldiers, ‘two looking after each foot’. The weapons of the escort are described as bows, spears, javelins, axes, maces, clubs and swords, a pretty heavily-armed mob by the sound of it. Likewise, the Mahâ bhârata, one of the founding epics of Indian culture, makes mention of seven riders, ‘two held the goads, two were excellent archers, two fine swordsmen . . . while one held spear and flag’. This, if not mere poetical fantasy, may easily derive from confusing escorting infantry with the crew onboard. In fact according to Megathenes, the Greek envoy sent by Seleukos of Syria to the Indian court of Chandragupta Maurya, an elephant ‘carries three fighting men of whom two shoot from the side while one shoots from behind. There is a fourth man who carries in his hand the goad’.
The pachyderm was first encountered in combat by the Macedonians at Gaugamela (331 BC), the third and final fray between Alexander the Great and Dareios III of Persia, and at the Hydaspes (326 BC), the bloody victory over Porus, elephants and all. Alexander had well more than a hundred of them when he returned from India, but he died soon after and so it was left to his warring generals to incorporate these strange, imposing beasts into the military art of the period. These pugnacious gentlemen became inordinately fond of war elephants, developing large herds of them as part of a pre-industrial arms race. Elephants were imported from India, and the Seleukids of Syria had their own stud farm at Apamea on the Euphrates and bred them specifically for war, while their princely rivals, the Ptolemies of Egypt, founded a market town on the African side of the Red Sea called Ptolemais Theron, Ptolemais of the Beasts, to be the base for the hunters sent out to round up these valuable four-footed war machines. In the quest for decisive victory against each other, between 321 BC and 217 BC elephants were used at least seven times in major battles between the Successors and, in a militaristic sense, the third century BC saw the rise and fall of the use of the elephant in the Mediterranean world. Thus by the time of Hannibal, though the elephant was to reach the pinnacle of its fame when it crossed the snow-clad Alps, its heyday had come and gone.
Anyway, after having witnessed Pyrrhos in action, the Carthaginians had added the elephant to their armoury, the forest elephant (Loxodonta africana cyclotis) to be precise, a breed that was still native along parts of North Africa, including, as Herodotos knew, on the coast of Mauretania.83 It was systematically hunted out of existence there during the Roman period, the arenas being a vast consumer of wild animals, but was still to be seen until comparatively recently in the Gambia. The African forest elephant was 2.15-2.45m tall at the shoulder, shorter in stature than the Indian elephant at up to 3.1m, and much smaller than the great bush elephant of present-day central Africa, not used in war, which can be up to 4m though 3.5m is the norm. In brief, the African bush elephant is larger than the Indian elephant (Elephas maximus), but the Indian is larger than the African forest elephant. Other differences between the subspecies include the African’s more strongly segmented trunk, ending in two ‘fingers’ rather than one, and the line of its back is concave, whereas the Indian’s is convex. The forest elephant also has ears with enormous flaps and rounded lobes, and little straight tusks. According to Polybios, a man who knew his elephants, at the Battle of Raphia near Gaza (217 BC) most of the Ptolemaic elephants ‘shirked the fight, as African elephants are wont to do, because they cannot bear the smell and trumpeting of the Indian elephant. Furthermore, I believe that they are dismayed by the greater size and strength of the Indian elephants, with the result that they run away’.
It is because of its small stature that the forest elephant did not carry the howdah as did the Indian elephants of Pyrrhos, but only their drivers: there is no real evidence as to whether they carried soldiers apart from the driver. It was the beast that was the weapon, though some would argue that Carthaginian (and Numidian) elephants were equipped with howdahs. But here I favour the arguments of Scullard, who has pointed out the lack of textual references to them. We also have the occasional Punic silver coins from Hannibal’s time depicting elephants with a driver only. This driver, who was probably brought especially from India in the early days, managed his charge, sitting astride its neck, armed only with a special hook. Eventually, however, as part of their equipment they were provided with a mallet and sharp chisel with which to pole-axe their beasts, by a swift blow to the base of the skull, if they went into reverse and ran amok, as were the ten drivers of Hasdrubal Barca at the Metaurus (207 BC).88 Obviously fielding elephants must have been something of a gamble, and this innovation was introduced by Hasdrubal himself to counter the chief danger of using them, yet some 300 elephants could be housed in the purpose-built stables within the thickness of the main landward wall of Carthage. It is believed that the elephant superseded the chariot as a terror weapon in Carthaginian armies, four-horse chariots having been mobilized against Timoleon in Sicily when they exercised a disruptive effect on the Greek cavalry at the Krimisos (341 BC). They were mobilized once more to face Agathokles (310 BC), and thereafter they drop out of use.
The Carthaginians probably used elephants for the first time at Akragas (262 BC), and the fact that they deployed them in the second line suggests they were somewhat unsure how best to use them.91 Elephants were to play a large part in the defeat of Regulus’ army in Africa (255 BC), when at Tunis Xanthippos, a general well versed in the Hellenistic art of war, used some hundred of them in a hell-for-leather charge to open the battle. Probably his Carthaginian counterparts took good heed, and as a result elephants were greatly feared until Lucius Caecilius Metellus defeated a Punic army containing perhaps as many as 140 of them before Panormus (250 BC), this being the largest number known. At the Trebbia (218 BC) Hannibal initially used his elephants to scare the Roman cavalry, but when they were driven off by the Roman velites he rallied his beasts and successfully launched them against Rome’s Gallic allies. At Zama (202 BC) he had eighty elephants, and he used them once again to open the battle with a rush attack, which mauled the velites but made little impression on the heavier legionaries. None were used after Zama.
For their part, the Romans, though they fielded sixteen of the expensive monsters at Magnesia-by-Sipylos (190 BC), did not seem to bother with them much. Those, for instance, which Metellus had rounded up outside Panormus were shipped home to eventually be slaughtered before the spectators in the circus.96 Thereafter the Caecilii Metelli adopted the elephant as a kind of family emblem, which was often used on coins issued by members of the family who became officials at the state mint.