War Elephants

War Elephants Historians are uncertain as to when elephant warfare first began. But, most believe that war elephants were first used in ancient India.

Rajput painting depicting a war elephant in an army
A 17th-century depiction of the mythological war of Lanka in the ancient Indian epic Ramayana, showing war elephants.

They were a novelty that the famous Greek King Pyrrhus would bring to Italy. War elephants were something the Romans had never encountered before. But were becoming increasingly common in Greece due to the Hellenic world now encompassing Egypt and the Indian borderlands. 

Pyrrhus and his elephants.

Seleucus famously received 500 war elephants from Chandragupta Maurya as part of the terms for him to abandon much of his Indian territories, which was to his advantage anyway given his focus was in the west, and these elephants played a decisive role at the Battle of Ipsus that concluded the Wars of the Diadochi. 

The Sicilian Wars

Elephants would be an awesome battlefield sight, but were often unwieldy and just as likely to be panicked and charge into their own troops. Hence they had a ‘mahout’ who sat awfully exposed on its shoulders, and would hammer a peg through its skull should the elephant turn on its own men.

In practice, the mahout was often one of the first to be killed when the elephants charged their own troops. 

The elephants had more advantages than their brute strength, being trained to use their feet and trunks as weapons, with steel lashed to their tusks. 

Their smell would often spook cavalry, as Alexander’s men discovered when they struggled and suffered heavy losses in his Indian victory at the Hydaspes River. 

However, they too could be spooked with strange sounds and smells, such as panicked pigs. 

They would gain major fame from the Carthaginian general Hannibal Barca. Hannibal would famously lead his troops across the Alps mountain range to fight the Romans.. Hannibal’s forces would include 37 elephants. Unfortunately, all but one of Hannibal’s elephants died while crossing the mountains in 218 BC.

Nevertheless, just imagine what a daunting experience it must have been to come up against such a raging beast on the battlefield! 

War elephants depicted in Hannibal crossing the Rhône (1878), by Henri Motte.

At at the Battle of Heraclea, a wounded elephant threw much of the Greek force into confusion, preventing them from completing their victory by annihilating the broken Roman force.

Despite their imposing nature, Roman tactics to counter them evolved relatively swiftly, and within two centuries they were largely obsolete, with Caesar’s victory at Thapsus in 46 BC the last time they were deployed in western battle.

At the Battle of Beneventum Cassius Dio would write, “A young elephant had been wounded, and shaking off its riders, wandered about in search of its mother, whereupon the latter became excited and the other elephants grew turbulent, so that everything was thrown into dire confusion. Finally, the Romans won the day, killing many men and capturing eight elephants, and they occupied the enemy’s entrenchments.”

Xanthippus at the Battle of Bagradas River (or Tunis) in 255 BC would march with forces that included 100 elephants to engage the Romans.

The Romans had a deeper and denser formation than usual, designed to be an anti-elephant formation though one that shortened the frontage of the infantry and made them liable to being flanked.

In 250 BC Hasdrubal thus marched out of his stronghold at Lilybaeum for Panormus with 30,000 men, and between 60 and 142 war elephants.

In early 240 BC Hanno set off to relieve Utica, taking with him 100 elephants and a siege train.

Written by Jack Tappin