About Hannibal’s elephants

(Note to readers: I have corrected and updated this post here.)

So the other day I get a text message from our dear friends, the Rammings, with an urgent plea to intervene in one of their heated controversies around the dinner table of their rustic farm house in hip and rural North Carolina. James Ramming, aged eleven and studying Latin (and contemplating adding Greek), was contesting whether Hannibal’s famous elephants were …. Indian or African. It’s the obvious first question to ask about his elephants, which must be why the adult experts never ask it.

I pick up the phone and report for duty. And as I talk I discover …. that I have no idea what the answer is. So I extricate myself from the conversation with James and go back to our trusted old friends, Polybius and Livy. Those two, it turns out, didn’t even know enough to ask the question. (How many elephants would a Greek and a Roman historian in those days have seen?)

The fact that Hannibal took war elephants with him in his attack on Rome–and crossed with them over the snowy Alps–is usually the first and only thing that people know about Hannibal. It’s entered our collective lore. Above, a snivelly-nosed Hannibal on a (vaguely Indian-looking?) elephant who seems to be going shopping. Below, a more dramatic rendition of the Alpine crossing, with (vaguely African-looking?) elephants tumbling into the gorges as the mountain Gauls attack from the heights. (Actually, Polybius says that all the elephants survived.)

Well, which is it? One line in the middle of this Wikipedia entry claims that

he probably used a now-extinct third African (sub)species, the North African (Forest) elephant, smaller than its two southern cousins, and presumably easier to domesticate.

Makes sense. After all, Carthage was in Africa. Except that I don’t think so. I’ve already written about the trouble we get into when we confuse Carthage’s geography with modern notions of human race, what we might call the “Denzel trope”. I think the same applies to elephant race.

This Wikipedia article talks about the origins of war elephants in India. It is these that Alexander the Great would have encountered. Then he died and his generals, notably Seleucus and Ptolemy, carved up his empire to start their own kingdoms. They also seem to have taken over the tradition of fighting with war elephants. Carthage’s mother city, Tyre in modern Lebanon, was in the Seleucid empire, which included Syria. I think that Carthage, a naval empire oriented toward its mother city in the East more than toward the lands south across the Sahara, would have got its elephants from there. Hence, they would have been Indian.

That might explain why Hannibal’s favorite elephant–the one he was riding through the swamp when he caught the infection that blinded one of his eyes–was named Surus, “the Syrian”.

In any case, those beasts scared the bejeezus out of the Romans. War elephants were the tanks of antiquity. If things went according to plan (a big if), they plowed into the enemy ranks and broke up the formation. All the time, the archers and javelin-throwers were firing from their little fortress mounted on the elephant. Check out this fearsome rendition of the battle of Zama:

I’d rather be one of the guys on top in that one. Except……

Except that this was one of those many cases where things went wrong for the side with the elephants. Modern tanks go kaputt but not berserk. Ancient tanks went berserk. If they panicked, they were as likely to turn around and plow into their own ranks (the elephants didn’t care, after all). That happened here at Zama. For that reason, the elephants usually had mahouts with lances (you can see them in the picture), whose job was to kill the elephant as soon as he or she (both males and females were used) threatened the home side.

Long story short. Probably a sub-species of Indian. And soooo much fun to imagine. More, much more, in future posts.

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12 thoughts on “About Hannibal’s elephants

  1. dear mr andre

    I think’s that nor from India or africa, might i could adding Persia and thailand. on Thailand that’s we can look until now, so popular with their elephant tradition. love to read your post. Sorry if you could’nt catch what i writted… 🙂


  2. Thailand has a great elephant tradition. I had a great time riding elephants up in Chiang Mai. But, well, there’s no conveivable way that Hannibal might have got elephants from Thailand to Iberia (Spain).

  3. They were an extinct species the North African Forest Elephant. Which went extinct in the 1st or 2nd century AD. This might be an interesting link to look at with roman coin celebrating the opening of Colosseum.

  4. There are two species of African Elephant, the forest species (recently rediscovered in the Congo) and the bigger Savannah Elephant (the archetypal African Elephant) found in southern and eastern Africa.

    The elephants employed by the Carthaginians were primarily of the smaller African species then present in North Africa, though the ‘Syrian’ and perhaps a few others were Indian, sourced somehow from / via the Greek Kingdoms of the eastern Med. / Middle East.

    Hannibal had 37 or 38 elephants with him on his campaign trail from North Africa through Spain, Mediterranean Gaul and the Alps. Only one survived the first battle at Trebia (the Syrian), the others succumbing to the cold.

    The elephants at Zama seem to have been ‘recruited’ and rushed into service without being properly trained and may not have carried ‘howdah’ or fighting towers as shown. They were deployed not to the flanks of the infantry lines as was the usual prcatice with trained elephants, but placed in front of the infantry battle line.

  5. Thanks for all of this info, its really helpful; one thing im wondering was the elephants that Hannibal supposedly recruited, would THESE have been African or Indian or whatever? To have passed through the alps would have meant he exited in northern italy, what type of elephants lived there? none to my knowledge.

    • Hi Harry,
      I discuss that in this post. He aparently used a now-extinct species of forest elephant which at that time roamed around in northern Africa. (But not “African elephants”)

      He did, of course, exit in Italy (near today’s Torino), but he had brought all his elephants with him. Then they died. He got one more reinforcement from Carthage in his time Italy, but that was it.

  6. I see; i incorrectly presumed he hired some kind of mercanaries from Italy; and that his ‘march’ was not halted as he passed through Italy; would he have had to wait for reinforcements to arrive? Another issue that confuses me, why did he not just transport his troops by boat? Some argue it was because the elephants are obviously not suited to water, but surely he could have trained them for boats as he did for war? I do not see this as a plausable explantion. Thanks again 🙂

    • Hannibal’s powerbase was Southern Spain, where he and his father before him had ruled as Viceroys or Governors for Carthage. In fact he was so powerful that Carthage had little control over him. When he attacked the Saguntum in Spain which was an ally of Rome the Romans did nothing to support them, but they did send an envoy to Carthage basically to find out if Carthage was going to support Hannibal or stay neutral and let Hannibal and Rome ‘get on with it’. The Carthaginian senate after debate decided to support Hannibal.
      Once his army had bypassed Rome and was in Southern Italy there were attempts to send him reinforcements. One army led by his brother from Spain which was destroyed before it got to Italy, the other from North Africa, which did reach him.

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