I’ve been telling you something very wrong about Hannibal’s elephants all this time. Not deliberately, mind you.
Almost three years ago, when I wrote my post “about Hannibal’s elephants“, I was really just kidding around, as I was in the early stages of research for my book. The levity, I thought, was abundantly obvious from my treatment of the subject. I did not mean to imply that I had any idea of what I was talking about (although I sort of do now).
I was, you see, a blogger! (Ie, I was more interested in thinking out loud, and getting readers to correct me, than in pontificating authoritatively.)
To my surprise, that particular blog post keeps getting a lot of traffic. In fact, its traffic is increasing. I have no idea why, so I must guess that the Google gods are sending people its way (which should cast aspersions on Google’s algorithms, not on my post). Those of you who blog may have made the same discovery: those posts you think are most valuable are not at all the ones that attract the eyeballs, and vice versa.
So I will set the record straight in this post. But first, I’m delighted what the earlier post has already done: It has brought me many of my readers (mostly the silent, non-commenting type). One of you has even (hush, hush) hinted that you might write a children’s book about Hannibal’s elephants — and I have voluteered my own kids and me as the first readers.
Now: The first question is how many elephants Hannibal brought with him when he left Iberia to cross the Alps and attack Rome. I’ve read the number 37, but Serge Lancel, the late French historian who seems to know best, says 27 (on page 63 of his book). So I’m going with that. Personally, I don’t really care about the real number. It changes nothing in the story and the drama.
The second question — and the one I answered wrong — is: which kind of elephant?
The correct answer is the African Forest Elephant, or Loxodonta cyclotis:
As it happens, we very recently (last year) discovered that these elephants were an entirely different species (as opposed to just a sub-species) of elephant. So you should imagine the (older) genealogical tree at the top with another twig on the third branch from the right, as this blog post explains.
The discovery comes via DNA analysis from Nadine Rohland, David Reich, Swapan Mallick, Matthias Meyer, Richard Green, et al., who summarize their findings here:
Our data establish that the Asian elephant is the closest living relative of the extinct mammoth… We also find that savanna and forest elephants, which some have argued are the same species, are as or more divergent in the nuclear genome as mammoths and Asian elephants, which are considered to be distinct genera… The divergence of African savanna and forest elephants—which some have argued to be two populations of the same species—is about as ancient as the divergence of Asian elephants and mammoths…
So it is those forest elephants that Hannibal brought with him. They were quite a bit smaller than the savanna elephants of Africa. So artists have, for millennia, exaggerated their size.
Or have they? Generations of boys reading about Hannibal must have imagined them just as the young Roman legionaries perceived them, which is roughly thus: