My Elephantine mistake

Copyright: Shoshani and Tassy 2004

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:

Click for attribution

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:

The trouble with titles, continued

I’m just finishing Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis, which Baltimore Bookworm already does a great job of summarizing.

Naturally, I’m especially interested in what Haidt has to say, for instance, about the uses of adversity in life (he gives an entire chapter to it), since that fits one of the impostors in my book.

But, since I can’t help but think about book titles these days, which you may have noticed here and here, I found myself lamenting the title that Haidt’s publishers forced on him. The book is not just about happiness, and hypothesis, no doubt meant to sound mysterious, is too academic to hit me in the gut. Instead, it occurred to me, there is a much more obvious title that Haidt’s publisher, Basic Books, could have chosen.

Haidt gives us, above all, a great extended metaphor for our psyche as consisting of a huge elephant  and a little rider on top. Hence the cover image you see here. The elephant is that part of our brain/mind that we’re hardly aware of but that is actually in charge most of the time. The little rider is our intellectual brain/mind, which evolved much later and which does its best to drive the elephant but most often just ends up having to go where the beast goes. In all those cases, the rider’s main skill is to confabulate (Haidt’s word) a story to explain to himself why he, the rider, really wanted to go where the elephant went. You see, he couldn’t possibly admit to himself that he, as mahout, is not in control. In other words, we are great at fooling ourselves. We do things for reasons we barely understand, and then retroactively concoct a logic that makes the action sound plausible, to ourselves and society.

So, if the metaphor was good enough for the cover image, why not for the title? In my opinion, the book should have been called:

The elephant and his rider: What really drives you, and why you lie to yourself about it.

(And, because this is the Hannibal Blog, one more reason why I like the cover image: This is how you must imagine Hannibal’s mahouts riding their elephants across the mighty Rhone river, while under attack from Gauls on the far side. Most of the mahouts drowned. But the elephants, natural  snorkelers that they are, made it across. Having crossed the stream thus, Hannibal was able to take them onwards to the Alps, and then…. well, you know. More about his elephants here.)
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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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