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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Hunky Hero Hannibal

What did Hannibal look like? I’ve suggested that the faces on this cover of National Geographic would be a good start. Then again, we could look at old coins, since those might have been circulating at the time of the person depicted. Here, thanks to the Wikimedia Commons, is one that appears to be of Hannibal.

What can I say? He was a stud.

Notice that the eye we see is healthy. That would be his left eye. Or are coins minted in mirror image? I don’t know.

I bring it up because this means either that Hannibal here was younger than thirty (quite possible if this coin was circulating in Spain before he invaded Italy) or that his other eye would have been shut or otherwise disfigured. That’s because, when he was thirty and already in Italy, Hannibal led his army on a surprising speed-march through a swamp in Etruria, today’s Tuscany. For days, the soldiers, mules, horses, and elephants were wading through water and bog. They couldn’t even lie down to sleep except for short catnaps on top of piles of dead pack-animals. Imagine tens of thousands of men and beasts urinating and defecating into a summer swamp and you get an idea of the nasty infections and diseases that must have been going around in the army.

Hannibal was riding on his favorite elephant, Surus (“the Syrian”), which may have been the only surviving one at this point. And he caught a really bad eye infection which festered and blinded one of his eyes. From that point onward, we must picture Hannibal’s face one-eyed. And all the more remarkable for it!

By the way, although I’m no numismatist, a very cursory search does suggest to me that the ancients were surprisingly honest in their depictions of the boss. Take, for instance, this coin of Cleopatra. That’s the same Cleopatra who seduced Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. Well, it would appear that she must have had lots and lots of ….. charm!