Elephants in Greek & Roman Warfare

Elephants in Greek & Roman Warfare

In the search for ever more impressive and lethal weapons to shock the enemy and bring total victory the armies of ancient Greece, Carthage, and even sometimes Rome turned to the elephant. Huge, exotic, and frightening the life out of an unprepared enemy they seemed the perfect weapon in an age where developments in warfare were very limited. Unfortunately, impressive though they must have seemed on the battlefield, the cost of acquiring, training, and transporting these creatures, along with their wild unpredictability in the heat of battle, meant that they were used only briefly and not particularly effectively in Mediterranean warfare.

Two Species of Elephant

In antiquity, two elephants were known – the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) and the African Forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis). The latter is now almost extinct and only found in the Gambia; it was smaller than the, at the time unknown, African elephant of central and southern Africa (Loxodonta africana), which explains why ancient writers all claimed the Indian elephant was larger than the African. The Asian elephant became known in Europe following the conquests of Alexander the Great in the 4th century BCE and contact with the Mauryan Empire of India. So impressed was Alexander with the war elephants of Porus, who was said to have had a corps of 200 when he fought the Battle of Hydaspes in 326 BCE, that he formed his own ceremonial elephant corps. Many of Alexander's successors went one step further and employed them in battle proper. Indeed, the Seleucid Empire made sure to exclusively control the traffic in Asian elephants.

Acquisition & Deployment

Elephants, being only available from Africa or Asia, were expensive commodities to acquire for Mediterranean powers. Added to this was the cost of maintaining them and training both the wild elephant and its rider to form some sort of battle order on the field of combat. Then there was the problem of transporting them to where they were needed, although famously, the Carthaginian general Hannibal managed to get at least some of his 37 elephants across the Alps and into Italy in 218 BCE.

Tossing, ripping, and crushing the enemy, elephants were used to cause havoc with any defensive fieldworks and fortifications too.

Despite the cost and difficulties, and because in antiquity the evolution in weaponry was extremely slow, the attraction of such large animals trampling all over the enemy remained. This meant that military commanders went out of their way to supplement their armies with elephants. Seleukos I Nikator famously swapped parts of his eastern empire to gain 500 elephants from Indian emperor Chandragupta in 305 BCE. The armies of the Antigonids and Ptolemies also fielded Asian elephants, although generally in much smaller numbers. In the 270's BCE, for example, Ptolemy II trained African elephants for use in his army and even appointed a high official to be responsible for them, the elephantarchos. According to Plutarch, 475 elephants took part in the Battle of Ipsus in 301 BCE during the Successor Wars. In 275 BCE, in a battle known as the 'Elephant Victory', Antigonus Gonatas, although outnumbered, used 16 elephants to terrify an army of Gauls into retreat.

Pyrrhus of Epirus was the first commander to employ elephants in Europe when he used 20 Asian ones in his campaigns in Italy and Sicily from 280 to 275 BCE. There Pyrrhus gained notable victories against the Romans in the battles of Heraclea (280 BCE) and Asculum (279 BCE).

The Carthaginians were the next major users. Able to readily acquire African elephants from the Atlas forest region they formed an elephant corps from the 260's BCE. These were used in the First and Second Punic Wars against Rome in the mid and late 3rd century BCE, notably in the Battle at the river Tagus in Spain in 220 BCE and at the Battle of Trebia in northern Italy in 218 BCE. Elephants even appeared on Carthaginian coins of the period. After his initial corps died in the winter of 218/217 BCE Hannibal acquired fresh replacements and used elephants again at the siege of Capua in 211 BCE.

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The Romans seem to have been largely unimpressed with the use of elephants and employed them only rarely and in small numbers, usually supplied via Numidia. They were said to have cunningly released pigs to disrupt Pyrrhus' elephants at the Battle of Maleventum in 275 BCE. Even more famously, at the Battle of Zuma in 202 BCE, the Roman general Scipio Africanus allowed Hannibal's 80 elephants to run through gaps purposely made in his infantry lines and then turned the animals around using drums and trumpets to let them cause havoc with the enemy. Nor were elephants any help to the senatorial armies of Scipio and Cato that faced Julius Caesar in North Africa at the Battle of Thapsus in 46 BCE. Elephants were, perhaps strangely, not used by the Romans as transportation of heavy goods either.

There is a curious instance when two elephant corps met where each side was composed of different types. This was at the Battle of Raphia (on the Sinai peninsula) in 217 BCE between Ptolemy IV and Antiochus III. The former had 73 African elephants against the latter's 102 Asian elephants. The two elephant corps clashed directly and the smaller-sized African elephants gave way, even if Ptolemy won the battle overall. After a few centuries when elephants were out of vogue, the Sasanians in Persia revived the use of war elephants, fielding the Indian species from the 3rd century CE onwards, albeit, largely for logistics and during sieges.

Armour & Battlefield Strategies

Elephants were dressed for battle in armour which protected their heads and sometimes front. A thick sacking or leather cover could also be hung over the elephant's back to protect its sides. Sword blades or iron points were added to the tusks and bells hung from the body to create as much noise as possible. Early use of elephants in battle by Alexander's successors involved only a rider (mahout) and perhaps a spearman. The rider was crucial as he had trained the animal for years and it would obey only his commands. He controlled the direction the elephant took by applying pressure behinds the animal's ears with his toes. He also had an ankush or hooked stick for this purpose.

From the 270's a light-weight tower (howdah or thorakia) of wood and leather was strapped to the larger Asian elephant using chains, and protected with shields hanging down its sides. It was typically occupied by up to four javelin or missile throwers. However, it was the elephant itself that was the principal weapon, employed as a sort of mobile wrecking ball. At an average height of 2.5 metres, weighing around 5 tonnes, and trotting up to 16 km/h (10mph), they could be tremendously effective wrecking machines. As the ancient historian Ammianus Marcellinus put it, "the human mind can conceive nothing more terrible than their noise and huge bodies" (Anglim, 132).

The most important effect of elephants in the field was probably, then, a psychological one. These huge beasts would have terrified men and horses both visually and orally with their trumpeting. Even the smell of elephants could drive unprepared horses into a stampede. Starting the battle in a simple line in front of their own troops they could cause undisciplined and poorly trained cavalry lines to scatter in panic. They were also used to combat any elephants in the opposition's ranks. Tossing, ripping, and crushing the enemy, elephants were used to cause havoc with any defensive fieldworks and fortifications too, where they knocked down walls with their foreheads or pulled them down with their trunks.

Elephant corps did not have everything their own way, of course. Firstly, both soldiers and cavalry horses were trained to get used to the sight, smell, and sounds of elephants. Then they obviously provided large targets for artillery fire. Pits and spikes were prepared to entrap them and, if they could get close enough, men were charged with hamstringing the beasts or hacking at their trunks. This latter eventuality was, in part, avoided by the stationing of a small team of infantry to protect the elephant's legs. If the elephant were wounded then all hell might break lose as, unpredictable at the best of times, wounded elephants could literally go mad and cause tremendous damage to both sides. If this happened the rider used a metal spike and hammer to pierce the elephant's brain and kill it immediately.


Once the devastating sight of war elephants became a more common one on the ancient battlefield so their effectiveness diminished as the enemy became more prepared and better equipped to deal with them. In reality, perhaps only a handful of ancient battles had been decided because of the intervention of elephants. This was especially so as Roman warfare developed. Troops became more mobiIe, siege-craft became just as common as open battles, and artillery came to the fore. In later times, the use of elephants was restricted to peace-time activities such as spectacles in the Roman arenas and circuses for public entertainment or as an impressive addition to public processions. Indeed, such was the demand that at Latium and Constantinople permanent herds were kept and the insatiable desire for wild elephants practically wiped out the forest elephant of North Africa. During the late Roman Empire elephants were also given and received as gifts to improve diplomatic relations with neighbouring states.

The War Elephant Through History

18th century engraving of Eleazar's exploit as described in the bible. Courtesy of Wiki-Commons

One of the most interesting and unusual uses of domesticated animals in history was the use of war elephants, which probably first began around 4,000 BCE in the Indus River Valley. Later, the largest land mammals in the animal kingdom were used in many battles including against Alexander the Great's forces, by Hannibal's Carthaginian army against the Romans and by the Sultans of India when fighting the Mongols. Working with animals on the battlefield had both advantages and disadvantages and this was particularly true of the war elephant, whose use down the ages has had varying degrees of success.

The Advantages of using War Elephants

Probably the biggest advantage of using elephants in battle was the terror caused in the opposing army’s ranks when they saw the giants stampeding towards them at speeds that could exceed 25 KPH. Sometimes more than a hundred would be used, not only potentially routing the men who may never have seen such beasts before, but horses unaccustomed to them would also be frightened, which could cause mayhem in the ranks.

In Asia, fighting towers were put on the backs of the elephants and occupied by an officer, an archer and an infantryman armed with a lance. Working with the animals in this manor gave a great height advantage, allowing the infantryman to bear down on the enemy and the archer to greatly increase his range. Added to this, in-between battles the elephants were used to carry heavy loads of equipment and supplies, making prolonged campaigns easier to execute as more food and other vital resources could be taken on a campaign.

An official seal of the Suphanburi province in Thailand. Courtesy of Wikipedia

The Disadvantages of using War Elephants

While the use of war elephants was often a very beneficial use of domesticated animals in history, it also brought with it risks for an army employing them and when things went wrong, the results could be dire. During a battle, they could easily be wounded by iron spikes that were either in heavy wooden frames or wound through chains. In modern warfare, the equivalent to working with these animals could be said to be the use of armoured vehicles however when they get damaged, they tend to just stop.

These ‘weapons’ from the animal kingdom on the other hand are a different story and when an elephant was injured or lost its driver, then it would often become uncontrollable. They could end up killing or wounding large numbers of men from the ranks they were supposed to be helping, indiscriminately trampling on anyone who got in their way. Sometimes, riders would carry large hammer and chisel type tools in order to kill the animal if it appeared that it might lose control the chisel would be driven into a point on the back of the head, stopping the elephant in its tracks before it could run amok.

Examples of the use of Elephants in War – Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great came up against war elephants in 326 BCE when he fought against the forces of Porus in the Indus Valley region. Porus had around three hundred of the beasts at his disposal however this did not help him gain victory against the Macedonian forces, whose archers were able to kill many of the drivers and wound the animals. This caused mayhem in the ranks of the Indian army as the elephants ran wild.

16th century rendition of Porus’s elephant cavalry. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

However despite some degree of tendencies to run wild, the animals are very intelligent and could be trained relatively well. An early description of the war elephant as used in this battle is handed down to us from the Greek historian Plutarch (c. 46 – 120 CE), who stated in his work The Life of Alexander

Hannibal of Carthage

Perhaps some of the most famous domesticated animals in history to be used in battle were Hannibal’s war elephants, used by his Carthaginian army against the Romans during the Second Punic War (218-202 BCE). However how much he relied on them tends to be exaggerated as most of his elephants died during the crossing of the Alps and even though he was able to replace many of them, they only really played an important part in one battle, the Battle of the Trebia River. By the time the two forces faced each other in their final conflict, the Battle of Zama, the Romans had learned to herd the animals through their ranks therefore nullifying the threat from them.

19th century depiction of Carthaginian war elephants at the Battle of Zama (202 BCE). Courtesy of Wikipedia

Timur Khan – Leader of the Mongol Hoards

The Delhi Sultanate used war elephants against the Mongol hoards led by Timur Khan in 1398 however the Indian forces were defeated. It is unknown exactly how Timur managed to solve the problems caused by the 120 elephants he encountered one legend states that he attached straw to his camels so that when the giants of the animal kingdom got close, he could set the straw on fire, causing the camels to run forward.

This, so the story goes, routed the elephants causing them to crush many of the Indian soldiers. Whatever method he used to get passed the problem, Timur was so impressed with the elephant’s potential usefulness that he later obtained some for his own army and used them successfully in later battles against the Mamluks and the Ottomans.

The End of the use of Elephants in War

From the sixteenth century, the use of gun powder in battle made it considerably easier to bring down the animals, diminishing their effectiveness and bringing an end to their use on the battlefield. However they continued to be used for transportation and logistics in warfare right up to the Second World War, where they were used by Indian and Burma forces to transport guns and supplies, and to assist in engineering projects such as road and bridge building in remote areas where vehicles could not be used.

An elephant during World War I pulls ammunition in Sheffield, UK. Courtesy of Wikipedia


An elephant trainer, rider, or keeper is called a mahout. [2] Mahouts were responsible for capturing and handling elephants. To accomplish this, they utilize metal chains and a specialized hook called an aṅkuśa or 'elephant goad'. According to Chanakya as recorded in the Arthashastra, first the mahout would have to get the elephant used to being led. [3] The elephant would have learned how to raise its legs to help a rider climb on. Then the elephants were taught to run and maneuver around obstacles, and move in formation. [3] These elephants would be fit to learn how to systematically trample and charge enemies.

The first elephant species to be tamed was the Asian elephant, for use in agriculture. Elephant taming – not full domestication, as they are still captured in the wild, rather than being bred in captivity – may have begun in any of three different places. The oldest evidence comes from the Indus Valley Civilization, around roughly 2000 BC. [4] Archaeological evidence for the presence of wild elephants in the Yellow River valley in Shang China (1600–1100 BC) may suggest that they also used elephants in warfare. [5] The wild elephant populations of Mesopotamia and China declined quickly because of deforestation and human population growth: by c. 850 BC the Mesopotamian elephants were extinct, and by c. 500 BC the Chinese elephants were seriously reduced in numbers and limited to areas well south of the Yellow River.

Capturing elephants from the wild remained a difficult task, but a necessary one given the difficulties of breeding in captivity and the long time required for an elephant to reach sufficient maturity to engage in battle. Sixty-year-old war elephants were always prized as being at the most suitable age for battle service and gifts of elephants of this age were seen as particularly generous. [6] Today an elephant is considered in its prime and at the height of its power between the ages of 25 and 40, yet elephants as old as 80 are used in tiger hunts because they are more disciplined and experienced. [7]

It is commonly thought that all war elephants were male because of males' greater aggression, but it is rather because a female elephant in battle will run from a male therefore only males could be used in war, whereas female elephants were more commonly used for logistics. [8]

The Indian subcontinent Edit

There is uncertainty as to when elephant warfare first started but it is widely accepted that it began in ancient India. The early Vedic period did not extensively specify the use of elephants in war. However, in the Ramayana, the king of Gods and chief Vedic deity Indra is depicted as riding either Airavata, a mythological elephant, or on the horse Uchchaihshravas as his mounts. Elephants were widely utilized in warfare by the later Vedic period by the 6th century BC. [7] The increased conscription of elephants in the military history of India coincides with the expansion of the Vedic Kingdoms into the Indo-Gangetic Plain suggesting its introduction during the intervening period. [9] The practice of riding on elephants in peace and war was common among Aryans and non-Aryans, royalty or commoner, in the 6th or 5th century BC. [7] This practice is believed to be much older than proper recorded history.

The ancient Indian epics Ramayana and Mahābhārata, dating from 5th–4th century BC, [10] elaborately depict elephant warfare. They are recognized as an essential component of royal and military processions. In ancient India, initially, the army was fourfold (chaturanga), consisting of infantry, cavalry, elephants and chariots. Kings and princes principally ride on chariots, which was considered the most royal, while seldom ride the back of elephants. [6] Although viewed as secondary to chariots by royalty, elephants were the preferred vehicle of warriors, especially the elite ones. While the chariots eventually fell into disuse, the other three arms continued to be valued. [11] Many characters in the epic Mahābhārata were trained in the art. According to the rules of engagement set for the Kurukshetra War two men were to duel utilizing the same weapon and mount including elephants. In the Mahābhārata the akshauhini battle formation consists of a ratio of 1 chariot : 1 elephant : 3 cavalry : 5 infantry soldiers. Many characters in the Mahābhārata were described as skilled in the art of elephant warfare e.g. Duryodhana rides an elephant into battle to bolster the demoralized Kaurava army. Scriptures like the Nikāya and Vinaya Pitaka assign elephants in their proper place in the organization of an army. [6] The Samyutta Nikaya additionally mentions the Gautama Buddha being visited by a 'hatthāroho gāmaṇi'. He is the head of a village community bound together by their profession as mercenary soldiers forming an elephant corp. [6]

Ancient Indian kings certainly valued the elephant in war, some stating that an army without elephants is as despicable as a forest without a lion, a kingdom without a king, or as valor unaided by weapons. [12] The use of elephants further increased with the rise of the Mahajanapadas. King Bimbisara (c. 543 BC), who began the expansion of the Magadha kingdom, relied heavily on his war elephants. The Mahajanapadas would be conquered by the Nanda Empire under the reign of Mahapadma Nanda. Pliny the Elder and Plutarch also estimated the Nanda Army strength in the east as 200,000 infantry, 80,000 cavalry, 8,000 chariots, and 6,000 war elephants. Alexander the Great would come in contact with the Nanda Empire on the banks of the Beas River and was forced to return due to his army's unwillingness to advance. Even if the numbers and prowess of these elephants were exaggerated by historic accounts, elephants were established firmly as war machines in this period.

Chandragupta Maurya (321–297 BC), formed the Maurya Empire, the largest empire to exist in South Asia. At the height of his power, Chandragupta wielded a military of 600,000 infantry, 30,000 cavalry, 8,000 chariots and 9,000 war elephants besides followers and attendants.

In the Mauryan Empire, the 30-member war office was made up of six boards. The sixth board looked after the elephants, and were headed by Gajadhyaksha. The gajadhyaksha was the superintendent of elephants and his qualifications. The use of elephants in the Maurya Empire as recorded by Chanakya in the Arthashastra. According to Chanakya catching, training, and controlling war elephants was one of the most important skills taught by the military academies. [3] He advised Chandragupta to setup forested sanctuaries for the wellness of the elephants. Chanakya explicitly conveyed the importance of these sanctuaries. The Maurya Empire would reach its zenith under the reign of Ashoka, who used elephants extensively during his conquest. During the Kalinga War, Kalinga had a standing army of 60,000 infantry, 1000 cavalry and 700 war elephants. Kalinga was notable for the quality of their war elephants which were prized by its neighbors for being stronger. [13] Later the King Kharavela would restore an independent Kalinga into a powerful kingdom utilizing war elephants as stated in the Hathigumpha inscription or "Elephant Cave" Inscriptions.

Following Indian accounts foreign rulers would also adopt the use of elephants.

The Cholas of Tamil Nadu also had a very strong elephant force. The Chola emperor Rajendra Chola had an armored elephant force, which played a major role in his campaigns.

Elephants in Greek & Roman Warfare - History

DISCLAIMER: Since this is a Latin blog, I have chosen only to focus on animals used in Roman battles or wars. Thus, I understand that some of these animals have older warfare uses, but the focus here is on Roman period uses.


Roman mosaic at Ostia Antica, Italy. Courtesy of WikiCommons &Marie-Lan Nguyen

Animal : North African Forest Elephant, Carthaginian Elephant, Atlas Elephants, “Hannibal’s Elephants”

Alive or Extinct : Extinct from over-exploitation

Hannibals route to Italy. Courtesy of WikiCommons & Albalg.

Battle or War: Second Punic War at the Battle of Trebia.

How was it used: A war elephant was an elephant trained and guided by humans for combat. Their main use was to charge the enemy, breaking their ranks and instilling terror. Elephantry are military units with elephant-mounted troops.

Fun Facts: The favorite, and perhaps last surviving elephant of Hannibal’s 218 B.C. crossing of the Alps was an impressive animal named Surus (“the Syrian” or “One-Tusker”), and may have been of Syrian stock, though the evidence remains ambiguous.

Before crossing the Alps, Hannibal had to cross the Rhone River. Credit: War elephants depicted in Hannibal Barca crossing the Rhône, by Henri Motte, 1878. Courtesy of WikiCommons.

Advantage or Disadvantage : The elephants had such a difficult time crossing the Alps due to the terrain, cold winter weather, and the fact that roads had to be built for them to cross. This wasted a lot of time and resulted in the surviving elephants being quite famished. However, the surviving elephants were successfully used in the battle of Trebia, where they panicked the Roman cavalry and Gallic allies.

The Elephant Battery in Peshawar in 1880’s. Courtesy of WikiCommons.

Last Used : Although, the elephant that is being discussed is the North African Forest Elephant, I believe it is important to know in general how elephants were used within war or battle.

In south-east Asia the use of elephants on the battlefield continued up until the end of the 19th century. One of the major difficulties in the region was terrain, and elephants could cross difficult terrain in many cases more easily than horse cavalry.

During World War I, elephants pulled heavy equipment. This one worked in a munitions yard in Sheffield. Courtesy of WikiCommons.

Into the 20th century, non-battle-trained elephants were used for other military purposes as late as World War II,particularly because the animals could perform tasks in regions that were problematic for modern vehicles.

Alive or Extinct: There is no certainty as to the species of pig or boar, so in general pigs/boars are still in existence.

Pyrrhus and his elephants. Courtesy of WikiCommons and Helene Guerber.

Battle or War : Pyrrhic War

How was it used: War pigs are pigs reported to have been used in ancient warfare, mostly as a countermeasure against war elephants. Ancient historians confirm that elephants were frightened by squealing pigs (and rams with horns), and reported that the Romans exploited squealing pigs (and rams) to repel the war elephants at Pyrrhus.

Sources: Pliny the Elder (“Natural History” 8.9.27), Aelian, (“On Animals” 1.38), Lucretius( De Rerum Natura 5.1298-134)

Fun Facts: Historical accounts of incendiary pigs or flaming pigs were recorded by the military writer Polyaenus and by Aelian. (Note: The following video shows Rome Total War custom battle between War Elephants and War Pigs. While, it is not historically accurate. It is a bit a fun.)

Advantage or Disadvantage: The elephants bolted in terror from the flaming and/or squealing pigs, often killing great numbers of their own soldiers by trampling them to death. However, there is some uncertainty as the war elephants could flee in either direction stomping and killing soldiers.

Last Used: There is no evidence that the war pig survived beyond antiquity. This, of course, is a logically deduction as its primary purpose was to defeat the war elephant. However, another reason why it may have not succeeded as a new and productive tactic is due to its uncertainty.

3. War Dogs

Cave canem mosaics (‘Beware of the dog’) were a popular motif for the thresholds of Roman villas. Courtesy of WikiCommons.

Alive or Extinct: Alive

Battle or War: A war against the Sardinians.

Mosaic at Pompeii.Courtesy of Wikicommons & Marie-Lan Nguyen

How was it used: Romans, dogs served most often as sentries or patrols, though they were sometimes taken into battle. Written accounts by the Roman writers and historians Plutarch and Pliny exist, and Strabo, a Greek historian, described the dogs being “protected with coats of mail.”

Fun Facts: War dogs were used by the Egyptians, Greeks, Persians, Sarmatians, Baganda, Alans, Slavs, Britons, and the Romans.

Advantage or Disadvantage: The Roman consul Marcus Pomponius Matho, leading the Roman legions through the inland of Sardinia, where the inhabitants led guerrilla warfare against the invaders, used “dogs from Italy” to hunt out the natives who tried to hide in the caves

Last Used: Contemporary dogs in military roles are also often referred to as police dogs, or in the United States as a Military Working Dog (MWD), or K-9. Their roles are nearly as varied as their ancient cousins, though they tend to be more rarely used in front-line formations. As of 2011, 600 U.S. Military dogs were actively participating in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan

4. War Horses

Re-enactor as Roman cavalryman.
Courtesy of WikiCommons & David Friel & FLickr.

Alive or Extinct: While it is unclear which species of horse was used by the Ancient Romans. It is clear that horses are in general not extinct.

Battle or War: Battle of Pharsalus (For the logistics of the battle, the video below goes into a greater detail than I could.)

How was it used: In antiquity, horses have been used to simply riding, transportation, cavalry, chariots, and as beast of burden. Cavalry was not used extensively by the Romans during the Roman Republic period, but by the time of theRoman Empire, they made use of heavy cavalry.

Sources: Plutarch Pompey 65.5

Fun Facts: The saddle with a solid framework, or “tree”, provided a bearing surface to protect the horse from the weight of the rider. The Romans are credited with the invention of the solid-treed saddle.

Advantage or Disadvantage: When Pompey determined that his cavalry had been routed by an inferior force (Caesar: 22,000 Infantry & 1,000 Cavalry Pompey: 45,000 Infantry & 7,000 Cavalry), he fled and retreated. Thus, it proves the importance of cavalry forces but not necessarily the size.

Afghani and United military forces on horseback in Afghanistan, 2001. Courtesy of WikiCommons.

Last Used: Today, many of the historical military uses of the horse have evolved into peacetime applications, including exhibitions, historical reenactments, work of peace officers, and competitive events. Formal combat units of mounted cavalry are mostly a thing of the past, with horseback units within the modern military used for reconnaissance, ceremonial, or crowd control purposes.

Pigeons with messages attached. Courtesy WikiCommons.

Alive or Extinct: Alive and Well.

Battle or War: Gallic Wars

How was it used: Pigeons have long played an important role in war. Due to their homing ability, speed, and altitude, they were often used as military messengers. The Romans used pigeon messengers for over 2000 years ago. In Ancient Rome, within many texts, there are references to pigeons being used to send messages by Julius Caesar.

Roman Mosaic from House of Faun. Detail of middle bird possibly being a pigeon. Courtesy of WikiCommons, Marie-Lan Nguyen, Jastrow.

Sources: Frontius (Stratagems Second book, XIII, 8)

Fun Facts: Pigeons have been used to great effect in military situations, with 32 birds awarded the Dickin Medal.

Advantage or Disadvantage: This one is a bit tricky, because while it would be advantageous to have information reach allies quickly and secretly. Pigeons are noticeable and could be intercepted.

Last Used: During World War II, the UK used about 250,000 homing pigeons, They ceased being used as of 1957.

Tortoise or Testudo Formation. Rendered on Trajan’s Column. Courtesy of WikiCommons & CristianChirita.

While the tortoise was not used as the animal, it inspired a famous formation known as the testudo or tortoise formation.

A demonstration of a reenactment event can be seen here:

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Elephants in Greek & Roman Warfare - History

By Ludwig H. Dyck

The huge gangplank dangled in the air, suspended by a rope and pulley from a massive pole standing upright in the bow of the Roman galley. From the top of the gangplank a spike protruded like the beak of a gigantic bird. Indeed, later the devices later became known as the corvus (raven). The Carthaginian crews on the opposing ship had never seen anything like it. Down the gangplank dropped, thundering onto the Carthaginian ship where the spike embedded itself into the deck. Over the gangplank came the Roman marines with their shields up and blades drawn. The Carthaginian crews were flabbergasted. They were used to fighting sea battles by ramming but now they had to fight, hand to hand, against some of the best soldiers of the ancient world. It was 260 BC, the fifth year of the First Punic War, the greatest naval conflict of the ancient world. (Read more about the ancient battles that shaped the modern world inside Military Heritage magazine.)

The emerging empires of Rome and Carthage were kept apart for a long time by different spheres of interest. Traditionally founded in 753 BC, Rome was busy extending her sway over Italy, defeating native hill tribes and invading Gauls, overcoming the ancient Etruscan civilization and absorbing Greek coastal colonies. Rome became a formidable land power in contrast to Carthage, which ruled the sea.

Carthage began as a Phoenician colony founded in 814 BC, on the coast of northwest Africa. Carthage’s mother city of Tyre fell first to the Babylonians in 585 BC, then to the Persians, and finally to Alexander the Great in 332 BC. The Phoenician elites fled Tyre for Carthage, from where they built a new empire. Native Libyans were exploited to toil in the fields, to fight in Carthage’s armies, and to man her ships. The Phoenician culture dominated, and Phoenician remained the language of the ruling class. At the same time, though, the Phoenicians intermarried with the Libyans. In time a new culture, that of the Liby-Phoenicians, was born. The great wealth of Carthage’s trading empire bought mercenaries and won her tribal alliances. Carthage blossomed into the largest and richest city of the western Mediterranean. From the Latin punicus (Phoenician), the Carthaginian Empire became known as the Punic empire. Its conquests extended to southern Spain, Sardinia, Corsica, and western Sicily.

The Politics that Drew Mortal Enemies into the First Punic War

Although fated to be deadly enemies, Rome and Carthage shared similar political structures. Both were former monarchies that had become republics, ruled by two annually elected magistrates—the Roman consuls and the Punic Shofets (suffetes in Latin)—alongside a senate and council of elders, respectively. Disagreements between these two governing bodies were referred to an assembly of the people. Senior political posts combined both civil and religious functions however, unlike the consuls, the suffetes did not lead armies in war. In both Rome and Carthage, wealthy oligarchies monopolized the leadership. Relations between Rome and Carthage remained relatively peaceful until a crisis developed over Sicily.

In those days, Sicily’s rugged hills were still largely covered in forests, rising to their highest peak at the 10,900-foot volcano of Mt. Etna. Sicily was “the noblest of all islands,” wrote Diodorus Siculus, and for that reason both powers desired to control it. Since prehistoric times, diverse peoples had settled on Sicily’s fertile lands. Among them were the Siculi, from whom the name of Sicily was derived. Starting in the 8th century, Greeks and Phoenicians arrived to set up colonies. They spread their influence over the natives and used them in their own rivalries and wars for possession of the island. From 304-289, the most powerful of these colonies, Greek Syracuse, was ruled by the tyrant Agathocles. In his employment were Campanian mercenaries known as the Mamertines (after Mamer, another name for Mars), who would draw Rome into Sicilian politics and into the First Punic War.

A trireme’s name derived from its three banks of oars with one rower to each oar. Larger quinqueremes likely had three banks of oars, but with two men per oar.

In 288 BC, a year after Agathocles’ death, the unemployed Mamertines faked friendship to enter the beautiful city of Messana (Messina). Once inside they enslaved, raped, and slaughtered the inhabitants. From Messana, the Mamertines raided northeastern Sicily and harassed their erstwhile employer Syracuse. Although they were defeated by Pyrrhus, King of Epirus (reigning from 306-302 and 297-272), who had come to help Syracuse against Carthaginian expansion, the Mamertines retained their hold on Messana. Concentrating on the greater enemy, Pyrrhus reduced the Carthaginian presence in Sicily to the sole stronghold of Lilybaeum (Marsala) on the western coast. Yet Syracuse lacked the spirit to finish off her old enemy and no longer desired Pyrrhus’ service. Pyrrhus returned to Italy, where he had been warring with Rome. The Mamertines resumed their raiding, wreaking havoc for nearly a decade until somewhere between 269 and 265, when they were twice defeated by Syracuse’s general and consequent king, Hiero. The Mamertines asked Carthage, which had rebuilt much of its power in Sicily, for help. They also asked Rome.

The Mamertines reminded Rome that they were kinsmen from Italy, but Rome was loath to help. The Mamertines’ massacre at Messana had inspired a Roman garrison at allied Rhegium (Reggio Calabria) to likewise turn on the hapless population. Rome had executed its turncoat garrison now Rome was suppose to help the equally wretched Mamertines?

The problem lay in Carthage’s involvement. Rome’s interests increasingly expanded beyond Italy’s shores. Rome, the land power, ultimately clashed with maritime power Carthage, as might be expected, over an island. If Carthage were to gain hold of Messana, her fleet and armies would be on the doorstep of Italy. For a long time the Romans debated. The Senate staunchly disapproved but were overruled by the assembly of the people and the consuls, who promised everyone great plunder. Consul Appius Claudius Caudex was appointed to lead the expedition in 264. It was the first time a Roman army would leave Italy by sea. And while Rome deliberated, Carthage installed a garrison at Messana.

Having decided to throw their lot in with Rome, the Mamertines evicted the Punic garrison. Rome’s involvement drastically upset the Sicily’s power dynamics. For both Carthage and Syracuse it meant that Rome was now their greatest contender for Sicilian dominance. To counter the Punic loss of Messana, Carthage’s commander, Hanno the Elder, won over not only Acragas (Agrigento), another Greek colony, but also Syracuse. Former enemies, Hanno and Hiero set up separate camps to blockade Messana by land and sea.

Rome relied on ships—triremes and quinqueremes—from allied Tarentum, Lorcri, Velia, and Naples to carry her troops. The standard warship since the latter half of the six century, the long and sleek trireme galley featured three banks of oars with a rower on each oar. In the naval arms race that followed, larger ships were built. The relationship between the design of the ships and their names is poorly understood. It seems that rather than adding more banks of oars, the number of rowers per oar was increased, so that on a quinquereme there were two men on the oars of the upper and middle banks and one on the lower. The bulk of the rowers probably hailed from Rome’s proletarii, the poorest citizens, alongside liberi freemen. Given Rome’s initial inexperience in naval warfare, a large number of the captains and skilled deck crews were provided by allied Italian coastal cities.

Undertaking a risky night crossing to slip through the Punic naval blockade, Consul Claudius brought his Roman army to Messana. All did not go smoothly, though, as there were some limited attacks by Punic ships. One of them ran aground and was captured by the Romans. At Messana, Claudius was impressed by the enemy forces arrayed against the city. He tried to parley, but when that approach failed, he launched an offensive. Rome’s legions and allies proved more than a match for their adversaries, who were routed and driven off the field one after the other. As to the Mamertines, they were no longer mentioned, their fate eclipsed by the larger conflict between Rome and Carthage.

When the Romans first agreed to help the Mamertines against Hiero, they did not envision themselves drawn into a war with Carthage, but now they were emboldened by Claudius’ victory. In 263 BC, the consuls Manius Otacilius Crassus and Manius Valerius Maximus arrived in Sicily with their two consular armies. Together, the two armies totalled 40,000 soldiers, including four legions of 4,000 legionaries and 300 cavalry each, as well as four alae (formations of conscripts) of Italian allies. Although well trained, the legionaries were not professional soldiers, but rather a levy of citizens, recruited mostly from the rural population. Few could have guessed how long the First Punic War would last. Kept in service for years, the recruits would become hardened veterans.

A Roman mosaic from Tunisia showing a trireme vessel during the time of the empire.

The size of the Roman forces and their capture of Hadranum (Adrano), at the base of Mt. Etna, intimidated scores of Sicilian settlements into surrender. Most notable among these was the city of Syracuse itself. Hiero agreed to pay 100 talents of silver and to limit Syracuse’s domains to southeast Sicily and north along the coast to Tauromenium (Taormina). More importantly, Hiero would secure the Roman supply chain to the mainland. Henceforth, Hiero ruled wisely and remained loyal to Rome. He protected Syracuse with a strong fleet and employed his famous kinsman, Archimedes the Greek, who invented ingenious mechanical defenses for the city.

The Acragas Siege

In summer 262, the consular armies of Lucius Postumius Megellus and Quintus Mamilius Vitulus blockaded the city of Acragas. The city lay on a plateau several miles from the sea. Hannibal, son of Gisco and father of Hanno, led the defense of the city. When a number of Romans foraged for grain outside the city, they were set upon by Carthaginian soldiers who sortied out of the gate. Scattering the foragers, the Carthaginians continued on to assault the Roman camp. The legionaries put up a bitter defense until their slain Carthaginian foes lay piled in heaps beneath the stockade. Now it was the Romans’ turn to sortie out, cutting down the fleeing Carthaginians, of whom only a few escaped back to Acragas.

The siege had lasted for five months when reinforcements from Carthage arrived at Lilybaeum. Hanno, who was in command of the relief column, had 50,000 infantry, 6,000 cavalry, and 60 war elephants. In all likelihood, the pachyderms were recently introduced into the Punic army. Hanno marched his army to Heraclea and, aided by treachery, looted the main Roman supply depot at Herbessus.

Though Hiero of Syracuse continued to provide a lifeline, food shortages soon made themselves felt in the Roman camp. In their weakened state, the soldiers were more vulnerable to pestilence, which further depleted their ranks.

After winning a cavalry engagement, Hanno set up camp on a hill close to Acragas and waited. When famine and pestilence also beset Acragas, Hanno engaged the Romans in a decisive battle for the city. The fighting was long and hard, but at last, the Romans overcame the Ligurians and Celts who bore the brunt of the enemy’s fighting. When the elephants and the rest of the Carthaginian ranks came under direct Roman attack, the Punic army broke into confusion.

Elated by their victory and exhausted from battle, the Romans neglected their sentries. Hannibal and his mercenaries slipped out of Acragas at night and crossed over the Roman trenches by filling them with baskets full of chaff. At daylight, the Romans were skirmishing with the rear of Hannibal’s column, but their primary focus remained Acragas.

Rome had suffered 30,000 casualties in the siege and battle. When the city fell, the Romans were eager for their grim rewards of rape and plunder. They enslaved more than half of Acragas’ population, which amounted to approximately 25,000 people. It was a clear signal to the Sicilian city-states that still sided with the enemy. The disgraced Hanno had to pay a fine of 6,000 gold pieces and was replaced by Hamilcar as Carthage’s main commander in Sicily.

Although the Romans rejoiced at the fall of Acragas, it was obvious that victory over Carthage would only be possible if the Punic navy were defeated. Rome had to become a naval power, a strategy as audacious as it was challenging.

Rome Tries to Become a Naval Powerhouse

Knowing comparatively little of building and sailing ships, Rome used the Punic ship captured during Claudius’ crossing as model of her own war galleys. In training, Roman marines rowed their oars while sitting on benches, arranged as they would be on a ship, while sitting on dry land. In this way, the crews were trained even before the ships were built.

Carthage had an enormous naval base. Before the First Punic War, Carthage had the most powerful navy in the western Mediterranean.

Roman naval operations nevertheless started with a fiasco. In 260 BC, Consul Gnaeus Cornelius Scipio was lured into the harbour of Lipara, the main city on the Aeolian islands, by the false news that the city was ready to switch to the Roman side. Scipio ended up being captured by the Punic fleet, alongside 17 Roman ships.

Command of the Roman fleet fell to Scipio’s co-consul Gaius Dulius. Dulius sailed towards Mylae (Milazzo), where Hannibal Gisco, who had assumed command of the Punic fleet, could not wait to engage the Romans. Hannibal stood proudly on the prow of his flagship, a mighty septireme that had belonged to King Pyrrhus. Hannibal believed that his ships were like “predators after easy prey,” according to Polybius. The two fleets were fairly even in size, with the 130 Punic ships slightly outnumbered by 145 Roman ones.

As the fleets approached one another, the Carthaginian crews espied the strange poles and drawn-up gangplanks on the bows of the Roman ships. With its beak-like spike, the corvus pinned the Roman ship to the Punic one. Two abreast, the Roman marines advanced over the 36-foot long gangplanks, deflecting Punic javelins with their oval shields. Swarming the decks of the Punic ships, the marines cut down the Liby-Phoenicians and the mercenaries who fought alongside them. The Carthaginians lost 50 ships before they retreated. Among the captured ships was the flagship of Hannibal, who somehow “escaped by the skin of his teeth,” wrote Polybius.

After their upset of Punic naval dominance at Mylae, the Romans retained the initiative on land and sea. From 260 to 257 BC, the Romans relieved Segesta, captured a string of towns, and besieged Lipara. The only notable Punic land victory occurred when Hamilcar ambushed 4,000 Roman allies as they were breaking camp. At sea, Rome defeated and trapped Hannibal Gisco’s fleet in a Sardinian harbour. Blaming Gisco for their predicament, his men arrested and crucified him for the defeat. The Roman fleet then fought another engagement off the coast of Tyndaris (Tindari). The Carthaginians destroyed Consul Gaius Atilius Regulus’ vanguard. They nearly captured the consul before the rest of the Roman ships arrived and chased them away. Rome also extended the war to the shores of Sardinia, Corsica, and Malta.

One of the Largest Seat Battles in Antiquity

The year 256 saw an unprecedented build up for a titanic naval battle. The Romans launched a new fleet of 330 ships the Carthaginians sailed forth with 350 ships. The Romans intended to bring the war to the Punic homeland. To do so, they had to destroy the Punic fleet. On board the ships of the Roman fleet was an expeditionary force of the best troops from her land army, serving as marines. Each ship held 120 marines as well as 300 oarsmen, for a total of 138,600 men. The Punic fleet was anchored at Heraclea, Minoa, and aware of the Roman intentions. Manning the Punic ships were 150,000 men, who were told by their commanders that everything depended on victory at sea. If the enemy set foot on Libyan soil, then surely they would subjugate the whole country.

When the Punic fleet intercepted the Roman fleet off Cape Ecnomus, the ensuing conflict was possibly the largest sea battle in antiquity in terms of men involved.

The two sides fought high-stakes battles along the Sicilian coast and in the rugged interior.

Leading the Roman fleet were the two “sixers,” or hexaremes, of consuls Marcus Atilius Regulus and Lucius Manlius Vulso. The Roman ships attacked in triangular formation, the base of which towed the horse transports. Another protective line of ships brought up the rear.

The Punic ships bore upon the Romans in a broad but thin linear formation. The longer right wing stretched far into the ocean and was commanded by Hanno the Elder, who had returned to service in 258. The shorter left wing, commanded by Hamilcar, was deployed at an angle to the coastline.

The Roman wedge intended to smash its way through, something Hamilcar had anticipated. The Punic ships facing the apex of the Roman triangle retreated, luring the Roman ships after them. With the Roman center ruptured, the Punic wings rowed inward to attack the base of the Roman triangle, which was slowed by the horse transports. Seeing the danger, Regulus and Vulso turned their ships about and rowed to the relief of their hard-pressed comrades to the rear. A furious battle ensued, with the Punic ships attempting to ram but risking being pinned by a corvus. At one point, the battle dissolved into three separate engagements before ultimately ending in a Roman victory.

The Romans lost 24 ships. Punic losses amounted to 30 ships sunk and 64 captured.

Too Many Mouths to Feed

Following through with their invasion plans, the Romans beached their ships south of Cape Hermaea (Cape Bon) and seized town of Aspis (Kelibia). While the main Punic forces remained holed up in protection around Carthage, Roman soldiers ransacked countryside villas, farms and settlements. Twenty-thousand people were dragged into slavery, alongside herds of livestock. Vulso transported the loot and the enslaved population back to Rome. Regulus stayed behind with 40 ships, 15,000 infantry, and 500 cavalry.

Bringing reinforcements, Hamilcar arrived from Sicily to join the Punic army at Carthage. He shared command with Bostar and Hasdrubal, the son of Hanno. The Punic army arrived on a ridge above Adys (possibly Uthina), which Regulus was besieging. It was Regulus, however, who struck first his warriors set off at night, hiked uphill, and attacked the Punic relief army at dawn. The rough ground on the ridge was ill-suited for the cavalry and elephants, negating the Carthaginians’ greatest advantage. Nevertheless, the mercenaries forced back the legions but then were outflanked. Breaking in panic, the fleeing mercenaries caused the entire Punic army to collapse. Regulus was left free to loot scores of settlements, including Tunis, which was situated just 13 miles from Carthage.

Raids into Punic territory were undertaken not only by the Romans, but also by Numidians from neighboring kingdoms. Incensed by earlier Carthaginian incursions, the Numidians exacted their revenge. Refugees fled to Carthage where, in Polybius’ words, there were “too many mouths to feed.” Teetering on collapse, Carthage sent envoys, but the surrender terms Regulus demanded were “no better than slavery,” wrote Diodorus. Carthage would fight on.

In an effort to appease the gods, the Carthaginians revived long-neglected ancient sacrifices. Possibly among these was the most dreadful of Phoenician rituals, no longer practised in Tyre but now carried out in Carthage: the sacrificial burning of infants to the god Ba’al Hammon and his consort Tanit.

Salvation arrived in 255 with the Spartan mercenary Xanthippus. The veteran soldier re-drilled the Punic army until the men cheered him and could not wait to fight the Romans.

Roman marines trained on dry land so that they would be ready when the fleet sailed.

The opposing armies bivouacked close to each other near Tunis. Punic forces numbered 12,000 infantry, 4000 cavalry and nearly 100 elephants. The forces were evenly matched, with the Romans enjoying a superiority in infantry but being weak in cavalry. While the Punic commanders debated about how to proceed, the soldiers formed their own battle lines and called for Xanthippus to lead them. Xanthippus urged an attack while the men’s spirits were so high.

The elephants formed a single central line at the front. Behind them, a second, broader line was made up of Carthaginian citizen infantry in close-order formation on the left and mercenaries on the right. Libyan and Numidian cavalry and light infantry were deployed on the flanks. The Libyans typically fielded shock cavalry, armed with thrusting spears. The Numidian cavalry preferred skirmishing tactics, riding bareback without bridle, armed with javelins and small round shields. The elephants swatted their ears and dangled their trunks, the horses snorted and pawed the ground. The men likely stood apprehensively ready or boasted of their courage.

The Romans positioned their light troops in front, followed by a deep center of legionary maniples (formations of 120 men). Although confident that the mercenaries would cause them no trouble, the Romans were wary of the elephants. The prospect for the Roman cavalry looked dim, as well. Deployed on the wings, they faced their Punic counterparts, which outnumbered them several times over.

The drivers goaded their elephants forward, while on both Punic wings the cavalry bolted forth. The Roman ranks resounded with the clattered of spears against shields, as with a great shout they, too, advanced into battle. The Numidian and Libyan cavalry horsemen routed their overwhelmed Roman counterparts after a brief fight. Against the mercenaries, however, the legionaries proved triumphant, driving them off the field. But the day belonged to the elephants, which scattered the Roman light troops and plowed through the ranks of legionaries. For a while, the depth of the Roman lines slowed the great pachyderms. Then, though, the Punic cavalry returned, flinging volleys of javelins upon the Roman flank and rear ranks. A number of Roman soldiers evaded the elephants, only to be decimated by the long spears of the citizen phalanx. Hemmed in by the cavalry and crushed by the elephants, nearly the whole Roman army was annihilated.

280 of 364 Warships Lost

The 2,000 legionaries who had chased after the mercenaries were the only ones who made it back to Aspis. The Punic losses only numbered 800. Regulus initially escaped the massacre, but ended up being taken prisoner. The Carthaginians purportedly cut off Regulus’ eyelids, so that he could not shut his eyes while he was trampled to death by an elephant. Carthage rejoiced in its victory and sacrificed to its gods.

Early in summer 255, the fleet of consuls Marcus Aemilius Paullus and Servius Fulvius P. Nobilior decisively defeated a smaller Punic fleet near Cape Hermaea. After picking up the Roman garrison of Aspis, the Roman fleet sailed back towards Sicily in July. Along Sicily’s southern coast the Roman fleet got caught in a violent storm. Ships capsized and sank while others were smashed by waves against submerged rocks and headlands. The beaches from Camarina to Cape Pachynus were littered with wrecks, flotsam and jetsam, and corpses of men and horses. Of the 364 warships, 280 were lost. Three hundred cavalry transports and various other vessels were lost as well. Polybius called it the greatest disaster at sea ever.

Encouraged by Rome’s misfortune, Punic commander Carthalo retook Acragas and razed it to the ground. In 254, Hasdrubal arrived at Lilybaeum with a new Punic army, including 140 elephants. Both sides had rebuilt their fleets: 200 ships for Carthage and 220, built in only three months, for Rome. Commanding the new Roman fleet were second-time consuls Caiatinus and Scipio. The latter had been released from Punic captivity some time after his capture in 260, presumably ransomed.

The Romans prevailed against Hasdrubal’s Carthaginian army in a pitched battle at Panormus near modern-day Palermo.

Taking on more ships at Messana, the consuls proceeded to seize Cephaloedium (Cefalu) through treason. Caiatinus and Scipio then laid siege to Drepana (Trapani) but withdrew when Carthalo arrived with a relief army. Sailing back east, the consuls decided to take Panormus instead. Woods grew nearly up to the gates, providing timber for the legionaries, who erected a palisade and dug a trench to enclose the city. The Romans had begun the war relatively unskilled in siege warfare, but they had learned. Siege engines destroyed a seaside tower, enabling the soldiers to battle their way into the outer city, or new town. Wreaking havoc, the Roman soldiers terrified the remaining population who were holed up in the inner old town. After negotiating surrender terms, the Romans allowed 14,000 people to buy their freedom, but they enslaved 13,000 others. Panormus’ grim fate induced Iaetia and Tyndaris to join the Roman side.

From 253 to 251, the Romans sluggishly continued the land war. The legionaries remained fearful of the elephants and stuck to the high ground. A major assault on the Punic position on Heircte (possibly Mt. Pellegrino) near Panormus met with no success, but both Lipara and Therma (Termini Imerese) were captured. At sea, the Roman fleet raided the Libyan shores, but then ran aground at Meninx (Djerba), the Island of the Lotus-eaters. Throwing heavy equipment overboard to lighten their loads, the Roman ships broke free when the tide returned. As fortune would have it, the fleet was caught in another disastrous storm off Cape Palinurus, which destroyed 150 warships.

In June 250, Hasdrubal devastated the croplands surrounding Panormus. Caecilius Metellus, the previous year’s consul, kept his two legions behind the city walls. Hasdrubal crossed over the river that ran in front of the city and set up camp, but neglected to fortify his position. The Celtic mercenaries were already getting drunk when the Carthaginian camp came under attack by Roman skirmishers. The elephant drivers mounted their elephants and easily drove off the Roman light troops. Pursuing the latter back to the walls, the elephants came under heavy fire from archers on the ramparts and from more light troops in the moat. Pin-cushioned with arrows and javelins, the elephants ran amok, flinging their drivers to the ground as they stampeded back to their lines. In their frenzy, they crushed any Punic soldiers who stood in their way. Seeing the enemy lines thrown into disorder, Caecilius’ legionaries charged from the city gate and routed the Punic army. The surviving elephants were captured and later displayed at Caecilius’ triumph in Rome.

Following Caecilius’ victory at Panormus, consuls Regulus and Vulso laid siege to Lilybaeum. Other than Drepana, Lilybaeum was the last Punic bastion on Sicily. Its garrison of 10,000 mercenaries was under the command of Himilco. The city’s walls were strong, a deep moat protected its landward side, and treacherous shallows filled the seaward approach. Battering rams were brought up, chipping away at the ramparts and towers closest to the sea. Undaunted, Himilco repaired old walls, built new fortifications and carried out limited sorties.

The Rhodian

To come to the rescue of Lilybaeum, Hannibal, son of Hamilcar, set off from Carthage with 50 ships and 10,000 soldiers. With too little wind to fill the sails, Hannibal anchored among the Aegates Islands (the Aegadians), northwest of Lilybaeum. When a strong breeze blew up, Hannibal sailed for Lilybaeum and slipped through the Roman blockade. Greeted by a cheering crowd, Hannibal dropped anchor within the safety of the harbour.

Carthaginian General Hamilcar Barca established a secure camp on Sicily from which he carried out guerilla attacks and coastal raids against Roman forces.

The reinforced Punic army sallied forth at dawn and launched a major assault on the Roman siege works. Himilco spearheaded the attack, but was met by mounting Roman opposition. The intensity of the fighting increased even as the corpses piled up. Heedless of their safety, thousands of Punic soldiers tossed flaming brands at the siege engines. Both sides were on the brink of collapse when the Punic trumpets sounded the retreat.

At night Hannibal’s fleet sneaked out of the harbour, making for Drepana. Some time afterwards, a lone ship likewise eluded the Roman galleys due to favorable winds and its unexpected direction from the nearby islands. The captain was another Hannibal known as the “Rhodian” (the Rhodians being famed for their skill at sea), who carried information between Carthage and Rome. The Rhodian’s advantage lay in his intimate knowledge of the shallows, his well-conditioned rowers and his superb ship. He even mocked the Roman ships, spreading the oars as if challenging them to pursue. Nor was the Rhodian the only blockade runner.

The Romans tried to fill in the harbour, but it was too deep, and the strong waves and current swept away the rubble they dumped to the bottom. With gigantic effort, the Romans piled up a sandbar, upon which a Punic quadrireme ran aground. Captured and taken over by a Roman crew, the quadrireme enabled them to catch the Rhodian’s ship and to prevent others from entering or leaving Lilybaeum’s harbour.

New Recruits for the Roman Navy

The assault on Lilybaeum continued until a great storm blew up, battering the Roman siege works, ripping apart sheds and toppling over towers. Advised by his Greek mercenaries, Himilco launched another sortie. Many of the siege works were old and of bone-dry wood. Stoked by the wind, they were easily set alight. The smoke, sparks and cinders blew into the faces of the Romans trying to combat the attackers and to extinguish the fires. Choking, coughing, and blinded, many Romans died before they even reached the fighting. In contrast to the Romans, the assaulting mercenaries had clear sight and air as they continued to feed the inferno. When the flames died down, all that remained were the charred bases of towers and burned beams of battering rams. The Romans were forced to give up their attacks on Lilybaeum instead, they would starve the population into surrender or death by siege.

Opponents grapple with each other in a naval battle depicted on a sarcophagus. Roman rulers learned in the First Punic War that control of the Mediterranean Sea was vital to the republic’s interests.

So many Roman marines died in the battles for Lilybaeum that not enough remained to man the oars of the navy. In 249, 10,000 new recruits arrived from Rome with Consul Publius Claudius Pulcher. Pulcher used the extra men in a naval offensive against Drepana. Arriving within sight of the walls at dawn, Claudius released the sacred chickens to consult the gods. In what was an ill omen, the chickens refused to eat. Claudius made things worse by disrespectfully throwing the chickens into the water “so that, as they would not eat, they might drink,” according to Cicero.

The Punic fleet sailed out of the harbour on the seaward side. At the same time, the Roman ships were already entering the harbour on the landward side. Claudius ordered the ships already inside the harbour to sail back out, causing a number of collisions. Oars snapped and marines cursed. Outside of the harbour, the Roman fleet reformed with their sterns to the shore and their bows toward the enemy and the open sea.

The battle signals were hoisted high, the oars plied the water, and the two fleets engaged. Gradually the Punic ships and seamanship began to win out, aided by the fact that the ocean was behind them. When in trouble, the lighter Punic vessels could disengage, withdraw to open water, turn around and re-engage. The heavier and clumsier Roman ships were rammed from the broad side or from behind. Trying to turn around or to escape, the inexperienced Roman crews got stuck in the shallows or beached their ships on the shore. Claudius and 30 or so ships managed to escape, but 93 ships, many with their crews, were captured by the Carthaginians.

Meanwhile, Co-consul Lucius Junius Pullus, who was elected for the year 249, arrived at Messana with a convoy of supply ships for the besiegers at Lilybaeum. Junius sailed for Syracuse with 120 war galleys and nearly 800 transport vessels. At Syracuse, he waited for the arrival of more ships from Messana and for grain from Sicilian allies. Junius send some of the warships and half the transports ahead with the quaestors. The latter were Rome’s financial officials, who could act as a second-in-command to the consul.

On the Punic side, Adherbal planned a raid on the Roman fleet moored off Lilybaeum. He entrusted the mission to Carthalo, who had arrived at Drepana from Carthage with 70 ships. Reinforced by Adherbal with another 30 ships, Carthalo attacked the moored Roman fleet at Lilybaeum at dawn. The Romans rushed forth to stop their ships from being towed away or burned, their stiffening resistance causing Carthalo to break off the attack.

Carthalo then sailed southeast along the coast until he happened upon the quaestors’ ships coming from Syracuse. The quaestors’ fleet, which consisted mostly of transports, eluded Carthalo’s galleys by taking refuge in the Bay of Gela. Behind spits of land, an allied sea-side town provided shelter. Setting up catapults and ballistae along the shore, the Romans drove off Carthalo’s fleet.

From the mouth of a nearby river, Carthalo’s fleet waited for the Romans to leave the safety of the bay. Instead, Carthalo’s lookouts spotted Consul Junius’ fleet making its way from Syracuse. Once more, the outmatched Roman fleet eluded Carthalo, finding refuge along a rugged stretch of coast. The weather now took a turn for the worse. Carthalo barely made it to the calmer waters around Cape Pachynus. Behind him, the storm accomplished what the Punic fleet had failed to do: Both Roman fleets were smashed against the rocks. The destruction was so completed that “even the timbers from the wrecks were useless,” wrote Polybius. Junius was fortunate to survive. To somewhat make up for the disaster, he captured the town of Eryx (Erice) on the ridge north of Drepana and the sanctuary of Aphrodite on the summit above.

For many years, the sieges of Drepana and Lilybaeum dragged on. In 247, Carthage made another Hamilcar commander of their navy. From his easily defended camp on Mt. Heircte, Hamilcar carried out coastal raids and guerrilla attacks. He struck like “baraq” (Punic for lightning), from whence he got his cognomen of Barca. In 243, Hamilcar Barca sailed towards Drepana, re-capturing the town of Eryx on the massif to the north. Setting up camp on the ridge, Hamilcar harassed the besiegers of Drepana.

With seemingly no end in sight for the sieges of Lilybaeum and Drepana, Rome decided for a third time to hinge its fate on the sea. Financed by loans from the richest Romans, a fleet of 200 quinqueremes was built. The new ships were based on the vessel from the Rhodian and no longer including the corvus. Early in the summer of 242, the fleet under Consul Gaius Lutatius Catulus reinforced the siege around Drepana.

At the Agates Islands off the western coast of Sicily in 241 B.C., the Roman fleet crippled an inexperienced Carthaginian fleet. With its only army isolated on Sicily, the Carthaginians sued for peace.

Lutatius continued to drill his marines, preparing for the arrival of the enemy fleet. Punic response was long in coming, though, possibly because Carthage was running out of skilled seamen. It was not until spring 241 that a Punic fleet appeared under another Hanno. On board were grain and other supplies for Drepana and Lilybaeum.

Hanno anchored at the Sacred Isle (Marettimo), intend on crossing unseen to Eyrx. There, he would offload supplies and take on Hamilcar’s men to fight in the coming sea battle. Guessing Hanno’s intentions, Lutatius sailed to the Aegean Islands to battle the Punic navy on the morning of March 10, 241. Despite a brisk wind and a heavy swell, the well-trained Roman crews mastered both the elements and the enemy, whose men had been hastily recruited. Fifty Punic ships were sunk and another 70 ships captured with their crews. Due to the rough weather, an inordinate number of men likely drowned. A change in winds allowed the remainder of the Punic ships to raise masts, hoist sails and escape back to the Sacred Isle.

Rome Wins out in the First Punic War, But at Heavy Costs

With characteristic doggedness, Carthage at first was ready to continue fighting, but then reality sank in. The First Punic War effort was broken the final decision was left to Hamilcar at Eyrx. With little prospect of staying supplied, Hamilcar sent heralds to discuss terms and begin negotiations. Rome demanded that Carthage evacuate Sicily and all the islands between Italy and Sicily and pay Rome a hefty 3,200 Euboic talents over a 10-year period. Carthage accepted and thereby ended its 23-year war with Rome, the longest in history up to that time. For Carthage, more woes lay ahead, as subjugated tribes revolted and unpaid mercenaries turned on their former masters.

For Rome, it was a glorious chapter in her epic history, marking the beginning of oversea conquests that would make the Mediterranean a Roman Sea. Sicily became Rome’s first province and Rome’s grain basket. In 238, the Romans annexed Corsica and Sardinia, as well.

The First Punic War had been fought in Sicily, on the waters of the Mediterranean Sea, and in North Africa. Rome, with its greater resources, superior land armies, and successful adaptation to naval warfare, emerged victorious.

The innovative corvus was a stopgap that bought Rome time to gain skill in training crews and building ships, which in the final battle in the Aegean Sea proved superior to those of Carthage. Likely the extra weight, position, and size of the corvus contributed to losses in storms. That Rome was able to recover from those catastrophic losses illustrates her extraordinary resilience.

Carthage, though, was far from finished. Hamilcar’s son, Hannibal Barca, would lay waste to Italy and become one of Rome’s greatest foes in the Second Punic War of 218 to 201.


Elephants in popular culture are often shown all on their own, smashing through formations of enemies. The smashing is accurate, but the all-alone is not: elephants existed within tactical systems which combined them, particularly with infantry. Trautmann (2015) notes that in India itself, the ‘fourfold’ army, with cavalry, chariots, foot and elephants, became a poetic paradigm for the correctly structured army, even after chariots had largely fallen out of use.

Nevertheless, elephants were potentially extremely powerful weapon-systems. Their key value lay not in the ability to shatter enemy formations off the field (although they could do that) or inflict massive casualties (but they can do that too), but in the disorder they caused an enemy. Against infantry, elephants were extremely disruptive to the tightly-packed formations required for success. Against horses, the natural aversion of horses to approach elephants could spoil cavalry charges and scatter horseman.

Thus the war elephant wasn’t a ‘battle winner’ so much as a dangerous complication thrown in the way of the enemy’s plan of attack. And at that, they were awesome.

Next week, we’ll look at the drawbacks. Why didn’t the Romans – or the Chinese for that matter – make much use of these awesome, awesome animals?

On ancient battlegrounds

If there was one ancient general who was the most instrumental in the spread of elephants as a weapon of war, it was probably Alexander the Great.

The ancient king first encountered elephants during his conquest of Persia in the 2nd century BCE (Before the Common Era). Alexander was able to skillfully defeat the Persians and their elephants, but was nonetheless mesmerized by the terrifying beasts. He took the Persian elephants that survived the campaign—and attempted to build an army of his own elephants.

Alexander was always on the march, so he never had time to truly train his elephants into an effective combat force. Instead, he used them mostly for their logistical prowess and for the powerful psychological impact they had on their the enemies.

This began to change as Alexander marched into India and clashed with the elephant-equipped forces of King Porus of Paruava. Here Alexander saw what fully-trained war elephants could do in combat. His spear-armed troops fought them off by organizing into tight ranks—like a porcupine—but they did so at a terrible price.

After Alexander died and his kingdom splintered, an elephant arms race ensued throughout the ancient world. The animals served as a potent symbol of an army’s wealth, status and power. But as future campaigns would reveal, they also had their weaknesses.

More than a century later, Hannibal of Carthage led his daring march across the Alps with an army of elephants. Hannibal, one of antiquity’s most celebrated generals, hoped to meet his Roman enemies head on with his war beasts. Ironically—as Hannibal is famous for it—this feat turned into a major blunder.

Elephants, not historically known for living in cold, high-altitude environments, proved ill-suited to the task of scaling the Alps. Many died crossing the mountains. Even the ones who survived the trek came out famished, exhausted and sick. When Hannibal met the Romans in combat at the Battle of Zama, the elephants proved ineffective.

To make matters worse for Hannibal, the Romans had developed anti-elephant tactics learned after earlier campaigns against the Greek kingdom of Espirus.

Hannibal lined his elephants up in front of his army—a screening force except with six-ton, man-crushing animals. The Roman general Scipio Africanus responded by creating gaps in his lines. When the elephants charged, the Romans funneled them through these open gaps, and dispatched them in Scipio’s rear.

The Romans also outmaneuvered Hannibal’s elephants with javelin-throwing troops, and mounted spikes on their wagons in order to wound the animals. The Romans also set fires to frighten them away.

Hannibal’s campaign also revealed several other weaknesses.

For one, when put under extreme stress, elephants can become unruly and difficult to control. Some of the more aggressive male elephants would sometimes pick fights with each other, causing major disruptions to operations as well as putting friendly troops around them at risk.

After Hannibal, the Romans adopted elephants—poetically so—during their campaign to conquer the late Alexander’s kingdom of Macedonia. Yet the golden age of the war elephants was coming to an end, at least in Europe.

Elephants saw infrequent use during the Middle Ages. The Frankish king Charlemagne owned an Asian elephant named Abdul-Abbas—given to him by Harun Al Rashid, the caliph of Baghdad. This unfortunate pet met his end while marching north with his master during a war against King Godofrid of Denmark. Historians still debate whether Charlemagne actually intended to use Abdul-Abbas in battle or whether he was there as a status symbol.

Elephants were more common in Asia, where the Khmer fielded them to great effect during their 12th century conquest of the Chams. The Mongols encountered many elephants as they marched into southeast Asia—outmaneuvering them with archers in a manner similar to Roman javelins.

The advent of gunpowder made elephants even more of a rarity on the battlefield—as they became vulnerable to deadly musket volleys. But in the late 19th century, the Siamese army used the elephants against French colonial troops, sometimes even mounting musketeers on the elephants’ backs.

But elephants no longer had the same effect they once did. As the world became introduced to industrialized warfare in the form of machine guns, armored vehicles and chemical weapons, elephants suddenly didn’t seem so scary.

But that’s not to say that the armies of the world no longer had any use for their beasts of burden.

The Cambridge History of Greek and Roman Warfare. Volume 1, Greece, The Hellenistic World and the Rise of Rome

The Cambridge history of Greek and Roman warfare covers Archaic and Classical Greece, the Hellenistic period and also the Roman Republic until around 100 BC (Volume Two deals with the Late Republic and Imperial period till Late Antiquity) and contains fifteen chapters by various contributors. Apart from the three introductory chapters in the present volume all other parts of Greek and Roman Warfare are structured the same way: international relations, military forces, war, battle, warfare and the state, and war and society. The military forces and battle chapters are sometimes divided into an A and B portion dealing with the forces/battles on land and at sea respectively. The book is very comprehensive and a welcome starting point in approaching ancient military studies. The editors as well as the authors can be congratulated on their efforts in producing this important reference work.

This handbook aims to be a comprehensive overview of war in antiquity encompassing new research and recent discoveries, and therefore offers a refreshing contrast to earlier standard works by Delbrück or Kromayer and Veith, for example. 1 It is not intended to be a narrative account of numerous wars and battles but rather “a thematic analysis of the main aspects of warfare in the ancient world” (XV). Yet it is teeming with numerous fascinating details that can only be touched upon in the following summary.

The first introductory chapter by Victor Davis Hanson discusses the modern scholarship on ancient warfare, primarily from the 19th-century to the present (pp. 3-21). “The Paradox of War” is the subtitle of Simon Hornblower’s interesting chapter on warfare in ancient literature (pp. 22-53). He investigates the paradox that the ancient writers profess a dislike of war while being fascinated by it and that the prominence of war is in disproportion to its frequency and practical significance. Hornblower examines the historical reality and the trustworthiness of ancient historiography on war. The reconstruction of ancient warfare is the theme of Michael Whitby’s contribution (pp. 54-81).

Part I is on “Archaic and Classical Greece”. Jonathan M. Hall’s chapter (pp. 85-107) provides an introduction to the agonistic age and covers the mechanics of international relations, supracivic leagues and amphictyonies, and hegemonic alliances. It closes with a summary of the new world order after the Peloponnesian War. Peter Hunt (pp. 108-146) outlines the various types of military forces the Greeks employed and their hierarchy: hoplites and their armoury, cavalry — which played a minor role in southern Greece in this era — peltasts, archers, slingers, and the navy. In further sections he explains military units and officers, training, and the manpower of Greek armies (citizens, metics, slaves, mercenaries, and elite units). Chapter 6 (pp. 147-185) by Peter Krentz takes a look at the organisational side of warfare from the call to arms (or oars), supplies, timing of campaigns, the departure of troops, their encampment, the defenders options, looting and ravaging, combat, epiteichismos (i.e., constructing fortresses in enemy territory), the fate of the defeated, and the return home. Everett Wheeler gives a thorough analysis of land battles (chapter 7 A: pp. 186-223), beginning with an introduction “defining the battlefield of debate”, in which he makes a critical assessment of past and present scholarship on the emergence of the phalanx in the seventh century BC and ancient perception of Greek infantry superiority against outsiders. Wheeler continues by explaining the development of the phalanx, the mechanics of hoplite combat and the emergence of generalship after the Persian Wars. This is followed by an equally stimulating contribution by Barry Strauss (chapter 7 B: pp. 223-247), who covers the history of Greek warships, the hard training and the various naval operations in which triremes could be employed, and on the development and experience of siege warfare. Chapter 8 (pp. 248-272) by Vincent Gabrielsen concerns warfare and the state in Archaic and Classical Greece. The focus lies here on the producers of violence and the profits of war, where he singles out centralisation, finance, imperial revenue, and war in Athens in the century before the death of Alexander. In the following chapter (pp. 273-299) Hans van Wees deals with the impact of warfare on Greek society. He cites Sparta as an exception in terms of extreme dedication—in the rest of Greece military standards were rather low—, and he points out that the demands of war did not dictate the daily routine of the people or shape their social and political structures, but “it was the demand of social, political and economic life which shaped warfare” (p. 273). In three sections he investigates the leisure class, competitiveness and pleonexia (greed), and society and politics.

Part II on the Hellenistic World and the Roman Republic starts with Richard Billows’s chapter on international relations (pp. 303-324), where he examines the different relationship patterns of this period: Hellenistic states between each other as well as with cities, and the relations between cities. The two last sections concern early Rome and its contact with the Hellenistic world. A very detailed summary on the land forces by Nicholas Sekunda in chapter 11 A (pp. 325-356) follows. Sekunda discusses the changes in military demography and military tactics during the times of Philip and Alexander, particularly the Macedonian phalanx and focuses on the same aspects under the successors of Alexander, with additional coverage on units such as thureophoroi (infantry more suited for smaller Greek armies), mercenaries, cavalry, and exotic troop types. The latter includes cuirassed infantry, scythed chariots, and elephants.

Part III is on the confrontation with Rome and the resulting changes in Greek and Roman armies. One significant change occurred after Pydna, when Hellenistic armies abandoned the phalanx and began equipping their infantries in “Roman style”, a process that increased in the following century. The naval forces are treated by Philip de Souza (chapter 11 B, pp. 357-367) in three sections: the development of the polyremes, shipbuilding, and manpower in the Hellenistic kingdoms, Rome and Carthage.

The chapter on war for this period is by Jonathan P. Roth (pp. 368-398), who pays attention to the changes in strategy, logistics (food supplies), and campaign mechanics. The latter involved the new aspect of professional and mercenary troops no longer being dispersed after a campaign season, as was typical for citizen armies. The concluding paragraph discusses the human costs of war on a larger scale and how it affected military personnel and civilians. Battles (chapter 13, pp. 399-460) are shared by Philip Sabin (land battles) and Philip de Souza (naval battles and sieges). Sabin provides a joint thematic analysis in order to point out the differences and similarities in Hellenistic and Roman armies of the Middle Republic. In addition, he pays attention to the changes in battles which had become larger and far more complex as in the preceding era. He takes two perspectives: first “the grand tactical level” = the general’s battle (deployment, command, manoeuvre, outcomes) and second “the tactical level” = the soldier’s battle (exotic weapons, cavalry, infantry). A concluding part is on the question of determinants of success. De Souza assesses the tactics, the Roman employment of the entering bridge ( corvus), casualties (usually very high for rowers), catapults on board ships, access control of ports by naval forces and surprise attacks, and presents an extensive summary of sieges with all the aspects and challenges involved. The chapter on “warfare and the state” by John Serrati (pp. 461-497) is split in equal parts between the Hellenistic world and Rome. The author presents a chronological overview with a special focus on Hellenistic imperialism and the financial dimension in Roman military activities. The book’s last chapter by J.E. Lendon, (pp. 498-516), is on war and society. He contrasts “military excellence as craft” in the Hellenistic world to “military excellence as virtue” among the Romans and examines the consequences for each side.

This is followed by a chronological timeline from the Late Bronze Age down to 101 BC, a glossary of Greek and Latin terms, a list of ancient authors, a source and general index, and an extensive bibliography.

Volume One of Greek and Roman Warfare is an accomplished handbook reflecting the current state of research on this subject. It leaves the narrow focus of earlier reference works and studies, which have focused largely on textual analysis, topographical studies and recent experience or individual events. It also attempts a closer look at what actually might have happened to soldiers and troop units in “the generic ‘face of battle'” (pp. 401-402), an approach prompted by Keegan’s important study. 2 The economic aspects of war as well as military expenses are touched upon in some of the chapters. Not all details are covered, e. g., the financial gifts Roman soldiers received when partaking in the triumphal parade of their general is not mentioned here. This tradition served as a precedent for later more costly developments in the Late Republic. The bibliography contains most of the relevant works and will guide students and scholars alike to further reading. Several of the German titles cited contain spelling and grammatical errors, however. 3 Greek and Roman Warfare includes several maps (pp. xviii-xxx), illustrations and photos which highlight some of the points made by the contributors. These quibbles notwithstanding, this book is an extremely interesting and stimulating read.Most of the military facts assembled and discussed here are embedded in the works of the ancient writers, while other information is gleaned from archaeological data and occasionally from subsequent modern experiment. Thus many finer points of ancient military organisation or engagement (be it hoplite combat or naval manoeuvres) might escape notice on a casual reading of Thucydides, Xenophon or others. This main analysis — common to all contributions here — is the major strength of this book. Introduction: the historiography of ancient warfare:
1. The modern historiography of ancient warfare. Victor Davis Hanson
2. Warfare in ancient literature: the paradox of war. Simon Hornblower
3. Reconstructing ancient warfare. Michael Whitby
Part I. Archaic and Classical Greece:
4. International relations. Jonathan Hall
5. Military forces. Peter Hunt
6. War. Peter Krentz
7. Battle.
(1) Land battles. Everett Wheeler
(2) Naval battles and sieges. Barry Strauss
8. Warfare and the state. Vincent Gabrielsen
9. War and society. Hans van Wees
Part II. The Hellenistic World and the Roman Republic:
10. International relations. Richard Billows
11. Military forces. Nicholas V. Sekunda
12. War. Jonathan Roth
13. Battle.
(1) Land battles. Philip Sabin
(2) Naval battles and sieges. Philip de Souza
14. Warfare and the state. John Serrati
15. War and society. J. E. Lendon
Chronological table
List of ancient authors.

1. J. Kromayer, G. Veith, Heerwesen und Kriegsführung der Griechen und Römer (Handbuch der Altertumswissenschaft IV.3.2). Munich 1928 H. Delbrück, Geschichte der Kriegskunst im Rahmen der politischen Geschichte, vol. I, 3rd edn., Berlin 1962.

2. John Keegan, The Face of Battle, New York 1976.

3. Sion-Jenkis is not Sion-Jenkins. This error even crept into the notes.

The Cambridge History of Greek and Roman Warfare

This book has been cited by the following publications. This list is generated based on data provided by CrossRef.
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press
  • Online publication date: March 2008
  • Print publication year: 2007
  • Online ISBN: 9781139054157
  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/CHOL9780521782739
  • Subjects: Ancient History, Classical Studies
  • Collection: Cambridge Histories - Ancient History & Classics

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Book description

Warfare was the single biggest preoccupation of historians in antiquity. In recent decades fresh textual interpretations, numerous new archaeological discoveries and a much broader analytical focus emphasising social, economic, political and cultural approaches have transformed our understanding of ancient warfare. Volume I of this two-volume History reflects these developments and provides a systematic account, written by a distinguished cast of contributors, of the various themes underlying the warfare of the Greek world from the Archaic to the Hellenistic period and of Early and Middle Republican Rome. For each broad period developments in troop-types, equipment, strategy and tactics are discussed. These are placed in the broader context of developments in international relations and the relationship of warfare to both the state and wider society. Numerous illustrations, a glossary and chronology, and information about the authors mentioned supplement the text. This will become the primary reference work for specialists and non-specialists alike.


"The book is very comprehensive and a welcome starting point in approaching ancient military studies. The editors as well as the authors can be congratulated on their efforts in producing this important reference work." --BCMR

Tactical use [ edit | edit source ]

There were many military purposes for which elephants could be used. In battle, war elephants were usually deployed in the centre of the line, where they could be useful to prevent a charge or to conduct one of their own. Their sheer size and their terrifying appearance made them valued heavy cavalry. ⏅] Off the battlefield, they could carry heavy materiel and provided a useful means of transport before mechanized vehicles rendered them mostly obsolete.

An elephant charge could reach about 30 km/h (20 mph), and unlike horse cavalry, could not be easily stopped by an infantry line setting spears. Such a charge was based on pure force: elephants crashing into an enemy line, trampling and swinging their tusks. Those men who were not crushed were at least knocked aside or forced back. Moreover, elephants could inspire terror in an enemy unused to fighting them - even the very disciplined Romans - and could cause the enemy to break and flee. Horses unaccustomed to the smell of elephants also panicked easily. The elephants' thick hide gave them considerable protection, while their height and mass protected their riders. Some elephants were even equipped with their own armor to further protect them. Many generals preferred to base themselves atop elephants so as to get a better view of the battlefield.

The elephant Citranand attacking another, called Udiya, during the Mughal campaign against the rebel forces of Khan Zaman and Bahadur Khan in 1567.

In addition to charging, the elephants could provide a safe and stable platform for archers to shoot arrows in the middle of the battlefield, from which more targets could be seen and engaged. The archery evolved into more advanced weapons, and several Khmer and Indian kings used giant crossbow platforms (similar to the ballista) to shoot long armor-piercing shafts to kill other enemy war elephants and cavalry. The late 16th century AD also saw the use of culverin and jingals on elephants, an adaptation to the gunpowder age that ultimately drove elephants from the battlefield.

Elephants were further enhanced with their own weaponry and armour. In India and Sri Lanka, heavy iron chains with steel balls at the end were tied to the trunks of war elephants, which the animals were trained to swirl menacingly and with great skill. Numerous cultures designed elephant armour, aiming to protect the body and legs of the animal while leaving his trunk free to attack the enemy. Larger animals could also carry a protective tower on their backs, called a howdah. Further east, large numbers of men were carried, with the senior commander either utilising the howdah or leading from his seat on the elephant's neck. The driver, called a mahout, was responsible for controlling the animal. In many armies, the mahout also carried a chisel-blade and a hammer to cut through the spinal cord and kill the animal if the elephant went berserk.

Gajashaala or elephant's stable in Vijayanagara, India, built during the reign of Vijayanagar Empire. ⏆]

War elephants had tactical weaknesses, however, that enemy forces often learnt to exploit. Elephants had a tendency to panic themselves: after sustaining painful wounds or when their driver was killed they would run amok, ⏅] indiscriminately causing casualties as they sought escape. Their panicked retreat could inflict heavy losses on either side. Experienced Roman infantry often tried to sever their trunks, causing an instant panic, and hopefully causing the elephant to flee back into its own lines. Fast skirmishers armed with javelins were also used to drive them away, as javelins and similar weapons could madden an elephant. Elephants were often unarmoured and vulnerable to blows to their flanks, so Roman infantry armed with some sort of flaming object or with a stout line of pikes, such as Triarii, would often attempt to make the elephant turn to expose its flank to the infantry, making the elephant susceptible to a pike thrust or a Skirmisher's javelin. The cavalry sport of tent pegging grew out of training regimes for horsemen to incapacitate or turn back war elephants. ⏇] One famous historical method for disrupting elephant units was the war pig. Ancient writers believed that "elephants are scared by the smallest squeal of a pig", ⏈] and the vulnerability was exploited. At the Megara siege during the Diadochi wars, for example, the Megarians reportedly poured oil on a herd of pigs, set them alight, and drove them towards the enemy's massed war elephants. The elephants bolted in terror from the flaming squealing pigs. ⏉]

The value of war elephants in battle remains a contested issue. In the 19th century, it was fashionable to contrast the western, Roman focus on infantry and discipline with the eastern, exotic use of war elephants that relied merely on fear to defeat their enemy. ⏊] One writer commented that war elephants "have been found to be skittish and easily alarmed by unfamiliar sounds and for this reason they were found prone to break ranks and flee." ⏋] Nonetheless, the continued use of war elephants for several thousand years attests to their enduring value to the historical battlefield commander.