Hannibal and Elephants

In-class Assignment: Hannibal and Elephants

[chaoticblackcat], [honorstudent2016], [berossusofbabylon]

The Most Likely Route and Why – [honorstudent2016]

Rome had met its match when Hannibal utilized war elephants in battle during the second Punic War. Being able to control and use these war beasts in battle gave Hannibal the upper-hand. Nonetheless, the extent of the elephants’ contributions to the Carthaginian army’s success is debated (Rhodan and Charles 363). The Romans were surprised when they caught word Hannibal and his army were crossing the Alps with intention to attack Italy. Publius Cornelius Scipio immediately sent troops over when he received the news of Hannibal’s plans (“Hannibal”). How did Hannibal get these elephants across the Alps and into Italy? What route did he end up taking? These questions are still highly debated amongst scholars.

Polybius may have given a more accurate description of the path Hannibal took because, although he and Livy used the same first-person account, Polybius used the text written by a witness of the march, whereas Livy used a text that was a copy of the original witness’ text. Historians also claim that Polybius has greater knowledge of military circumstances than Livy. For these reasons, Polybius’ account is more favorable than Livy’s in this circumstance (“Hannibal in the Alps”).

The Col du Montgenèvre route, traveling to Cesana Torinese & Oulx from Briançon & Montgenèvre, seems to be the most logical, historically accurate route Hannibal would have taken (see fig. 1). According to Livius.org, this route meets multiple criteria needed for it to be consistent with historical descriptions given by Polybius: The passage needs to be relatively high in the Alps because Hannibal’s men had to deal with snow; as the route nears Italy, it should head north; the distance should agree with historical sources; the route necessitates sufficient space to accommodate the passage and encampment of tens of thousands of soldiers and a little over three dozen elephants; and near the path, there had to have existed villages or tribes of people Hannibal could have conquered. The Col du Montgenèvre route is the only route that satisfies all these criteria, and the other routes fall short in comparison (Polybius 3: 50-55, “Hannibal in the Alps”).


Figure 1. The possible routes Hannibal could have taken in the Alps are illustrated. The correct route proposed in this article is emphasized in gold (“Hannibal’s Crossing of the Alps”).

How Hannibal Handled the Elephants – [chaoticblackcat] [berossusofbabylon]

There are some scholars (albeit a minority group) who are suspicious of whether or not Hannibal was actually able to bring elephants across one of the ten highest mountain ranges on Earth. But there is ample evidence to support the possibility. Chief among that evidence are the records of the British Alpine Hannibal Expedition under the leadership of British engineer John Hoyte (see fig. 2). In 1959, Hoyte conducted an experimental archaeological expedition wherein he successfully guided an Asian elephant named Jumbo, on loan from a zoo in Turin, from France across the Col du Mont Cenis to Susa, Italy, effectively putting to rest the arguments that Hannibal’s crossing was no more than legend (“The British Alpine”).

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However, Jumbo was most likely not the species of elephant that Hannibal yoked into his trans-Alpine war machine. Extant sources and archaeological evidence suggest that a now-extinct species of African forest elephant would have been the most probable species. While some scholars speculate that Hannibal’s elephants were of the Syrian or Indian variety, this may have been in part due to being “…supposed, mostly from a reference to an elephant named Surus (“the Syrian”) in a fragment of Cato the Elder’s Annales … that one of Hannibal’s elephants may have been Indian” (Charles, “African Forest” 342). The majority of war elephants, however, were undoubtedly African forest elephants.

One of the key pieces of archaeological evidence supporting this claim is cited by Sir William Gowers: “…an admirable representation of an African elephant on a silver coin (date about 220 B.C.) of the Barcid dynasty in Spain—it may have been done from one of the actual elephants which afterwards crossed the Alps. The rider does not look and is not dressed like an Indian” (43). The extant texts support this claim, as well: “…Silius Italicus, writing under the emperor Domitian, seems to be quite aware the beasts were of African origin—witness the phrase “Libyan beasts…” (Charles, “African Forest” 345). Charles goes on to state that “By the time of the First Punic War, the African forest elephant formed an important part of Carthage’s military arsenal” (“African Forest” 339).

But what could it possibly matter which species of elephant Hannibal brought across the mountains? It’s simple: Larger animals require more food, and “…the adult forest elephant generally averages only around half the weight of the two larger varieties [i.e., Indian and savannah African]” (339). That forest elephants were more available in greater numbers to the Carthaginians was logistically fortuitous; if they had employed a larger species, the baggage train would’ve needed to cart twice as much food on a journey that already bordered on the impossible. The smaller breed was essential in executing the crossing.

Accounts of the other myriad obstacles Hannibal’s armies faced appears in the work of the historian Polybius, who notes that there was some difficulty at passing through a particular mountain pass. He wrote that “in three days [Hannibal] managed to get the elephants across but in a wretched condition from hunger” (135). Hannibal might have gotten them over the mountains, but how did he manage it? There are a few factors that probably contributed to the elephants’ cooperation: their extensive training, the food provided by the army, and the presence of their trainers.

The elephants that crossed the Alps probably had been exposed to extensive training that took place prior to the campaign. In two of his published books, John M. Kistler describes the use of elephants in warfare. He writes that training is a long process because most elephants are generally too nervous for warfare, and painstaking training is required to prepare them for combat (War Elephants 9). Based upon the startled way the elephants reacted to the prospect of crossing the river Rhone, shown in the picture below, Kistler speculates that Hannibal’s elephants had not had any previous experiences and had likely been reared by Hannibal since they were juveniles (War Elephants 111). If this was indeed the case, Hannibal would then likely have had a long period of extensive training invested in these particular elephants.

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In addition to an extensive training period, the species of the elephants in question might have contributed to their cooperation. In an article published in The Classical World, Michael B. Charles  and Peter Rhodan describe how a new extinct species of African elephant, the African forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis) was the one trained by the ancients for warfare (364-365). There is some dispute that Hannibal employed some Indian elephants, but Charles and Rhodan attribute the description of Indian to be more reflective of the type of elephant riders, the eastern mahouts (365-366).

There are two potential approaches that could have been taken to the elephants’ training. In the most extreme case, the training might have involved what to a modern mind would constitute animal cruelty. It is possible that abusive methods, such as those previously used by circuses to train elephants, were used by the ancients. The Humane Society writes that these circus training methods involve beating and starving the elephants in order to achieve human dominance over them. If this is indeed the case, it would be unlikely that the starvation resulting from the trek across the Alps was anything ‘new’ to the elephants.

This idea might sound contradictory to the very idea of a war elephant. How could such supposedly nervous and broken-down animals then become such destructive forces on the battlefield? Certain techniques were known to be used to rile the elephants into action. A BBC documentary entitled Hannibal: The Man, The Myth, The Mystery briefly focuses specifically on the employment of elephants on the battlefield. The documentary discusses how the elephants would be plied with alcohol and deliberately prodded and poked in their ankles until they became angry, at which point they would be pointed at the enemy.This approach seems counterproductive during a march, but such methods might not have been necessary. Kistler notes that most were “only used for carrying supplies in an auxiliary role” implying that training an elephant for transportation was easier than training an elephant for warfare (9).

However, this abuse is an extreme version of the training that might have been used on Hannibal’s elephants. There is another approach that Kistler seems to favor. Kistler compares the ‘tamed’ elephant to being something akin to a human employee, writing that “in exchange for special foods and good scrubbing baths in the river, the elephant will do some work for the humans” (War Elephants 5-6). In this case, the incentive for the elephants to cross the Alps might have less the result of abuse but rather a desire for food. Kistler writes that an elephant would need more than 200-300 pounds of food daily, along with a decent ration of water (War Elephants 11). Due to the sheer amount of what these beasts ate, Kistler suggests that the trainers (the mahouts) would often allow them to go foraging for their own food away from camp, training the elephant to return to the camp “for treats and work” (Animals in the Military 58).

This more lenient approach to training might have played a role in convincing the elephants to cooperate with Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps. Foraging for food would have proven difficult in the alpine terrain of the Alps. The trained elephants might have fallen back on the trained ‘employee and employer’ relationship described by Kistler. They would likely have been given the order samyana (to march) and carried out with the expectation of receiving food as a reward.

Speculation of the nature of training and incentives aside, it is likely that the animals were trained in some way and to the presence of their trainers might have cemented their cooperation. A History Herald article by Yozan Mosig titled “Hannibal’s Elephants: Myth and Reality” describes how the mahouts might have used commands or applied pressure to control the elephants’ movements. Kistler agrees with that method and describes how a mahout would use a hook called an ankhus “to guide the elephant when voice and foot commands were not enough” (Animals in the Military 60). Kistler asserts that the hook could be used in combat when the noises of the battlefield drowned out the mahout’s voice (23). However, it is not hard to see how someone could use it to implement more abusive methods.

Such techniques are best demonstrated in a particular scene when Hannibal tried to cross the river Rhone, prior to reaching the Alps. Kistler refers to the historian Livy’s description of how “one mahout was beating his ’ferocious’ elephant” in an effort to try and persuade her to cross the river (War Elephants 113). She ultimately turned on him and attacked him (War Elephants 113). Kistler believes this scene has an element of truth to it, but he disregards the idea that the entire herd was beaten in order to persuade them to cross (War Elephants 113). He states that it would have been too dangerous a strategy considering it risked losing control of the elephant herd (War Elephants 113). In any case, this scene is a good representation of the constant reinforcement the elephants would have likely endured at the hands of their mahouts during their crossing of the Alps.

There is only one problem with the idea of the mahouts exerting influence over the elephants. Polybius writes that many of the mahouts were drowned during the crossing of the river Rhone (War Elephants111). Kistler states that other mahouts and mahout trainees were likely paired up with the elephants (War Elephants 114). After all, is doubtful that Hannibal would have let the elephants go rider-less. While these trainers probably played a similar role, it is doubtful that their efforts would have been effective as the original mahouts.

However, despite this limitation, the trainers had another technique that might have been used. In addition to the domineering physical presence of a rider, Hannibal’s army likely had a failsafe mechanism to employ in the event of losing control of the elephants. It is mentioned by Charles and Rhodan in their shared article that each mahout carried a hammer and a chisel to drill into the elephant’s skull if the beast ever went out of control (371). It is possible that some of the elephants would have faced this consequence if they proved uncooperative and problematic. Charles and Rhodan write that “according to Livy, [it] was an innovation on Hasdrubal’s part” (371). Considering Hasdrubal was Hannibal’s uncle, it is likely he was familiar with this technique. Essentially, the elephants had little choice in the matter.

Edited and Presented by [berossusofbabylon]






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