By Elaine Rohse • Columnist • 

Rohse: Tusks among the troops: Elephants in ancient wars

During antiquity, wars between countries were not unusual. Riding elephants into those battles was unusual, but some warriors did just that.

Elephants have been going to war at least since the time of Alexander the Great, if not earlier.

It is believed they were the Asian species, now endangered, which grow 10 feet high and weigh five tons. The wild population roams Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.

The keeper or trainer of the elephants is known as a mahout. He  uses metal chains and a special hook or goad called an ankus to maintain control.

The handler’s first challenge is to get the elephant accustomed to being led. The elephant would also have to be taught how to raise a leg to help a rider crawl up onto its back.

Next, the elephants are taught to run, maneuver around obstacles and move in formation.

Elephants, of course, do not fire guns. They were simply taught how to charge and trample.

They were captured in the wild rather than being bred in captivity, as breeding in captivity is difficult. Besides, elephants must reach a sufficiently mature age before they can serve as war animals.

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Sixty-year-old elephants were prized for being at the height of their power.

Today. the animals are considered to be in their prime between the ages of 25 and 40. But elephants as old as 80 are used in tiger hunts because they are more experienced and disciplined.

It is customary to suppose all war elephants were male, due to the male’s greater aggressiveness. But actually, it was because a female will run from a male, making females more useful in logistics.

One episode involving war elephants that will always be remembered is Hannibal crossing the Alps — a 1,000-mile trek. Not only were his troops confronted by towering peaks, but also by local tribesmen attacking from the rear.

The five-month long journey required fording two major rivers, the Ebro and the Rhone, with troops, equipment, supplies and 37 elephants.

Historian Livy wrote in the first century A.D. of the effect of the elephants on enemies, saying, “The enemy were terrified by the elephants’ strange appearance, and never dared approach the part of the column in which they were stationed.”

The following is from an account of a Sanskrit epic set in India during the tenth to eighth centuries B.C. that describes an army consisting of “infuriate elephants of terrible mien with shapely tusks and rent temples ... and mounted by trained warriors skilled in fight following the king like huge, moving hills.”

An account of elephants in battle was written by Hamilcar Barca, father of Hannibal, who placed his elephants at the front of his cavalry. Having tricked the Romans into breaking ranks, a section of the Roman infantry line “were trampled to death by the elephants.”

Wild elephant population began to quickly decline in China and Mesopotamia because of predation and human population growth.

By 500 B.C., they were severely reduced in number. In China, they were limited to the area well south of the Yellow River.

From the beginning to the end of his career Hannibal relied on elephants. They were involved in one of his earliest victories: destruction of the Celtic force crossing the Tagus River.

Polybius described the scene this way: “For when the Celtic attempted to force a crossing at several points of the river at once, the greater number of them were killed as they left the water, by the elephants who marched up and down along the bank and caught them as they were coming out.”

But Hannibal suffered a devastating defeat in the battle of Zama in North Africa, which ended the second Punic War. In that battle, his  elephants may have proven more hindrance than help.

“From the beginning of the battle, the cacophony from the Roman’s horns and trumpets panicked the beasts, who turned on the Carthaginian troops.”

The Roman legionaries then put into practice the strategy devised by their leader, Africanus Scipio. They opened up corridors in their formation and when the elephants passed through, they wounded the animals with spears.

After his final victory over the Romans, only one elephant was left: Hannibal’s personal mount, Surus.

Atop this last surviving elephant and ailing with an infection that later led to the loss of an eye, Hannibal pulled off a resounding victory against the Romans at Lake Trisimeno in 217 B.C. 

Today, modern tanks probably assume the role of war elephants.

But many elephants were killed in those wars of the past. It is tragic that humans then continued to reduce their numbers.

Elaine Rohse can be reached at


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