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Hannibal's Elephants: Myth and Reality

Hannibal Crossing the Rhone - Henri-Paul Motte (1894) Pachyderms are an inseparable part of the image of the great Carthaginian general, Hannibal Barca, although they took part in a lot fewer engagements than most people familiar with his story assume. But let us examine three incidents involving elephants in order to evaluate the accuracy of the classical sources.

In the Summer of 220 B.C.E. Hannibal fought his first major battle, not against the Romans, but facing instead the combined forces of three Celtiberian tribes in northwest Spain, the Olcades, the Vaccaei, and the Carpetani. At the time, the young Punic general was fresh from having been appointed commander-in-chief of the Carthaginian army in Iberia following the assassination of his brother-in-law, Hasdrubal the Handsome, the previous year.  He was returning from a successful campaign against the Vaccaei and the capture of their chief city, Hermandica, when the combined Celtiberian forces of the three tribes, numbering close to 100,000, descended upon him to block his way and annihilate his much smaller army. Here Hannibal’s gaze manifested itself for the first time. With an instant grasp of the terrain, the quality of the large but undisciplined opposing army, and the potentials of all the components of his own military force, he swiftly retreated across the Tagus river and waited for the enemy to attack from the other shore. Notice that his elephants, all 40 of them, had no difficulty in rapidly wading across the river and being deployed on both sides of the Carthaginian formation. Once the pursuing Celtiberians were midstream, and thus committed to the crossing, Hannibal unleashed his cavalry to cut them down in the water, with anyone who managed to reach the shore being promptly trampled to death by the elephants. The mass of tribal warriors panicked and as they fled Hannibal gave the order for his army to cross the river in pursuit, completing the rout of a force more than twice the size of his own. The battle of the river Tagus offered a premonition of what was to come.

For some time the Romans, alarmed by the prosperity and success of the Carthaginians in Spain, were preparing the ground for a renewal of hostilities against their rivals in the Mediterranean. The Ebro treaty had been signed with Hasdrubal the Handsome in 226 or 225, in which the natural boundary of the river Iber (today’s Ebro) was set to separate Roman and Carthaginian spheres of influence, with the Carthaginians agreeing not to cross the Ebro in arms. In violation of the spirit of the accord, Rome subsequently signed an agreement with the city of Saguntum, south of the Ebro and thus within Carthaginian territory, and later encouraged the Saguntines to massacre the Carthaginian partisans in the city and to attack the Turboleti, who were allies of Carthage. Hannibal responded by laying siege to Saguntum and taking it by storm after eight months, during which time the Roman help repeatedly requested by the Saguntines failed to materialize. The fall of Saguntum in 219 provided Rome with a casus belli to declare a new war against Carthage. The Roman navy controlled the Mediterranean, following the defeat of Carthage in the first war, and thus the Romans were not concerned about being attacked by sea. Since the Italian peninsula was protected against an invasion by land from the north by the impassable natural barrier of the Alps, they were confident that the war would be fought in Spain and in North Africa, the land of their enemies. They didn’t count on the genius of Hannibal, the master of the unexpected.  Making a bold strategic decision, he decided to take an army over the Alps and strike from the north against his unwary adversaries. This amazing feat still reverberates in the pages of history.

On his way to the Alps, in 218, Hannibal had to cross first the Pyrenees and then the river Rhone. It was there that a second event involving elephants took place. Polybius (as well as Livy, who largely copies Polybius in the description of this incident) tells us that the Carthaginian crossing was opposed by a large mass of Celtiberian warriors of the Volcae tribe, waiting at the opposite (eastern) shore. What followed was the battle of the Rhone, where Hannibal’s glance was once more in evidence. He sent his lieutenant Hanno with part of his force upstream to ford the river and attack the Celtic tribesmen from the rear by surprise, after giving a signal to coordinate the crossing by his main force. Caught between Hanno’s cavalry and the Carthaginian army the undisciplined warriors fled in disarray. But an interesting problem remained: how to get the elephants across the river.

Polybius and Livy claim that barges had to be built to ferry the pachyderms over the Rhone, because the animals were terrified of the water. Large rafts were constructed and connected to ramps that were covered with dirt so the animals would not realize that they were not treading on solid ground, and female elephants were used to lead others onto the rafts. Once each raft was released, being towed to the opposite bank by small boats, the elephants tended to panic, some falling overboard. Fortunately they did not drown, for they were able to walk on the riverbed, using their trunks as snorkels, and eventually all 37 elephants were successfully assembled on the other shore. The elephants’ crossing of the Rhone was the subject of a well-known painting by Henri-Paul Motte showing elephants on barges being pulled across the river.

Two things are clear from such sublime piece of nonsense: neither Polybius nor Livy knew much about elephants, and their histories include fanciful fabrications presented in careful detail, as if related by actual witnesses—caveat lector. What neither classic historian was aware of is that elephants not only are not terrified of rivers, but can swim and are actually very good swimmers! The aquatic prowess of pachyderms would have been well known to the Carthaginians, who had been training elephants for more than a century prior to the wars with Rome. Consequently, it is highly unlikely that Hannibal would have attempted such complicated and unnecessary procedure to get his animals across the Rhone. The Romans, on the other hand, and even the Greeks, would have been less likely to be cognizant of such matters—Livy and Polybius were clearly uninformed.

A Swimming Elephant The modern reader can enjoy stunning photographs of swimming elephants in Steve Bloom’s Elephant (Chronicle Books, 2006), or view a sampling by doing a Google search for “swimming elephant pictures.”

Elephants participated in only one of the great victories of Hannibal following the crossing of the Alps: the battle of the River Trebbia, in 218 BCE. Most of the elephants died of the cold that winter, and none took part in the later battles of Lake Trasimene or Cannae.

The one battle in which Hannibal supposedly did have a large number of elephants was that of Zama, in 202 BCE, where Polybius and Livy claim that he fielded no less than eighty! But, as we will see, this pachyderm battalion may have been fictitious, like most of the description of what the classical sources claim transpired at Zama, as was demonstrated in a 2007 article appearing in the International Journal of the Humanities.