Hannibal's Elephants: Myth and Reality

We must first ask, how many elephants did the city of Carthage, which did not support a regular standing army, maintain? If the Carthaginians had a large supply of trained war elephants at hand, it would have made sense for them to send along a sizeable contingent of pachyderms, the tanks of antiquity, with Hasdrubal Gisgo, when he marched to stop Scipio’s invading force surrounding Utica. But we do not read Roman reports of any elephants, not a single solitary one, accompanying Hasdrubal’s forces. But surely, after Scipio’s treacherous sneak attack in the middle of the night, burning the tents of Hasdrubal’s unsuspecting soldiers lulled into complacency with a promise of peace, the Carthaginian senate would have ordered all its available war elephants to march to face the ruthless enemy at the decisive battle of the Great Plains that followed. Once again, the elephants are conspicuous by their absence. Naturally, all we have are the Roman accounts—the work of the Carthaginian historians are no longer extant, having been conveniently lost or intentionally destroyed in the burning of Carthage and its libraries in 146 BCE.

All of a sudden, Hannibal, who had only been able to assemble a makeshift army for the final confrontation at Zama, appears with no less than 80 elephants, all with mahouts and trained for battle. This brigade of pachyderms was in all likelihood a fabrication of the pro-Roman historians, a bit of propaganda to make Scipio’s victory appear more formidable and impressive. No serious military historian today believes in that number, as Richard Gabriel shared in a private communication. Perhaps instead of 80, there were 18, or maybe only eight, or, most probably, none.

The charge of the presumed elephants supposedly opens the battle, but we are told that they were frightened by loud noises, shield clashing, trumpets, and what not. This also does not make much sense. Ancient battles typically started with loud yelling, shield banging, and other forms of intimidation, and consequently a major part of the training of animals to be used in attacking enemy positions would have consisted of accustoming them to such sounds.

Then, it is claimed that the elephants either run blindly into corridors left open in the Roman formation for the purpose of directing the animals to harmlessly pass through—Scipio’s alleged “solution” to the problem posed by an elephant charge—or they panicked and turned against Hannibal’s own army, wrecking havoc with his cavalry on the flanks. This also does not hold up against logical scrutiny. Since the animals carried mahouts on their backs, in addition to one or more armed warriors, and the animals were trained to respond to the commands or pressure of their riders, they would surely have been steered to one side or the other to trample men at the edges of any such open corridors. Furthermore, as Haywood (1933) and Scullard (1974) point out, it is not credible that rampaging elephants would do a lot of damage turning against their own side, because the mahouts carried a hammer and chisel to kill any elephant running out of control, as was the case at the battle of the Metaurus (Livy 27:49).  Incidentally, it can also not be argued that these were poorly trained elephants, for if Carthage did not send any elephants with Hasdrubal Gisgo to Utica or to the Great Plains battle, it would have had available all its remaining trained pachyderms, while had the city exhausted its supply there would not have been time, between the Great Plains battle and Zama, to capture and train more.

Elephants at the Battle of Zama But it should not surprise us that the elephants at Zama were fictional, for recent research has questioned the very historicity of the battle itself. The reader is referred to Abdelaziz Belkhodja’s book Hannibal Barca: L’histoire veritable as well as to my two previous articles on the battle of Zama up on TheHistoryHerald website. Also recommended is the recent novel by Laura Fernandez-Montesinos, Anibal, El Rayo de Cartago, which brilliantly reconstructs the creation of a hoax for the ages.

Belkhodja, A. Hannibal Barca: L’histoire veritable. Tunis, Tunisia: Apollonia, 2011.
Fernandez-Montesinos, L. Anibal, El Rayo de Cartago. Granada, Spain: Ediciones Dauro, 2013.
Haywood, R. M. Studies on Scipio Africanus. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1933.
Livy (Foster, trans.). History of Rome: Books 21-22 (Loeb Classical Library). Harvard.
Mosig, Y and I. Belhassen. “Revision and reconstruction in the second Punic War: Zama-whose victory?” The International Journal of the Humanities, 5(9), 2007, 175-186.
O’Bryhim, S. “Hannibal’s Elephants and the Crossing of the Rhone”, The Classical Quarterly, New Series, 41:1 (1991), pp. 121-125.
Polybius (Paton, trans.)  The Histories (Loeb Classical Library).  Harvard.
Scullard, H. H. The Elephant in the Greek and Roman World. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1974.

© 2013 by Yozan Mosig

yozan-mosig-miniAbout The Author

Yozan Mosig is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Nebraska-Kearney and has a deep interest in Ancient History, particularly the period of the Punic Wars, which he has been researching for the last 15 years. His Hannibal Library contains almost 10,000 items. Read more about Yozan »