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Rome and the War Elephants

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Hi, I've wondered why the romans didn't incorporate elephants in their legions after defeating Carthage in the Second Punic War. War Elephants could be defeated but still they were (especially if armoured) fearsome war machines, real ancient tanks which could charge and smash enemy infantry and work as mobile towers for archers or scorpio artillery.

 

Is there a reason that suggested the romans to not use them? Did the romans tried to employ them in some legions but gave up?

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Wasn't it something to do with the temperament of the animal. They were indeed fearsome weapons when they were under control. However, if this was not the case they were likely to inflict heavy casualties on the armies they were supposed to be fighting for. This might be one of the reason the Roman decided not to add war elephant as standard member of the legionaries ranks.

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Wasn't it something to do with the temperament of the animal. They were indeed fearsome weapons when they were under control. However, if this was not the case they were likely to inflict heavy casualties on the armies they were supposed to be fighting for. This might be one of the reason the Roman decided not to add war elephant as standard member of the legionaries ranks.

 

They were certainly aware of the liabilities of the war elephants as evidenced by the Roman victories over Pyrrhus, Hannibal, Antiochus. Or to go back further, Alexander's victory over Porus.

 

Elephants were somewhat of a novelty, and the Romans did experiment with them. They were used at Cynocephalae. where they seem to have contributed to the Roman victory. They were also used in more limited manner at Pydna. I believe that Caesar also experimented with them during his civil wars. They did not adopt them as wholeheartedly as did the Eastern Hellenistic Kingdoms.

 

It seems to me that they were certainly not essential. I would think it would be a big expense to maintain a herd of elephants, as well as having all of the appropriate trainers, not to mention the logistical issues of keeping them in control throughout a campaign.

 

The Roman learned from their opponents and they integrated new ideas into their legions, but they also wanted to streamline them by maintaining uniformity as much as possible.

Their tactics were therefore simple yet very effective. Adding elephants would only complicate things and increase the risk of errors.

Edited by barca

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Each elephant's rider carried a hammer and chisel (or something akin to that) so that, should the beast threaten to cause havoc in the Roman ranks, it could be dispatched before too much damage was done.

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Hi, I've wondered why the romans didn't incorporate elephants in their legions after defeating Carthage in the Second Punic War. War Elephants could be defeated but still they were (especially if armoured) fearsome war machines, real ancient tanks which could charge and smash enemy infantry and work as mobile towers for archers or scorpio artillery.

 

Is there a reason that suggested the romans to not use them? Did the romans tried to employ them in some legions but gave up?

 

The classic reference (although only in passing) is from Cassius Dio 60.21 which Bill Thayers' Lacus Curtius site cites regarding the invasion of Britain:

 

Shortly afterwards Togodumnus perished, but the Britons, so far from yielding, united all the more firmly to avenge his death. Because of this fact and because of the difficulties he had encountered at the Thames, Plautius became afraid, and instead of advancing any farther, proceeded to guard what he had already won, and sent for Claudius. For he had been instructed to do this in case he met with any particularly stubborn resistance, and, in fact, extensive equipment, including elephants, had already been got together for the expedition.

 

...continued

 

I suspect the elephants were only included effectively as a 'status' symbol intended to overawe the britons they came in contact with rather than for 'real' use in the line of battle although their very presence may have unsettled any British mounted or chariot forces.

 

As has already been pointed out elephants can be difficult to control and if enraged or paniced can cause more of a problem for their own side than the enemy. :ph34r:

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One thing I vaguely remember about the war elephants is that they were a north African breed that has since died out, smaller than your typical African elephant. Does anyone know if they were reducing in numbers during this period, thus making it more difficult to get the numbers to make their use worthwhile?

 

MVA

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North African elephants of the species you mention may well have been in the first stages of decline, given their habitat was also dessicating, but I suspect the capture and use of them by human beings (not just the Romans, who were themselves exploitative and hugely damaging to local ecologies) didn't help one jot. There may be other reasons for the decline though that contributed.

 

As for use of elephants by armies, remember these animals require a huge amount of water and forage to remain fighting fit. I doubt the Romans saw them as an economic weapon of war, but rather as unreliable, unwieldy, and ultimately restricting their strategic options, and since the Romans preferred a uniform and focused methofdology in their armies organisation, it was likely that elephants would not be considered as a companent part of the legions, but as more variety in their allies who supplied the skills and features the Romans could not adequately do themselves, and who themselves were no more ready to pay to keep these animals in service.

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The Romans used elephants during the Second and Third Macedonian wars. They were not only at Cynoscephalae, as mentioned above,they also did rather well at Pydna. (Where the Macedonians experimented with an anti-elephant corps of men with spiky armour, apparently in the hope the elephants wold find it tough to tread on them.)

 

However if you read the accounts of Marcus Philippus getting the elephants into Macedonia in the first place you can see that there were perhaps hardly worth the trouble. They needed special ramps to get them down some slopes and slid down others on their backsides.

 

I guess that in the end the Romans figured out that while elephants were useful on the battlefield, you got more bang for the buck (or more weaponry for the wheat bushel?) with an extra cohort or ala of cavalry

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Did they try to use indian elephants? They are known to be quite docile.

 

I suspect that given there were elephants apparently readily available in Northern Africa at the time these are the most likely to have been used.

 

At best transportation of elelphants from India would have required either carriage by sea for several weeks then an overland journey and another journey by sea of several weeks or alternatively a very long overland journey. While the Romans did transport elephants to Italy from North Africa and some were brought to Britain by Claudius for the even longer journey from India there are other considerations.

 

There would be obvious risks involved of elephants dying on a long land journey through a limited ability to forage for food or water in some desert or semi-arid areas. Even if a relatively young elephant was being transported by sea and they could surmount the forage problem it is still a very heavy animal which could damage a relativley fragile wooden ship if it got loose or simply fell overboard and was lost if the ship got caught in a storm.

 

On a personal note as mentioned above several sources claim that there was a sub-species of elephants in North Africa which were slightly smaller than African elephants and slightly more docile I would like to see the scientific evidence for these claims - does anyone know where it mught be printed?.

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Hi everyone,

 

Not entirely sure (and I know this is the case with camels), but elephants also inspired panic in cavalry. Polyaenus, in Book 8 23.5 describes how the one war elephant that Caesar used in Britain caused the troops and cavalry to flee when it began to cross the river. The smell of elephants, probably as well as their trumpeting, would spook horses, so you would more than likely have to position them in the center of a line of battle, or on a wing by themselves if they constituted a good number. No use having elephants if they prove problematic to your own cavalry.

 

Vale,

 

Gaiseric

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IMO war-elephants are overrated; outside of India they were more trouble than they were worth.

 

That said, the Romans did use them on rare occasions. Most of the incidents I am aware of have already been discussed above. In 193 AD Didius Iulianus "drafted" a few elephants from the Roman circus into the army he was trying to muster to defend Rome from Septimius Severus, but they never saw action.

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