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Hanibal's Elephants

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One topic that confuses me is the supposed reaction of the war elephants used by Carthaginians at the battle of XAMA. The generally accepted belief is that when the Romans blew their war trumpets, the elephants panicked and started running into the Roman lines, where the Roman soldiers opened up nice little gaps for these animals to run through and that was the end of the story.


This sounds way too fantastic to me. First, I cannot believe that these elephants, raised to fight, could panic en masse merely due to blowing trumpets. Even if they did, the handlers would probably be able o pull them back into the ranks before they ran all the way into the Roman front IMO.


The Carthaginians cannot be so unprepared and must have either encountered similar situations with their elephants before or at least anticipated these events (after all they heard Roman trumpets so many times before). The elephants could then have been trained to handle the trumpets, their ears closed at least to some extent with cotton/wax etc, or they could have been kept in the back until the war got heated and the trumpet calls would not overwhelm all ambient sounds and stand out so much

(by any chance, does anyone known an estimated decibels for Roman war trumpets)


Finally, if the elephants did panic, why would they run into the very direction where the trumpet sounds were coming from? Would they not run back to where they belong?

Yes,some sources do claim that they ran back and in the process trampled Carthaginians, but the more general belief is that they ran into Roman ranks where the Romans opened up channels for them.


Thanks to all

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Elephants are naturally panicky as animals - it's one of those features of using elephants in war that the ancients were well aware of. As for being 'raised to fight' - no, they weren't. Trained up to a point but remember that elephants are herbivorous grazers, not dangerous carnivores. Now I'll grabnt you that elephants can be very bad tempered and their size makes them dangerous to confront - that's why the ancients used them in warfare besides being useful beasts of burden - but they were never really suited to violence.


You ought to realise that human beings panic in warfare too. It's a feature of social animal behaviour that once an element of fear creeps in, your colleagues can be just as afflicted as you. Once you decide to run away, who's going to stop you? We have Caesar himself relating how he tried to stop standard bearers running from battle during his gaulish campaign, and how ineffective it sometimes was to try. If an elephant decides to run in panic the mahout really can't do much more than hang on tight. Think about it - could you stop a runaway elephant? I wouldn't try it.


As for the trumpets, the Carthaginians might well have been taken by suprise by a pre-arranged concerted idea performed by Roman units. It's generally assumed by the casual observer that Roman legions were completely organised with crystalline efficiency - I do think this was far from the case. The impression I get is that once a battle plan was agreed on, Roman centuries fought (with support from their cohort) pretty much by themselves, often at their own initiative which I note centurions were expected to demonstrate.


What I'm getting at is that trumpets were not used en masse all the time. They were intended for local transmission of orders with a limited scope. Therefore during a battle you'd hear trumpet calls here and there, but a general synchronous blast? That would require planning beforehand and therefore smacks of a sneaky idea to disrupt elephants which the Romans already knew could be panicked by sudden loud noises.


It's not as fantastical as you might think.

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Also, once elephants were adopted by the Romans, each mahout was issued with a hammer and spike. This was specifically to drive into the animal

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I'd always understood that before battle, Hannibal's war elephants were given plenty of alcohol to stir them, plus fed figs so as to irritate their skin and anger them.


The mix of being drunk and irritable made them unstoppable.

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