Today, in Part II of our three part series on War Elephants, we’re going to look at the drawbacks of war elephants. Last time (here), we discussed the factors that made war elephants so powerful on the battlefield. To recap: war elephants had a strong psychological element (they are very scary) and could drastically disrupt both infantry and cavalry alike, leaving them easy pickings for forces supporting the war elephant. Those uses made war elephants popular not only in India, where they were first developed, but among Alexander the Great’s successors, and even as far west as Carthage. And next time, we’ll look at why elephants remained popular in India, despite the drawbacks we’ll discuss today.
The best way to think about the weaknesses of war elephants is to look at the question with a specific context, so we are going to narrow in on one of the two key areas where war elephants did not last as a weapon system: the Roman world (both the period of the Republic and the Empire). As I mentioned in the last post, by the Imperial period, the Romans seem to have decided that elephants were not worth the trouble and discontinued their use. Roman military writers routinely disparage elephants (we’ll see why) as weapons of war and despite the fact that Rome absorbed not one but three states which actively used elephants in war (Carthage, the Ptolemaic and Seleucid Kingdoms) – and thus we may assume three sets of capture, training and breeding programs for maintaining the animals – they did not continue their use. It is one thing not to adopt a foreign weapon, it is quite another to inherit the entire production complex and still say, “no, not for me.”
So today we’re going to ask, “why?” We’ve answered that question in the immediate term – to quote Trautmann (2015) on the point, “the Roman refusal of the war elephant..was based upon a low estimate of its value” (250). To put another way, they thought they sucked. We know elephants could be quite potent in battle, so the answer must be a touch more complicated. We’ll look at this two ways: first (because it’s me) in terms of logistics, and then in terms of anti-elephant tactics, to see why elephants could not succeed against (or with) Rome. I am also going to speculate – just a touch – on which of these factors might explain the other major area elephant warfare did not penetrate: China.
But first, a necessary caveat to an objection no doubt already brewing in the minds of some: but didn’t the Romans use elephants sometimes? Yes, though Roman employment of elephants was at best uneven (this is a point, I’d like to note, where Trautmann (2015) shows its value over, for instance, J. M. Kistler’s War Elephants (2006) – the latter’s reading of Roman use of war elephants bends the evidence to serve an argument, rather than the other way around). Nevertheless, the Romans did use war elephants during the last two centuries of the Republic.
The Romans had some war elephants (just 20) at Cynocephelae (197 B.C.) against Macedon – these had been drawn from the kingdom of Numidia, which had sided with Rome against Carthage in the Second Punic War. Plutarch (Flam. 8.2-5) leaves the animals out of the battle narrative, but Livy (who is the better source; Liv. 33.9) notes their use to break up the Macedonian right wing, which was not yet even in fighting formation. It’s not clear the elephants were necessary for the Roman victory here and the key action was actually a flanking attack by infantry.
The Romans brought elephants to Magnesia (190 B.C.), but left them in reserve; the Romans only had a few, whereas their Seleucid opponents had brought many more. Moreover, the Roman elephants were smaller African elephants, effectively useless against the large Asian elephants the Seleucids used. Pydna (168 B.C.) against the Macedonians again, is harder to assess because the sources for it are poor (part of Livy’s narrative of the battle is mostly lost). Plutarch (Aem. 19-22) leaves the elephants out again, whereas Livy notes that Perseus’ dedicated elephant-fighting corps was ineffective in fighting the Roman elephants on the right wing, but attributes success there to the socii infantry rather than the elephants (Liv. 44.41.4-6). Kistler reads this as a notable elephant success, but Livy does not say this, instead crediting the socii on the right and the legions breaking up the Macedonian center.1
The Romans did find elephants useful in places like Spain or southern Gaul (modern Provence) where just a handful could bewilder and terrify opponents completely unused to and unprepared for them. The last gasp of true Roman war elephants came in 46 B.C., where Julius Caesar defeated a Roman army led by Metellus Scipio which had sixty elephants in it. The elephants lost and one of Caesar’s legions (my personal favorite, Legio V Alaudae (Larks!)) took the elephant as a legionary symbol in commemoration of having beaten them.
So absolutely yes, the Romans of the Middle and Late Republic made some use of war elephants, but it was hardly a distinguished run. As Trautmann notes – quite correctly, in my view – the Romans were always more interested in ways to defeat elephants than to use them. Which brings us back to our question: elephants are awesome, Romans are also awesome…so why didn’t the Romans like elephants?
From trunk to tail, elephants are a logistics nightmare.
And that begins almost literally at birth. For areas where elephants are native, nature (combined, typically, with the local human terrain) create a local ‘supply.’ In India this meant the elephant forests of North/North-Eastern India; the range of the North African elephant (Loxodonta africana pharaohensis, the most likely source of Ptolemaic and Carthaginian war elephants) is not known. Thus for many elephant-wielding powers, trade was going to always be a key source for the animals – either trade with far away kingdoms (the Seleucids traded with the Mauyran Indian kingdom for their superior Asian elephants) or with thinly ruled peripheral peoples who lived in the forests the elephants were native to.
(We’re about to get into some of the specifics of elephant biology. If you are curious on this topic, I am relying heavily on R. Sukumar, The Asian Elephant: Ecology and Management (1989). I’ve found that information on Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) much easier to come by than information on African elephants (Loxodonta africana and Loxodonta cyclotis).)
In that light, creating a breeding program – as was done with horses – seems like a great idea. Except there is one major problem: a horse requires about four years to reach maturity, a mare gestates a foal in eleven months and can go into heat almost immediately thereafter. By contrast, elephants reach adulthood after seventeen years, take 18-22 months to gestate and female elephants do not typically mate until their calf is weaned, four to five years after its birth. A ruler looking to build a stable of cavalry horses thus may start small and grow rapidly; a ruler looking to build a corps of war elephants is looking at a very slow process. This is compounded by the fact that elephants are notoriously difficult to breed in captivity. There is some speculation that the Seleucids nonetheless attempted this at Apamea, where they based their elephants – in any event, they seem to have remained dependent on imported Indian elephants to maintain the elephant corps. If a self-sustaining elephant breeding program for war elephants was ever created, we do not know about it.
To make matters worse, elephants require massive amounts of food and water. In video-games, this is often represented through a high elephant ‘upkeep’ cost – but this often falls well short of the reality of keeping these animals for war. Let’s take Total War: Rome II as an example: a unit of Roman (auxiliary) African elephants (12 animals), costs 180 upkeep, compared to 90 to 110 upkeep for 80 horses of auxiliary cavalry (there are quite a few types) – so one elephant (with a mahout) costs 15 upkeep against around 1.25 for a horse and rider (a 12:1 ratio). Paradox’s Imperator does something similar, with a single unit of war elephants requiring 1.08 upkeep, compared to just 0.32 for light cavalry; along with this, elephants have a heavy ‘supply weight’ – twice that of an equivalent number of cavalry (so something like a 2:1 or 3:1 ratio of cost).
Believe it or not, this understates just how hungry – and expensive – elephants are. The standard barley ration for a Roman horse was 7kg of barley per day (7 Attic medimnoi per month; Plb. 6.39.12); this would be supplemented by grazing. Estimates for the food requirements of elephants vary widely (in part, it is hard to measure the dietary needs of grazing animals), but elephants require in excess of 1.5% of their body-weight in food per day. Estimates for the dietary requirements of the Asian elephant can range from 135 to 300kg per day in a mix of grazing and fodder – and remember, the preference in war elephants is for large, mature adult males, meaning that most war elephants will be towards the top of this range. Accounting for some grazing (probably significantly less than half of dietary needs) a large adult male elephant is thus likely to need something like 15 to 30 times the food to sustain itself as a stable-fed horse.
In peacetime, these elephants have to be fed and maintained, but on campaign the difficulty of supplying these elephants on the march is layered on top of that. We’ve discussed elsewhere the difficulty in supplying an army with food, but large groups of elephants magnify this problem immensely. The 54 elephants the Seleucids brought to Magnesia might have consumed as much food as 1,000 cavalrymen (that’s a rider, a horse and a servant to tend that horse and its rider).
But that still understates the cost intensity of elephants. Bringing a horse to battle in the ancient world required the horse, a rider and typically a servant (this is neatly implied by the more generous rations to cavalrymen, who would be expected to have servant to be the horse’s groom, unlike the poorer infantry, see Plb. above). But getting a war elephant to battle was a team effort. Trautmann (2015) notes that elephant stables required riders, drivers, guards, trainers, cooks, feeders, guards, attendants, doctors and specialist foot-chainers (along with specialist hunters to capture the elephants in the first place!). Many of these men were highly trained specialists and thus had to be quite well paid.
Now – and this is important – pre-modern states are not building their militaries from the ground up. What they have is a package of legacy systems. In Rome’s case, the defeat of Carthage in the Second Punic War resulted in Rome having North African allies who already had elephants. Rome could accept those elephant allied troops, or say ‘no’ and probably get nothing to replace them. In that case – if the choice is between ‘elephants or nothing’ – then you take the elephants. What is telling is that – as Rome was able to exert more control over how these regions were exploited – the elephants vanished, presumably as the Romans dismantled or neglected the systems for capturing and training them (which they now controlled directly).
That resolves part of our puzzle: why did the Romans use elephants in the second and early first centuries B.C.? Because they had allies whose own military systems involved elephants. But that leaves the second part of the puzzle – Rome doesn’t simply fail to build an elephant program. Rome absorbs an elephant program and then lets it die. Why?
For states with scarce resources – and all states have scarce resources – using elephants meant not directing those resources (food, money, personnel, time and administrative capacity) for something else. If the elephant had no other value (we’ll look at one other use next week), then developing elephants becomes a simple, if difficult, calculation: are the elephants more likely to win the battle for me than the equivalent resources spent on something else, like cavalry. As we’ve seen above, that boils down to comparisons between having just dozens of elephants or potentially hundreds or thousands of cavalry.
The Romans obviously made the bet that investing in cavalry or infantry was a better use of time, money and resources than investing in elephants, because they thought elephants were unlikely to win battles. Given Rome’s subsequent spectacular battlefield success, it is hard to avoid the conclusion they were right, at least in the Mediterranean context. And that leads us to:
How to Beat the Elephant
Well trained infantry could actually get very good at executing counter-elephant tactics, which in turn vastly reduced their battlefield utility. Because elephants were so expensive and so difficult to maintain, they pretty much had to be battle winners in order to be worth bringing along at all. A marginally useful elephant was a wasted elephant.
In this context, it is worth noting that the Roman elephant-disasters – battles where the Roman army failed catastrophically to cope with elephants – pretty much all come in the first half of the third century (e.g. Heraclea (280), Asculum (279), Bagradas (255)) B.C.E. After that, elephants on Roman battlefields repeatedly fizzle, precisely because the Romans developed a playbook (the technical term here in a modern army would be ‘doctrine’ but it is complicated to talk about ‘Roman doctrine’ because the Romans do not seem to have had many formal systems of codifying it – don’t worry, we’ll explore the concept of doctrine more fully one of these days!) for beating elephants.
What does this playbook look like? I think we want to begin by dismissing a lot of the equally gimmick solutions (which have a habit of showing up in video games). At Asculum, Dionysius (20.1.6) and Dio (10.5; summarized by Zonaras) report the Romans used some sort of spiked wagon, to little success; Plutarch (Pyrrhus 21.5-10) leaves this episode out and it seems dubious at best. In any case, they didn’t work. Pigs, doused in pitch and set alight are mentioned by Polyaenus (Strat. 4.6.3) and Aelian (I confess, I don’t have this reference to hand) – in both cases concerning a single incident at Megara. In practice, some significant skepticism of too-clever-by-half stratagems in military treatises are well warranted – in any case, this was clearly not a common tactic, nor evidently a Roman one (despite its appearance in the first Rome: Total War).
Instead, the playbook for dealing with elephants was actually fairly simple in concept – Vegetius, a later Roman military writer, manages to sum up the ‘best practices’ in less than a paragraph (Vegetius 3.24). Ideally, the elephants should be met by light infantry screening troops, whose freedom of movement allows them to avoid the elephant’s charge. Those light troops – armed with missile weapons (especially javelins, but also slings) should especially target the mahouts, in an effort to panic the elephants. Ideally, a space is left open for the elephants to flee too, although ancient sources are full of examples where they were simply driven back through the enemy formation. The goal isn’t to kill the elephant, but instead to panic the animal and drive it off or – better yet – drive it through the enemy – this latter point is notable: ancient military writer after ancient military writer notes how elephants were often as much a danger to their own troops as to the enemy, especially when wounded or frightened.
During the second century B.C.E., the legions had an attached, organic unit of light infantry, the velites, who – lightly armored and equipped with javelins – were ideal for the task. It’s worth noting that this specific formation seems to have been organized in the Second Punic War (Liv. 26.4.3-10) – this organizational/tactical shift may explain some of the marked improvement against elephants by the Romans. The effectiveness of the overall setup is clearly displayed at Zama (202 B.C.; Liv. 30.33ff, Plb. 15.12), where Hannibal’s elephants were functionally useless. If light infantry wasn’t available, heavy infantry could do the job if properly trained and deployed, as at Thapsus (46 B.C., Caesar, De Bello Africo 84).
The difficulty in pulling off anti-elephant tactics is that the troops have to be prepared to execute these plans in advance. One of these days, we’ll get around to just how difficult it can be to control an army on the field, but suffice to say that any plan which requires larger numbers of men to – in the heat of battle – simultaneously improvise the same plan all at once is a very bad plan. So while the concept was simple, it required high quality infantry and some training done in advance in order to execute effectively. That said, if you had well-trained infantry and knew to prepare for elephants, the ingredients to neutralize the enemy elephants were cheap, available and effective.
The problem, of course, was that by the first century B.C. – with the Roman conquest of most of the Mediterranean well underway – high quality infantry was abundantly available. I should note here that while Roman infantry obviously got very good at beating elephants, so did Macedonian (Antigonid, Ptolemaic, Seleucid, etc) infantry – elephants rarely scattered the core of those armies, although they often dispersed cavalry forces on the flanks – we’ll get into why these guys might have kept using elephants next week.
But for the Romans, by the 80s B.C. (with the beginning of the Roman civil wars), the greatest threat to a Roman legion wasn’t a foreign enemy, but another Roman legion. Even during the relative peace of the Imperial period, this would remain true – while civil wars were rare and short from 28 B.C. to 230 A.D. (two major outbreaks, 68-69 A.D. and 193-197 A.D.), those short spurts of violence were far more dangerous to any given legion than decades spent patrolling the Rhine, Danube or Hadrian’s Wall.
You can thus imagine the calculus for any Roman commander considering elephants: the most dangerous enemy he is likely to face (another Roman commander) already knows how to beat elephants. If that enemy hasn’t trained his troops in anti-elephant tactics already, he’ll start the moment he hears you have trained and acquired some. And since anti-elephant tactics are both highly effective and functionally free (requiring only that existing soldiers use the weapons they already have in a different way), the loser is going to be any general who invests considerable resources in an expensive weapon-system that subsequently fizzles on the battlefield, as Metellus Scipio did with his elephants at Thapsus.
If I have any readers familiar with the armies of China during the Warring States, Han Dynasty or Three Kingdoms Period, they may have already guessed my conclusion for China. China never flirted with the war elephant the way the great powers of the ancient Mediterranean did, although the Han in particular had far greater resources than any of these save imperial Rome and far easier access to elephants to boot. Chinese emperors received elephants and elephant handlers often enough as tribute or spoils from war. And yet, no war elephants. As Trautmann (2015) notes, “the absence of the war elephant in China is…the result of a deliberate choice.”
Trautmann (2015) finds the solution in land-use patterns: China had simply converted so much of its pasture and forest to crop-land, in a densely settled city-and-agriculture land-use pattern that incorporating large numbers of elephants was not just prohibitive, but also culturally foreign. And there’s something to this, though I don’t buy it completely. Absolutely, Chinese land-use patterns would make elephants a lot more expensive to maintain than in India or even Rome. Highly productive farmland would likely have to be turned over to elephant pasture. That said, Chinese rulers had embraced the chariot and cavalry, so such things could be done, if the military or political calculus made them worth doing. But they weren’t done.
Instead, I tend to think that the same basic calculus that applied for Rome applies neatly for China – elephants fare poorly in societies with access to large numbers of disciplined infantrymen who can be trained in anti-elephant tactics. And this was certainly true of China, which had disciplined infantry to spare. Also, Han armies seem to have relied on close integration of missile weapons and polearms, meaning that they had the same sort of integrated light infantry support that the legion of the Roman Republic did. Later Chinese armies, as Trautmann briefly notes, had no problem defeating elephants in battle.
As with Rome, in China, elephants seem to have been a military solution looking for a problem to solve – and never found it. For one Chinese dynasty after another, the major military threats were either peer competitors (during periods of political fragmentation) whose disciplined infantry armies were no more vulnerable to elephants than Rome’s, or else steppe nomads. Given the tremendous logistical difficulties of operating even small armies out on the open steppe, attempting to take war elephants there would have been the height of stupidity. Elephants weren’t going to stop the Mongols – to be fair, not much stopped the Mongols (we’ll get into India, Mughals and elephants next time).
Next time, we’re going to broaden our focus out beyond the war-winning mechanics of elephants and instead ask what war elephants mean. Why did they remain popular in India for so long, given that their drawbacks discussed here? And – perhaps most interestingly – why in western literature is it always the ‘bad guys’ who have the elephants?
- This paragraph has been revised to correct what I think is a translation error in my original. Elephantomachae in Liv. 44.41.4 has been read by various translators both as ‘war elephants’ and as ‘war elephant fighters’ (that is, anti-war-elephant troops). The latter seems the correct and I’ve adjusted this paragraph to reflect that.