Collections: War Elephants, Part III: Elephant Memories

Today, in Part III of our series of war elephants, we are going to look at the place war elephants held in society through two lenses: what war elephants meant to the societies that used them and what they often mean in popular culture – as we’ll see, these are connected topics. Previously in this series, we looked at the battlefield advantages and drawbacks of war elephants; now let’s take them off of the battlefield.

This may seem a strange approach to use to end a discussion of war elephants – after all, these are war elephants – but as will soon become apparent, war elephants are almost impossible to fully understand outside of the social and political context in which they are most useful.

Elephant Kings

First, we are going to look at how elephants fit into the ancient and medieval political systems which used them as weapons of war. I want to stress very strongly here that what I am presenting is essentially the main argument of Trautmann’s Elephants and Kings (2015), not something I dreamed up. For the sake of brevity, I am leaving out a lot of detail here – but you know where to go to find the argument in full.

Last time, we introduced a problem: while awesome, war elephants were very expensive and relatively easy to counter on the battlefield. This answered the question of why the Romans and Chinese mostly ignored the elephant as a weapon-system despite having access to it, but it raised a second question: if the elephant was at best a limited weapon, why did its use persist in India? After all, if the Romans could figure out how to beat these things, surely the Indians could too!

Part of the answer, of course, is that some of the logistical problems that existed for states located at the edges of elephant’s natural range simply don’t apply to states closer to the source. Indian kings could (and did!) deploy elephants in far greater numbers than Seleucid or Roman armies could. In particular, North Indian rulers, rather than relying on long distance trade, could acquire elephants through trade relations with ‘forest peoples’ in their own hinterland. We have reports of armies with not hundreds but thousands of elephants from, for instance, the Nanda or Maurya empires. Nevertheless, while these factors simplified elephant logistics, they hardly made the use of the animals cheap.

What Trautmann instead observes is that the rise of war elephants occurred specifically in the context of kingship in India. Indeed, elephants were associated with kingship through royal elephant hunts and domesticated elephants kept for show even before war elephants were developed. Around 1400 B.C. the chariot arrives in India, bringing with it a military aristocracy where the nobles – and the noblest of all nobles is, of course, the king – rode into battle.

(I keep finding myself recommending it, but I’ll again note – for a good rundown of the value of chariots as royal symbols more than battlefield weapons, check out chapter 2 of Lee, Waging War (2016).)

Via wikipedia, a manuscript illustration showing chariot-riding aristocrats from the Mahabharata. Note how the drivers of the chariot (who, like the elephant’s mahout, are lower status warriors) are smaller in the picture, while the high-status military aristocrat (with the bow) is made much larger for emphasis.

That was the context the war elephant emerged into. By the fifth century or so, the war elephant seems to be displacing the chariot as the quintessential vehicle of the warrior-aristocrat (and thus the ultimate warrior-aristocrat, the king). Interestingly, the Mahabharata (fourth century B.C., but with components that may date as early as the ninth) preserves some of this shift, with a mix of aristocrats on chariot and aristocrats on elephant. As chariots faded (they were tactically inferior to true cavalry which was arising at this time), elephants progressively became the vehicle for the important warriors.

It’s not hard to see the appeal. For the warrior-aristocrat, battle isn’t just about winning, but is also about social status and position. Put another way: why does anyone put up with warrior-aristocrats, who get to live in luxury and boss everyone around? The implicit reason (sometimes explicit) across cultures is that it is the martial prowess – typically the personal, physical combat skill – that justifies the existence of the military aristocrat. You need Sir-Better-Than-You (to use a European framing) because you need someone who has mastered a difficult combat art (mounted combat) and is very, very good at it.

The warrior-aristocrat needs to be seen being a warrior aristocrat. For this purpose the elephant (much like its chariot forerunner) is perfect. Fighting from the back of an animal is a difficult skill which requires a lot of training the common folk do not have time to do. It also requires being able to afford and maintain a very expensive military asset commoners cannot afford. And not only does it allow the warrior-aristocrat to have an out-sized impact on the battle, but it literally elevates him over his fellow men so he can be seen (and it could not have escaped anyone that this was a physical realization of his actual high status). So long as the elephant remained even moderately militarily valuable, it was a perfect vehicle for a warrior-aristocrat to display his power and prowess.

Via Wikipedia, a 17th century illustration of the third century A.D. epic the Ramayana, showing a battle with elephants. Here, to emphasize the military-aristocrats riding the elephants, the mahouts (who would have been marked by their distinctive ankusa elephant-hooks) are removed from the picture entirely. This is actually quite common in royal artwork – for instance, Egyptian pharaohs are commonly shown going into battle on chariots that lack drivers. The key point isn’t accurate representation, but royal display.

And even more so for the king. Not only can the king ride his own elephant, but with his vast resources, he can procure elephants for his retainers. What is more impressive than a warrior aristocrat who has his own elephant? A warrior-king who has hundreds or thousands of elephants and his own warrior aristocrats to mount them. The thing is, a king’s actual power derives from the perception of his power – showing off the king’s military might makes him more likely to be obeyed (in ways – like tax collection – which allow him to further enhance his military might). This isn’t just a vanity project for the king (though it is that too) – extravagant displays of royal power are a key component of remaining king (the key big-word idea here is legitimacy).

This pattern in turn becomes self-reinforcing: as kings use elephants to show off (and thus reinforce) their power, elephants become symbols of royal power all on their own. Trautmann (2015) tracks this spread, particularly in South-East Asia – as the Indian model of kingship spreads into that region, war elephants spread with it. Whereas in places where there is plenty of contact, but the institution of Indian-style kingship doesn’t spread, war elephants are used rarely, if at all.

Via Wikipedia, Khmer War-Elephants from the 12th century A.D. By this point, Indian patterns of kingship had penetrated South-East Asia, bringing war elephants – and royal display on war elephants – with them. Notice how the warrior on the war elephant is shown to be much bigger than the soldiers on the ground or the elephant’s driver – again, the important thing here is royal display.

This in turn answers another quandary: why war elephants appealed to Hellenistic (that is, the heirs of Alexander) monarchs. Macedonian monarchy was not a form of Indian kingship – it had grown up in Macedon and been influenced by exposure to the Great Kings of Persia all on its own – but it was very similar in many ways. Compatible, we might say. Macedonian monarchs did not ride elephants (they rode horses), but they did need to be seen demonstrating martial excellence before their armies, just like Indian kings. In that context, the display of wealth and royal power implied by fielding a large elephant corps could be powerful, even if the king himself didn’t ride on an elephant. This is, perhaps most vividly demonstrated with Seleucus I Nicator, who earned himself the nickname ‘The Elephant King’ and even produced coins advertising that fact, like this one:

Silver Tetradrachma, c. 296-280, showing Seleucus I Nicator (whose name the coin bears) riding a chariot pulled by elephants. It should be noted that this isn’t any sort of real weapon-system – chariots pulled by elephants were not used in battle. But the image neatly combined symbolism of Persian and Babylonian royal display (where the king rides in this pose on a chariot) and the strength-symbolism of elephants.

This tie between elephants and kings seems to have been quite strong. Trautmann (2015) notes that even within India, states without kings (oligarchies, independent tribes and cities, etc) only rarely acquired elephants and never in the same sort of numbers as kings. So even when elephants are cheaper – because they are close by – unless you need elephants as physical symbols of the power and legitimacy of the king and his warrior-aristocrats, they are largely not worth the effort to procure.

The one great exception is Carthage – by the time it was using war elephants, Carthage was a mixed republic (much like Rome), and yet employed elephants extensively. Unfortunately, we have no sense of if Carthage – like Rome – would have abandoned elephants given time. The earliest attestation we have of Carthaginian war elephants is 262 B.C. (although they would have encountered them earlier from Pyrrhus of Epirus) and Carthage is completely gone in 146 B.C. It is possible Rome simply caught Carthage in the same ‘trying them out’ phase of elephant use Rome would undergo in the second century B.C. and that Carthage may too have largely abandoned war elephants had it not been destroyed.

A Tyrant’s Weapon?

That leads neatly into how the war elephant tends to be portrayed in western fantasy (and what we might call ‘historical fantasy’ like 300): as the weapon of the tyrant – almost always the foreign tyrant.

In 300, Xerxes brings elephants to fight the Spartans (I should note the actual Xerxes did not do so). In The Lord of the Rings, the Mumakil serve in the armies of Sauron. The war elephants in Alexander (2004) serve as the main obstacle at the Hydaspes – unlike in the historical accounts, Alexander does not then meet and bond with Porus, the king who commanded those elephants. It is strange to say, but the Indians are far more fully humanized in the ancient accounts than they are in this modern movie. Even in Game of Thrones, the war elephants are associated with the foreign band of armoral mercenaries, the Golden Company, which the tyrannical Cersei seeks to hire – even if, in the series, the elephants never arrive.

(Just because this fits nowhere else: in Game of Thrones, Harry Strickland of the Golden Company claims that it wouldn’t have been feasible to move the elephants by boat. This is clearly nonsense – the Carthaginians seem to have routinely moved North African war elephants to Sicily and Spain, often in far greater numbers (Hasdrubal (not the brother of Hannibal) has an army with 140 elephants in Sicily in 255 B.C. for instance). One assumes they did not swim there).

Pictured: Members of the Gold Company, wondering why they didn’t bring their war elephants.
“I heard it was because we couldn’t get them on the boats.”
“Don’t be stupid Steve, we can obviously get them on the boats. I heard it was because they spent the CGI budget on the writing.”
“Oh, very funny Bob. Any idiot can tell they didn’t spend any money on writing this season.”
Also, I love that the guys just a couple of ranks from the camera have armor that looks to be made of gold-painted tinfoil. Now you’ll never un-see it.

Why – in western literature, at least – are elephants always the bad guy weapon?

Well, we’ve already seen that war elephants are – almost everywhere they go – associated with kingship. But a lot of things are associated with kingship that are not universally tagged as ‘evil’ in historical fiction and fantasy, not the least of which is kings themselves. Indeed, in Indian literature, properly keeping elephants wasn’t the sign of an evil king, but of a good king. In the Indian epic of the Ramayana, Rama, the main hero asks his brother (who has become king) if he is being a good ruler and among the things he asks about (like appointing good advisors, showing compassion, paying the army on time, etc) is “you are protecting the elephant forests, I trust, and attending to the needs of the elephants” (Trans. Trautmann (2015), 51).

Instead, I would suggest that this is really a question of perspective and particularly an accident of preservation. The two key factors are: first the dominance of the Greek and Roman literary tradition in shaping western fantasy and historical fiction and second the sudden shift (created by accidents of preservation) from the Greek to the Roman perspective which occurs in sources describing the fourth and third centuries B.C. Let me explain.

The Greeks first encounter war elephants with Ctesias writing about seeing them in the service of the Achaemenid (read: Persian) army sometime between 415 and 397 (to be clear, this is nearly a century after the Persian invasions of Greece, during which – despite what movies will tell you – the Persians did not use elephants). By 331 B.C., Darius III, the last Persian Great King, had a corps of elephants in his army (defeated by Alexander the Great). One might imagine that to Achaemenid sources, these elephants must have seemed friendly, but few such sources survive and very, very few scholars (must less fantasy writers!) have the language skills to read them.

(Sidenote: The translation and incorporation of these sorts of sources – Achaemenid inscriptions, Babylonian temple records, and so on – has in the last thirty years kicked off something of a quiet revolution in the study of the Persian and Seleucid Empires. If you want to get a sense of that, check out Pierre Briant, From Cyrus to Alexander (2002) and Sherwin-White and Kuhrt, From Samarkhand to Sardis (1993).)

So to late classical Greek sources, elephants were a weapon used by a potentially hostile foreign monarchy, Achaemenid Persia. But just as Alexander and his (Greek speaking) Macedonians acquire significant numbers of war elephants of their own, our source perspective shifts dramatically. The Greeks under Alexander’s successors were still writing quite a bit, but very little of it survives. The thing is, when it came down to what works to copy and preserve centuries later, there was always understandably much more interest in the successful Roman Empire than the perceived failure of Alexander’s successors.

As a result, nearly all of our sources for the life of Alexander – and events after his life – come from the perspective of either Romans, or Roman-friendly Greeks (like Polybius or Plutarch). For those Romans, war elephants were – wait for it – the weapons of potentially hostile foreign monarchies (the Seleucids and Ptolemies). The sole exception to the elephants-and-kings model – Carthage – does little good here, given Carthage’s position as the arch-villains of Rome’s self-conception.

Via Wikipedia, a Carthaginian shekel showing a figure (possibly Melqart made to look like Hamilcar Barca, father of Hannibal) on the obverse and a war elephant on the reverse, dated to c. 230 B.C.

As a result, elephants remain consistently the weapon of the foreign tyrant in the classical sources, not because they were, but because the Hellenistic source tradition goes very nearly dark right as Greek-speaking rulers are acquiring their own elephants. Indeed, we understand even the life of Alexander – the first Greek-speaking ruler of any kind we know to have had elephants in his army – primarily through the lens of Romans (Arrian, Q. Curtius Rufus), a Romanized Greek (Plutarch) and a Sicilian Greek (Diodorus Siculus), all writing well after the fact. The reports of Alexander’s contemporaries – Callisthenes the court historian, Ptolemy and Nearchus his generals, etc – survived long enough to be read by the sources we do have, but don’t make it to us. We never really see what the friendly face of a Hellenistic elephant might have looked like.

We don’t have to merely imagine how our conception of the place of war elephants might look different, because of course we had Indian literature like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, where elephants might be the mount of choice for noble heroes and wise kings. But few authors have read extensively in the Sanskrit epics of India, so the impression that pervades fantasy and historical fiction is the Greek and Roman one, where the elephant is far more likely to be the tool of an enemy king than a friendly one.

Conclusions

To sum up: elephants were powerful, but by no means unstoppable weapons in war. While a well-deployed corps of war elephants could pose a very tough tactical problem to an enemy army, well-trained infantry could overcome elephants at a fraction of the logistic and economic cost. Elephants remained in long-term use as weapons where they were both cheaper, but also crucially where their display reinforced the power and prestige of warrior-aristocrats and especially kings. In the final analysis, elephants seem to have always been more important as a symbol of military might than as an actual weapon system – although both roles were certainly important.

There’s an important lesson here: armies are socially-embedded institutions. To translate that back out of academic-speak – armies don’t just pop out of the ground. They emerge from the societies that create them and are deeply shaped by those societies. Indeed, as I tell my students, every army recreates the order of the society it comes from on the battlefield, in one way or another. For the Elephant Kings, the war elephant provides a brilliant example of that nexus between social organization and military organization – a weapon of war and politics, wrapped into one awesome package.

(Another aside: this lesson – that elephants were useful not only as weapons, but as symbols of military might is by no means contained to the ancient world. It should not be hard to think of a few modern weapons that carry out-sized cultural and political importance compared to their day-to-day battlefield utility.)

The peculiar nature of the Greek and Roman source tradition is mostly to blame for the ‘bad rap’ that war elephants tend to get in modern historical and fantasy fiction – the pattern of source preservation means that readers of Greek and Latin are forever looking at elephant-kings from the outside. Because modern fantasy literature (not to mention historical fiction!) is built with the Greek and Latin source tradition (among other later European traditions) as its foundation, this attitude about war elephants has sunk into western fantasy.

This doesn’t have to be the case. In Indian epic, the war elephant can have much the same tone as a king’s ‘noble steed’ (think Snowmane from Lord of the Rings), and a hero skilled in fighting from elephant-back much the same feeling as masterful horsemen like the Rohirrim. Fantasy literature, especially, provides an opportunity after all to break out from the patterns imposed by the accidents of the Greek and Roman source tradition and view the world from another angle. We should use that as a way of considering new perspectives. Hannibal’s elephant – Surus (yes, we know the name of Hannibal’s elephant) – has a story too (and so did his mahout – whose name we do not know).

A Carthaginian coin from the late third century found in Spain, showing Hannibal on the obverse and a Carthaginian elephant on the reverse. The large ear-flaps and low cranial ridge mark this as an African elephant.

Next Week: I think I am going to deviate a bit from the list of up-coming topics I posted before, because I think, y’all that it’s time we had that talk, about that Greek polis. The one with the memes and t-shirts and well-kicking and obstacle course races. You knew it was coming. That isn’t Sparta.

7 thoughts on “Collections: War Elephants, Part III: Elephant Memories

  1. I think there’s a simpler explanation for why elephants are a ‘bad guy’ weapon in fantasy fiction, and it’s cultural rather than historical. Modern fantasy fiction is predominately written in English. And one distinctive feature of Anglo-Saxon culture, which you can see in America, Canada, Australia, and the UK, is that they really love animals.

    What would a realistic depiction of the use of a war elephant in a story look like? First the elephant has to be captured, broken, and trained. Before battle, the mahouts have to intoxicate it into a state of heightened aggressiveness. Then during battle, they control it by jamming sharp metal hooks into sensitive spots. How’s the average English-speaking fantasy reader going to react to all this? I’m not sure, but I doubt it’s going to be ‘wow, war elephants are awesome’.

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    1. I would suggest that the love of animals is not a distinctive feature of ‘Anglo-Saxon’ culture (and also that ‘Anglo-Saxon’ is not a good cultural descriptor of the US, UK, and Commonwealth). But if this were what is going on, surely we ought to expect similar squeamishness about war-horses and war dogs? No one seems to be overly bothered by the ‘good guys’ bringing hundreds or thousands of horses to their deaths.

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  2. But you do get similar squeamishness about war horses and (especially) war dogs. There’s a turn-based fantasy RPG that just came out this year called Wargroove, that features war dogs. All the soldier units in the game can get killed in unit battles . . . except the dogs. They just yelp and run away. If you read the game reviews, a frequent point of praise for the game is ‘dogs don’t die’. They’re fine with humans getting killed, but not dogs. It’s not an unusual attitude over here.

    Horses are harder to avoid because of the historical tradition of cavalry, but if you look at most Western fantasy, the way it deals with this is by being EXTREMELY squeamish about depicting what typically happens to war horses in battle. Historical fiction like Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series specifically has the riflemen shoot the horses of enemy cavalry, and they comment about how unpleasant it is to hear the animals screaming. Most non-historical fantasy very carefully avoids talking about it – the exceptions usually fall under the dark fantasy label.

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    1. Yeah, I don’t buy it. Against every Wargroove, you can posit games like Rome: Total War, where war dogs are literally expendable assets that automatically regenerate after every battle, so long as you keep their human handlers alive. Or the charge of the war dogs in Dragon Age: Origins, which is treated as a moment of no real moral import, despite the fact that 100% of those dogs are going to die (they are being sent to bite enemies whose poisoned blood will corrupt and kill them).

      Moreover, this argument stumbles on the place of the war elephant in Indian literature, which is almost *exactly* the same place as the noble war horse of western literature – including the moderate squeamishness about the fates those animals suffer, in some cases. I think it’s hard to make the case that India somehow cares less about animal welfare. This is, after all, a society that developed religious vegetarianism centuries before any such idea in Europe, where monks brush the ground before their feet so that they avoid accidentally harming insects. I have to say, coming from the Land of Factory Farms, I have a hard time calling out India’s animal-rights record.

      I’m not, of course, saying there is *no* animal cruelty in India. What I am saying is that I think the evidence that animal-kindness is somehow a unique feature of the western or English-speaking world is just not there.

      By contrast, the framing of war elephants as foreign and tyrannical in western fiction isn’t just implied, it’s *explicit.* 300 stops to lay this out as a *thesis statement* (quote, “Our eyes bear witness to the grotesque spectacle of coughed forwards from the darkest corner of Xerxes’ empire…Xerxes dispatches his monsters from half the world away”). And it is explicit in the ancient sources that these modern authors are relying on. I struggle to communicate how *blatant* this framing is.

      Occam’s Razor applies – when choosing between a convoluted solution with weak evidence and a simple solution with very strong evidence, the latter is most likely to be correct.

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  3. I just want to point out, regarding western literature, that the portrayal of the faction fielding elephants in A Song of Ice and Fire books is entirely different from the show.

    The Golden Company is renowned for its loyalty and discipline, it transports 40 elephants to Westeros for its campaign and fights for a well-liked (yet lesser) contender. It even sidesteps the Evil Foreigner trope by being mostly composed of Westerosi exiles!

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  4. Indirectly related to the topic: there are some indian authors that claim that Alexander in truth was defeated by Porus, that his behaviour was actually that of a fleeing general and that only because of propaganda we believe that he won at Hydaspes. However, as they point at some alleged “western bias” in treating Alexander outcomes, there is also their “native bias” in claiming that the conqueror was defeated, and any discussion quickly degenerates into a nationalistic wall-against-wall. Could you write about this argument?

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    1. I have seen this interpretation floating around the internet too. There is, as far as I am aware (I’ll admit, I don’t read Sanskrit or Hindi) no alternative source tradition for Alexander in India, so there’s just nothing to base that conclusion on. There is no hint of it in the source tradition that does exist.

      The existence of Alexander’s foundations in India – something that has been confirmed archaeologically via the appearance of objects of Greek material culture – strongly argue against this interpretation. More directly, Alexander minted a coin issue – the Porus victory coins (link to image: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/cd/Porus_alexander_coin.png ) which strongly support the source tradition as it stands…you don’t mint victory coins if you are defeated. Moreover, Alexander’s route and the geographical knowledge that filtered through to our source tradition makes clear that be proceeded much further South than Porus’ kingdom (founding Alexandrias on the way) – a hard thing to do if he lost.

      So we can safely say that the ‘Alexander really lost’ narrative is just a nationalist myth, and not a very clever one at that. No evidence for it, piles of evidence against it. Assuming an Alexander defeat at Hydaspes also makes a mess of understanding the Mauryan-Seleucid war and subsequent treaty.

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