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 (much 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.


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.

40 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’.

    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.

      1. And just as horses always have amazing relationships with their riders in fictions and never have to be forcibly broken as some have to be in real life, I’m sure that a hero’s elephant wouldn’t showcase the less pleasant aspects that often accompany elephant taming.

  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.

    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.

  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!

    1. eh.. debateable, given that they were hired by Aegon Targaryen, who was basing his claim on westeros on being the son of Rhaegar Tagaryen and the grandson of Aerys II “The Mad King” Targaryen. the Tagaryen’s very much fitting the “evil overlord” status given their brutality, insanity, and incestuous behavior. Aegon himself may have been reasonably sane and nice for the setting (having been raised by his mother Elia Martell) but House Targaryen in general certainly fits the “evil foreign invaders” by dint of its history (which was very strong in the minds of the Westerosi, who had only got rid of House Targaryen a few decades earlier,) and by dint of the fact that the house’s survivors had been sent into exile where they called on previously exiled cadet branch to serve as an army to reconquer their old holdings.

  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?

    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: ) 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.

      1. Apparently there are not any surviving Indian references from the time of Paurava (Porus). Major General Gurcharn Singh Sandhu in “A Military History of Ancient India” puts the battle in the best light that he can, but he has only the Greek and Roman texts for reference.

    1. Oh, that’s a big topic – it changes over time, as Roman society also changes.

      To take just one example – the legion of the Middle Republic was 1) organized on the same census system that also governed voting in the main citizen assembly, the comitia centuriata and 2) drew its officers from the same class of men who made up the Senate and 3) was also split by age-classes (also like the voting assembly) and 4) was also divided by citizen-status with the Italian allies (socii) serving in their own units outside of the citizen legions, while 5) the poor and non-free were excluded from service because of their low social standing.

      In essence, a Roman who ‘mattered’ at home (because of his wealth and status), ‘mattered’ at war, and in corresponding degrees.

  5. Thanks for these articles, I’m currently reading through your archives and very much enjoying them all.

    One question I’d like to ask, though, talking about India and ‘useful battlefield roles for elephants’, I understand that in the early modern point up to the mid-ninteenth century, Elephants were used to haul siege guns and their ammunition around, which you don’t mention here as it’s out of the period you’re covering. I suppose this goes back to the calculus of “they need to be a battle-winner or they are an expensive liability” you discussed in Part II: when the weapon system is a much much bigger BFG than you could otherwise point at your enemy’s castle, they suddenly become very worthwhile again. But how widely were they used as pack animals even when their strictly ‘battlefield’ role had diminished?

    If I recall correctly, the British expedition to Ethiopia in 1868 used elephants for logistics too, but after that they were quietly retired, and Abraham Lincoln famously declined the offer of pachyderm pack-animals from the king of Thailand in the 1860s rebellion.

    1. In one of my books about the wars of the United States against the Native Americans, I recall a reference that one commander (I believe George Crook) designed a mule load system able to carry 320lbs of cargo. The book said the British Indian Army elephants were expected to be loaded with 500lbs. (I haven’t verified either figure and don’t recall which book I saw it in.) Of course, this was also in the 1870s/80s, and we know that draft animal hardware has improved significantly since ancient times.

      Given the massive disparity in food supplies needed by elephants versus mules, it seems likely that adding more horses/mules/oxen is cheaper and easier than using elephants.

  6. M. Jacka has a point even if he later takes a turn in a different direction later: obviously the arch-villain for English writers is not Seleucid nor Carthaginians¹ but the hordes of barbarians who dared to contest the legitimacy of tea-drinking gentlemen to pillage and rape their country in the name of proper Civilization, e.g South Asians…

    ¹ I’m not saying that it cannot be somewhere in the cultural background since these writers had classical education, but that’s not what primarily informed the mood of the time nor filled newspaper’s headlines, while Orientalism clearly did.

  7. I learned a lot by reading your articles, thank you.

    But still I find your last argument about why War Elephants were still used in India quite weak, or at least missing something.

    I wouldn’t dare, being a self-taught pedant on military matters, challenge such a high-level pedant as you on arguments pertinent to his field of study. So I follow you on how a king’s power depends on perceptions of his power, or how armies are socially-embedded institutions, but with one important caveat that you seem to forgot here (while usually being clearly aware of it, cue my confusion): they can only be useful display of the king’s power or keep their institutional role if they pass the test of battle…

    The armored knight on a battler-horse was certainly a display of the feudal class power and legitimacy, but after the Golden Spurs (or Bannockburn) they still had to think again about how they would convince their opponents about this legitimacy in the future since apparently pikes were able to put quite a dent in it…

    Yes, vanity rather than military efficiency do explain many social and military ventures, but vanity can only take you so far before someone understanding military efficiency puts a stop to it (I don’t know if it’s a misconception, but it is a general conception that Azincourt was exactly that: vain knights being taught by Henry V that actual planning was a thing. Obviously French ruling class did not stop being vain, but they learned – Michel Goya has an interesting article about it – to be vain and pack artillery).

    So you explain clearly why the Romans made war elephants militarily obsolete and why the Indians would WANT to still use it, but not why they COULD still use it ?

  8. “In The Lord of the Rings, the Mumakil serve in the armies of Sauron.”

    Sure, but Tolkien had already placed his fantasy in the context of a very early Northern Europe, with Sauron drawing his armies from further south in Middle-earth…hence the Haradrim with their Mûmakil. The author couldn’t easily—for exactly the logistical reasons you mention—have put elephants into the armies of the “good guys.”

    1. Except that Tolkien created the world of Middle-Earth. If he had wanted friendly elephants on the side of the good guys, there’s no reason he could not have created some culture and place where they could have existed — one imagines Lothlorien forest elephants. Instead he put them in enemy hands. Now there’s a lot to be said for Tolkien’s work being set in/read as a pre-history of Europe, so he’d have to invent quite a lot to fit in elephants — except that he also fits in magic, and talking trees, and immortal elves, and fire-breathing dragons, so I don’t feel like European elephants would have been the most immersion-breaking element in the setting!

      Do I think JRR Tolkien sat down and purposefully thought “I need to make these baddies foreign and evil, let’s have them ride elephants”? Of course not, I think he was drawing off a literary tradition that, as our host as shown, goes straight back to the Romans and Greeks. But to claim that Tolkien was constrained by the terrain of a fantastical world *that he created himself* is to engage in a bald-faced logical fallacy.

      1. The dragons and trolls are also used by the bad guys, in fact bad guys in general get the biggest baddest weapons. Makes me wonder if elephants being used by the baddies is to emphasise the antagonists power.

        And since in reality elephants are the biggest and scariest units around more grounded entertainment will use them in place of dragons or giants. And if the bad guys don’t get elephants than chariots or cavalry. Just to make sure we get a David V Goliath feel.

  9. One quaint literary portrayal of war elephants I remember is in Gustave Flaubert’s decadent novel Salammbô (1862). Hamilcar returns to Carthage after Hanno’s defeat at Utica, but as a private citizen, and refuses to take charge of a war that he considers the senate’s fault- especially as the senate in his absence had feasted the mercenary army on his personal estate. Hamilcar merely returns home and surveys the damage to his property in ornate tableux, displaying the merciless treatment of his slaves. But at the end, one thing rouses his anger and drives him to accept his command- when he sees that a drunken mercenary had cut off the trunk of one of his dear elephants.

  10. 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.

    And if you’re feeling fantastical, keep in mind that the Romans and Greeks encountering elephants for the first time were perhaps the closest anyone has come to fighting mythic beasts. Elephants can’t fly, but that just makes them more grounded stand-ins for dragon riders.

  11. Just to throw out two idea:
    The connection with Hellenistic kings and elephants makes me think if some of this was the closer exposure to India, which may have shaped the kings ideas of what a good king should look like.
    Romans had a love-hate relationship with the Hellenistic world, which is why the elephants = great king idea did not travel further, but as far as I can tell the Hellenistic world had a pretty unambiguous admiration for India (would be interested in any sources that showed otherwise).

    Other idea, in India there is the widespread tradition of using elephants for labor (especially in difficult terrain) (which I’m not sure goes back to ancient times, so would be interested in feedback about that). (What do ancient sources say about Persian and Carthaginian armies in this regard?) This could mean that elephant trainers were a steady industry and not rare specialists as they might be in countries where elephants are military only. This also means that an army might have brought elephants along anyways for logistics, so might as well use them militarily (although it could be that the elephants used for war were separate from elephants used for labor)

  12. (and it could not have escaped anyone that this was a physical realization of his actual high status)

    I wouldn’t be so sure about that—I saw a comic on Twitter saying that the titular raven of Poe’s The Raven symbolized nothing more than how much Poe liked ravens. Some people are just really stubborn about taking everything literally.

    That said, the power of this sort of symbol (elephant or raven) doesn’t require people to consciously notice the symbolism. It just requires clarity and consistency.

  13. > 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.

    Anyone aware about specific examples? I am quite curious and lack knowledge to spot which ones fit.

    Maybe jet fighters where used by minor powers unable to really operate them?

    1. I was thinking of dreadnoughts in the early 20th century arms race. Britain and Germany almost bankrupted themselves building them, but they were so expensive that commanders were reluctant to actually use them (I don’t think they were used at all in WWI). Fighter jets are probably a pretty good example too.

      1. Battleships weren’t vanity weapons, except perhaps for second-rate powers that could only afford one or two second-rate battleships. Rather, they were strategic weapons that engendered an arms race because any naval power without them would be virtually helpless against a naval power with them. Against each other they produced strategic stalemate (admittedly because they were to a large extent “too dear to risk”). In WW1 that meant that the German Navy couldn’t break out of the North Sea and cut Britain off from trade, while the British Navy couldn’t bypass the Western Front and attack Germany by sea. But battleships were not, if you’ll forgive the phrase, “white elephants”.

        1. I’ll argue the lack of Dreadnought battles between Britain and Germany in ww1 was more a strategic problem than a cost one. Germany had a much smaller navy and so relied on a defeat in detail against the RN, while Britain was spread out and was reluctant to risk it’s blockade of Germany in direct confrontation.

          It’s notable that while rare in ww1, ww2 has several Dreadnought battles. Though of much smaller scales.

          Also I think Bret kinda overlooks availability when it comes to India, if it’s easier to get war elephants from the forest then it is to train soldiers you might just use elephants. In fact the cast system may have been responsible in part for this dynamic.

  14. As chariots faded (they were tactically inferior to true cavalry which was arising at this time)

    Perhaps not as much “inferior to” as “countered by”. Unless you mean horse archers — but as you noted elsewhere, usually those are simply unavailable, except for nomadic and semi-nomadic peoples. For those who don’t have horse archers, chariots are the best remaining option for the same niche. Of course, they suffer from terrain and maneuverability problems and need light infantry to jog closely behind.
    On the other hand, heavier armor than is typical for horse archers and their mounts.
    But, of course, while light infantry escort may help against being swarmed by infantry on an awkward turn, a cavalry counter-charge would slaughter it.

    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

    That’s what you get for listening to Marxist professors. =)
    An elephant usually was taller than everything else on the battlefield that isn’t a building, indeed. Since the rider gets a good unobstructed view, this makes elephant a good mobile command post.
    Speaking of building, while elephants seem inefficient in an open field, fighting does not always happen in nice clear fields. Chariots can be stopped by a rather puny ditch, horses by a palisade that’s little more than a fence, elephants… in terms of sheer carnage are indeed not as big deal as they look, but can both step over things and quickly demolish anything short of a proper fortification. They occasionally do this sort of thing without being asked, after all.

  15. Hello, I’ve few questions about use of war elephants in India. Sorry if they’re too many.

    You said that light infantry often countered elephants and tht good trained heavy infantry could stand out sometimes, but that horse could be feared of them and that elephantry can mess heavy infantry line. Did Indian armies rely more on cavalry, or was the quality of Indian cavarly better than infantry?

    Did Indian leaders make their horse familiar with elephants?

    Did Indian war elephants well against opponenst, maybe invaders, who relied on horse?

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