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.
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).)
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.
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.
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:
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).
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.
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).
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.