Hannibal and his Elephants - An Ineradicable Myth?
If you talk to the average person-in-the-street, very often all they will be able to tell you about Hannibal is that he took elephants across the Alps.
But just how important a part did elephants play in Hannibal’s battle-strategy?
I thought I’d start by doing a bit of statistical analysis.
Don’t get over-excited – I just did word-searches for a spectrum of 20 ‘military’ words – from ‘Africans’ through to ‘Troops’. The list included general terms such as ‘army’; kinds of soldier such as ‘cavalry’; names of the Carthaginian leaders including ‘Hannibal’; the different nationalities of soldiers (e.g. ‘Spaniards’); and four different kinds of weapons – javelin, shield, sling and sword.
And ‘elephants’, of course.
Then I saw how many times they cropped up in Book 3 of Paton’s translation of Polybius, and in Books 21-22 of Roberts’s translation of Livy … i.e. the sections of their histories which deal with the period from Saguntum to Cannae.
In all, my list of 20 words together appeared a total of 1500 times.
I only used the translations, which is a BIG negative – the proper way to do it would have been to go in and count from the original Latin and Greek texts. But would the results have been worth the effort – it’s just a rough head-count at best. So I added up my words and looked at the results.
Actually, despite all the caveats, the results were rather interesting!
Some of the results were no-brainers. The name ‘Hannibal’ was mentioned 350 times in the two translations – four times as often as Hasdrubal, Mago and Maharbal added together. Of course he was – these books are about Hannibal’s invasion of Italy – they focus on HIM!
Other results set you thinking.
Both writers were much more likely to mention the ‘cavalry’ (or ‘horse’) than they were the ‘infantry’ (or ‘foot’).
When you actually read the books, the role of cavalry seems much over-rated – they were useless over the Alps, fought fruitlessly at Ticinus, made little difference at Trebia, mopped up at Trasimene and got off their horses and fought on foot at Cannae.
But overall the ‘cavalry’ got twice as many mentions as the PBI, slogging it out wretchedly in the centre.
I wonder why this was? Was it because both writers regarded cavalry as the ‘war-winning weapon’ and attributed Hannibal’s success to his superiority of cavalry? Or was it simply because the cavalry were just so much more glamorous – the fighter pilots of their day?
Again, Livy mentioned Maharbal more than three times as often as Polybius – but then we know that Maharbal was important for Livy’s structural theme, and played a key part in exposing what Livy regarded as Hannibal’s ‘fatal flaw’ (his inability to capitalise on his victories).
Other results were just as conspicuous, but left you guessing as to their significance. Why was Polybius more than twice as likely as Livy to use a word translated as ‘troops’? Why did Polybius overwhelmingly use the word ‘Celt’, but Livy the term ‘Gaul’?
And why did Livy (supposedly the writer who lacked military experience and wrote only to thrill) mention the dull, nitty-gritty matters of baggage and weapons twice as regularly as Polybius (who is supposed to have had been a military commander)? My own suggestion for this would be that Livy based his account to a greater degree on Coelius (who had been a real soldier in the war), whereas Polybius had swanned around talking to generals and politicians – so Livy was always going to get the more down-to-earth perspective – but I suspect your guess is as good as mine on this!
Oh – and the elephants?
Well, they got a good airing – more than I expected. Polybius mentioned them 19 times, Livy 18. In terms of my word-count, they accounted for 2% of the coverage. The word ‘elephant’ was about as prominent in the text as ‘Spaniards’ and ‘Africans’, and significantly more frequent than 'Baggage', 'Mago' and 'Maharbal'.
Have the Elephants been Over-Glamorised?
If we were to try to turn these numerical word-counts into measures of significance, however, would the results be valid? Were Hannibal’s elephants REALLY as important in his battles as the Spaniards and the Africans, or much more important than the baggage train, Mago and Maharbal?
My suggestion would be clearly not. Loss of significant sections of his infantry, or of two of his leading commanders, or of his baggage, would have seriously jeopardised (if not destroyed) Hannibal's military strength. Loss of his elephants would not – and at Cannae did not – have any effect at all.
In fact, both Polybius and Livy portray the elephants as a significant liability.
Against barbarians, maybe, elephants had a part to play. For instance, they helped stop the Carpentani on the Tagus, rushing along the bank crushing the enemy as they tried to cross the river (Polybius 3.14.6).
And over the Alps (Polybius 3.53.8):
‘the enemy never dared to approach that part of the column in which these animals were, being terrified by the strangeness of their appearance’.
Otherwise, however, elephants were a problem.
1. They significantly held up Hannibal’s progress at the Rhone (Polybius 3.42.10) and in the Alps (Polybius 3.53.8).
2. And in battle against the Romans they were a two-edged weapon indeed. We hear nothing about the elephants being used in battle at all until Trebia – when, according to Livy (21.55-56):
‘some skirmishers who had been placed where they could attack these animals flung darts at them and drove them off, and rushed after them, stabbing them under their tails, where the skin is soft and easily penetrated; maddened with pain and terror, they were beginning to rush wildly on their own men’.Actually, if we are to believe Livy – which of course we aren’t – the elephants seem to have done this at most battles they were involved in! They certainly did so at Zama, where Scipio had left corridors for them to pass down safely and, when Hannibal ordered the elephants to attack (Polybius 15.12.2):
‘When the trumpets and bugles sounded shrilly from all sides, some of the animals took fright and at once turned tail and rushed back upon the Numidians who had come up to help the Carthaginians’.3. Finally, according to Polybius, the cold at Trebia killed all-but-one of them. That sole animal at least carried the half-blind Hannibal across the Arno marshes before pegging out itself.
... which left Hannibal to achieve his greatest military success – at Cannae – completely elephantless.
Perhaps there is a lesson there.
We perhaps need to be careful before we write off the elephants as a military weapon. We need to remember that part of Livy’s purpose was to exaggerate the Roman military achievement – at Trebia, he tells us: ‘even, contrary to all expectation, against the elephants’!
So we need to be aware that part of the elephants’ apparent lack of military potency might be a hostile press!
And I suspect it is also significant that, at Scipio’s final peace with Carthage in 201bc, one of the punitive clauses was that Carthage had to surrender all its war-elephants (one is reminded of the Treaty of Versailles) … so elephants cannot have been so very pathetic a weapon.
Nevertheless, it seems to me that there is a mismatch between the prominence of elephants in the texts of Polybius and Livy, and in their contribution to Hannibal’s war-effort in real life.
Why was this? I suspect we don’t have to look far for an answer.
The idea of taking a troops of elephants over the Alps was as exciting and romantic in Polybius’s and Livy’s day as it still is today. And the thought of standing there with nothing other than a sharpened stick facing a charging elephant in battle was as terrifying then as it is today!
At the Olympics opening ceremony, the Queen was only one person in a crowd of thousands – but the next day all the newspapers were full of her leap from a helicopter (even though we all knew she hadn't actually made the leap herself). In much the same way – whatever they REALLY achieved – the elephants were the celebrity participants in Hannibal’s army and, whenever they turned up, they got a fascinated write-up.
Like it or not, unrepresentative myth that it is, Hannibal will ALWAYS be ‘the elephant general’.