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War elephant

A War Elaphant


Elephants are large land mammals of the family Elephantidae. It was the Special Weapon of Hannibal Barca.


  • Weight: 9000 lbs
  • Height: 9-11 feet
  • Origin: Africa (African Bush Elephant)


Although nobody is certain where or when elephant warfare began, the earliest evidence of the domestication of elephants is a Mesopotamian relief dating back to about 2500 BC. Elephant warfare likely spread from India to the Persian Empire. In 331 BC, Alexander the Great encountered Persian war elephants at the Battle of Gaugamela. Although the elephants saw little action in the battle, their presence on the battlefield encouraged Alexander to adopt the captured elephants into his own army. In the Mediterranean, the Egyptians and Carthaginians began acquiring African elephants for the same purpose.

The first major use of war elephants in Europe came at the Battle of Heraclea in 280 BC, when the Greek King Pyrrhus used 19 war elephants to attack the Romans, who were unprepared for such a formidable weapon and were promptly routed. This victory inspired Carthage to develop its own war elephants and deploy them extensively (though rather unsuccessfully) in the First Punic War.

By far the most well-known use of war elephants in the Western World came during the Second Punic War, when Hannibal Barca crossed the Alps and invaded the Roman Empire with 37 war elephants under his command. Despite this feat; all the Elephants would eventually die as Hannibal lacked the logistics to maintain a conventional invasion and resorted to guerrilla tactics.

Elephants were used by the Romans during the Macedonian Wars (214–148 BC). Elephants consistently overwhelmed the Phalanx formations, even in battles when Rome was at a disadvantage otherwise. The Battle of Cynoscephalae for example had 20 Roman War Elephants.

The last significant use of war elephants in the West came in 46 BC, during the Battle of Thapsus, where Julius Caesar armed his fifth legion with axes and commanded the legionaries to strike the elephants legs, which proved effective in halting their charges. The Battle of Thapsus was the last largescale use of war elephants within the Western World.

War elephants continued to be used in South and South East Asia throughout antiquity and until the Middle Ages, when the advent of gunpowder began to limit the effectiveness of the elephant as a combat unit. In India, Elephants were viewed religiously, especially with the god Ganesh having the head of an elephant. Killing an Indian Elephant was a crime punishable by death. The Mughal Empire conquered the Rajput Warriors in the late 1500s. The Battle of Haldighati was one of the most noticeable battles where both sides had elephants fighting each other's. The Mughal defeated the Rajput elephants by using arquebus volleys to shoot the elephants dead. Despite the introduction of muskets, Emperor Akbar had at least 5,000 elephants in his army.

Some isolated Asian civilizations continued until the Age of Imperialism; where modern European armies overwhelmed Elephants with overwhelming firepower. Elephant-Hunting also became popular during this time; with Elephant-Guns being used to kill Elephants with their abnormally large calibers. During the Smithsonian–Roosevelt African Expedition: Theodore Roosevelt and his hunters had 11 confirmed Elephant kills.

Elephants were seen as luxurious due to how difficult it was to tame and maintain them. The Seleucid–Mauryan War ended with a peace treaty where Chandragupta Maurya gave the Macedonian emperor Seleucid 500 elephants. However this is also where the term 'White Elephant Gift' originated from; when European powers conquered Africa and Asia in the 1800s, they were given Elephants by the local kings. The Europeans saw no use for these Elephants and considered them more of a burden than a gift.

Tactical Use[]

In battle, Elephants were often deployed near the center of the line to prevent a charge or launch one of their own. A charging elephant could reach 20 mph (30 km/h) and, unlike horse cavalry, was not easily stopped by a line of infantry setting spears. The Elephants thick hide gave them considerable protection, while their height and mass protected the rider. Although not mandatory: armor plating specifically designed for Elephants can give them additional protection: with the Elephant's face being the most commonly protected. The Mughal Empire typically used iron armor on their Elephants.

Their height also made gave archers a safe and steady platform with an unparalleled view of the battlefield. In Ancient India: two archers protected the sides and a third archer guards the rear while a 4th man became the driver. Indian Elephants could have at most 6 warriors on it at a time.

Elephants could inspire terror in an enemy not used to fighting them, and could cause them to break ranks and flee in fear. Horses unaccustomed to the massive size or smell of elephants also panicked easily. In the Battle of Ipsus, General Demetrius I of Macedon was unable to use his cavalry against Lysimachus's Elephants due to the horses being too intimidated to engage. In the Battle of Heraclea (280 BC); the Roman Cavalry was shocked by the elephants of Pyrrhus of Epirus (especially since Romans never saw elephants before this battle) and as a result, the horses ran into the Roman line in an attempt to escape: this caused chaos in the Roman line, making the Romans vulnerable to Pyrrhus' hoplites.

The use of the elephant's tusks varied depending on the army. Raising an elephant was dangerous, so it was common for some armies to trim the tusks so that the tamers do not get harmed. However, Elephant tusks were still useful in combat; even though the weight of the elephant alone was capable of killing enemy soldiers. The Elephant Sword was a dagger that could be attached to a trimmed elephant tusk in order to arm them just before a battle. Flails and clubs were other potential replacements for the tusks. Indian elephants, including those outside of warfare, would have their tusks decorated in metals (especially gold) and jewelry; as Hindus consider the elephant to be holy.

The fact that even the smaller species of elephants still weighed several tons meant that Elephants could kill men with their strength and weight alone. The Elephants of the Mughal Empire were rumored to be trained to kill enemy soldiers by ripping off their limbs with their trunks. A common method of execution (as demonstrated in Deadliest Warrior) is Death By Elephant: where an Elephant would either crush a person's skull or trample their body.

Elephants were large enough to have small siege weapons on their backs: including a Ballista or a Cannon. This was implemented primarily in South East Asia. Elephants were also strong enough to cause some destruction against buildings and gates. In the 321 BC Battle of Pelusium, Perdiccas attempted to break down the doors of a fort known as The Camel's Rampart (although this attempt failed when his opponent - Ptolemy I Soter - made a successful counter attack). Many Indian fortresses developed spiked gates as a deterrent to this tactic.

Elephants are still used today to assist in largescale construction. In the Battle of Ankara Timur used his Elephants to divert Çubuk Creek away from the approaching Ottoman army, forcing the Ottomans to attack the Timur army before the former suffered from thirst.


Elephants had some parts of their bodies that were vulnerable to normal weapons: eyes, trunk, underbelly, hamstrings, and neck were frequently described as weakspots.

A surprising weakness is that Elephants are not naturally aggressive (which is primarily why Elephants are easier to tame compared to other animals like bears or rhinos). In fact, they avoid fighting (except in must season: which is when they are violently aggressive, even to their tamers). Docile Elephants would be fed large quantities of wine or would have their legs stabbed by their driver or officer: the combined intoxication and pain would make them more aggressive and combative but also more unpredictable. An Elephant Goad were hooks used by the Mahouts to pull or cut sensitive areas of the Elephant's head to force them to move, as some Elephants are prone to ignoring orders entirely. In the Battle of Zama: Scipio Africanus studied Hannibal Barca's use of Elephant charges, and countered the charge by creating gaps in the Roman lines to allow the Elephants to harmlessly run through the gaps; the Elephants would simply leave the battle (from either disinterest or fear) or get surrounded by being so deep within the Roman line.

War elephants had a tendency to panic when they sustained a serious injury, when exposed to threatening noise, or when their driver was killed; causing them to run amok, indiscriminately causing casualties on both sides as they sought escape. In the Battle of Thapsus, Julius Caesar ordered his archers to strike the Elephants to create this panic. On the third day of the Battle of al-Qādisiyyah: the Muslim army under Sa`d ibn Abi Waqqas was ordered to attacks the eyes and trunks of the Sasanian Elephants instead of killing them: which led to the Elephants fleeing in pain and trampling their own Sasasian army in order to escape to the Ateeq River located directly behind the Sasasins. Elephants are also intimidated by loud noises, as shown in the Battle of Zama: Scipio managed to scare some of Hannibal's Elephants with war-trumpets. The threat of the Elephant attacking its own army was so common that some Elephant riders carried a spike and mallet designed to stab the Elephant's skull and kill it before it did too much harm. Timur the Lame successfully used giant caltrops against Persian and Indian Elephants to stop their charges. Elephants can still run amok even unprovoked and at the start of a battle---which Hannibal faced at the beginning of The Battle of Zama, as his left flank of Elephants abruptly moved on their own and attacked the left flank of the Carthaginian cavalry.

Despite their endurance, Elephants can still die if they suffer from enough damage. In the Battle of Thapsus, Julius Caesar managed to stop the advance of enemy Elephants by ordering his men to aim for the legs: making the Elephants unable to move. Due to their large size, they were also easy targets for projectile weapons. Cavemen have historically killed Elephants and Mammoths by trapping them in holes and pelting them with javelins or thrown rocks. Artificial rock-slides can also be deadly even against Elephants: with Hannibal being ambushed by Celts by these boulders during his march over the Alps. Some of Hannibal's Elephants were killed when they fell or were pushed off of the cliffs of the Alps.

Siege weapons could also be used to attack Elehpants. In the Battle of Gaza (312 BC): Egyptian general Ptolemy I Soter used javelins to lure the Elephants of Macdonian general Demetrius I into a trap: the Egyptians created giant spike devices that they successfully deployed to stop and slaughter the Elephant charge. The Battle of Asculum (279 BC) has a similar tactic with 300 wagons: Romans equipped each wagon with torches, spikes, hooks and caltrops designed to harm Elephants. Pyrrhus of Epirus witnessed many of his elephants maned by these wagons, but managed to destroy the wagons with his regular troops while his elephants were redirected to other areas of the battlefield. Although his elephants and army survived; the Battle of Asculum is infamously known as a Pyrrhic Victory due to the high casualties of Pyrrhus' forces. The later Battle of Beneventum (275 BC) had the Romans successfully kill or rout Pyrrhus' Elephants with heavy Pilum javelins. The Mongol Empire would use Catapults, Mangonels, or volleys of arrows from their Mongol Composite Bows to kill or rout enemy War Elephants.

The small populations of Elephants made it hard for an army to raise enough to affect a battle. The Second Punic War, despite being infamous for Hannibal's use of Elephants, only had 37 Elephants within the invading Carthaginian army: all of them dying before the end of the war.

Elephants thrive in hot climate. Hannibal's march over the Alps was impressive since Elephants are not designed to climb narrow and cold mountain paths. Hannibal did lose many of his Elephants from attrition and some did accidentally slip off the icy, narrow mountain paths. The size and weight of the Elephants sometimes made it difficult for the Elephants to travel on certain roads or bridges, especially if not designed to sustain the Elephant's weight. Elephants could easily sink into muddy terrain: with many mammoths drowning in the La Brea Tar Pits. In the aftermath of 321 BC Battle of Pelusium, Perdiccas tried to use the size of his Elephants to slow down the flow of the Nile River in order to cross it: but some of these Elephants drowned when the water level unexpectedly raised.

Some armies raised pigs and would make the pigs charge at the Elephants, who were afraid of the smell and sounds that pigs and other animals made. Fire was also effective at scaring and harming Elephants. Romans used 'War Pigs', which were pigs covered in flammable oils and let loose into enemy Elephants while being lit ablaze. Elephants also have a reputation for being afraid of rodents; although there are no known military commanders who attempted to exploit this possible phobia. Timur the Lame used camels with burning hay-bails attached to their humps to scare Elephants in a manner similar to War Pigs.

Several South-Asian and South-East-Asian armies continued to use elephants as Pike-And-Shot and Napoleonic Warfare were being introduced. In Battle of Haldighati, Mughal musketeers were able to kill Rajput war elephants with musket fire. Cannons were also useful against Elephants; however the Elephants were also a good platform to put cannons on and so could be more mobile than a cannon using wheels.

With the invention of modern artillery and machine guns, most armies abandoned the elephant for combat use; but even today South Asian armies use elephants to carry heavy loads.


The War Elephant was tested against the Mongol Recurve Bow of Genghis Khan for special weapons. The elephant was egged on to stomp on a ballistics gel torso on top of a load cell. The torso was completely shattered and the load cell clocked the stomping force at 2,045 lbs: more than enough to instantly kill a human (even with heavy armor).

The Recurve Bow was shown to able to use special arrows to cause injuries to elephant skin, which would cause the elephant to panic and cause chaos. The edge was given to the war elephant due to it's massive intimidation and killing power.  


  • Indian Emperor Chandragupta Maurya owned at least 21,000 Elephants. He sold about 500 of these Elephants to Alexander the Great's successor Seleucid as part of a peace treaty; ending the expansion of the Macedonian Empire.
  • It is debatable if the African Forest Elephants of Hannibal Barca were large enough to allow warriors to ride on them. As depicted in the Deadliest Warrior show; it would have been more likely for Carthaginians to simply send the Elephant at an enemy without a driver (Mahout) on it. Larger Indian Elephants did not have this handicap, and Carthage most likely did possess these larger Elephants as well.
  • The stables within the city of Carthage were estimated to have a maximum capacity of 300 Elephants.
  • Genghis Khan captured many war elephants that he fought against. The Mongols, Timurids and Mughals would each adopt these Elephants into their Empires through their conquests.
  • According to legend: the Khmer usurper Suryavarman II killed and overthrew his great uncle Dharanindravarman I by climbing his uncle's by "bounding on the head of the elephant of the enemy king".
  • Although there is evidence to confirm that Elephants are afraid of mice, it is unclear why this is and if it was ever relevant in regards to War Elephants. The classical board game Dou Shou Qi has the Rat kill an Elephant, and multiple editions of the rule book mentions that the Rat would crawl into the Elephant's ears to gnaw into its brain; this is considered to be a folk tale.
  • The Bishop in Chess was originally a War Elephant. When Chess was introduced to Europe, the Europeans were unfamiliar to Elephants since they are not native to the cold continent. Instead, the Elephant was changed to be a Bishop to reflect the political power of the Medieval Catholic Church.
  • Although Rome was invaded by the elephant armies of Pyrrhus of Epirus and Hannibal Barca, the Roman Empire would later use elephants themselves acquired from the massive territories they conquered.
    • The Roman Mahouts sent to Britain were sent from North Africa; this strategy of sending auxiliaries across opposite ends of the Empire was practiced to prevent auxiliaries from assisting their local native populations in revolt, instead sending them to lands and peoples they were unfamiliar with.
    • Pompey's first Triumph involved him riding a unique Elephant Chariot. The size of the Elephants prevented Pompey from entering Rome's city gates. Pompey also hosted gladiatorial games involving Elephants fighting other Elephants.
  • At The Battle of Beth Zechariah the Jewish rebel Eleazar Avaran (brother of Judas Maccabeus) attempted to rally his army, which was about to rout due to the approaching Seleucid war elephants. Eleazar managed to single-handedly get under the legs of one of the elephants and killed it; however, the dying elephant collapsed onto Eleazar--- crushing him to death.

  • Susie (the Elephant used in the test) is the same Elephant used in the simulated battle.