Hannibal and His Elephants

One of the most compelling historical images, for me, is that of the great Carthaginian general, Hannibal Barca, crossing the alps with his 20,000 infantry, 6,000 cavalry, and 37 elephants. What a sight this must have been to behold, especially when the average Roman in 218 BCE probably didn’t even know that elephants existed. It would be like seeing Martians on the horizon.

But since I tend to look at things from odd angles, I often wonder what the elephants thought about the experience. According to this article in the History Herald, there’s not one shred of evidence that any of these elephants died in the crossing. These wonderous creatures must have been well cared for. Indeed, if you take the Roman propaganda with a grain of salt, it is now believed that only 500 men were lost on the trip, which is also remarkable.

That’s pretty amazing for all concerned when you consider that this army, both human and pachyderm, was being exposed to terrain and climate, and, one would assume, viruses, that they had never experienced before. They were regularly attacked by strange humans, which would be scary for anyone, let alone an elephant who was being forced to trample them underfoot. They had already walked across the Pyrenees Mountains in Spain, and apparently made it over the alps in less than 16 days. That’s nothing to sneeze at.

I wonder what the morale was like. Did all of this feel like a grand adventure, or were the troops just in it for survival and resigned to the hard slog? I ask, because those intelligent animals surely picked up on the human emotional vibe. Imagine being an elephant in the snow, surrounded by 20,000 terrified men. What a nightmare.

Another reason not to take vanquished Roman accounts very seriously is that two of their historians give a detailed description of Hannibal having to build barges and cover them with dirt to trick the elephants into thinking it was solid ground in order to transport them across the Rhone River. Supposedly they were terrified of the water.

Um… elephants love water, and they can swim quite well. Imagine Hannibal, who had an intimate knowledge of these animals, going to such great lengths to get them across a river that they probably looked forward to playing in. I bet Hannibal would have laughed if he heard these accounts.

Yes, these elephants were sure-footed survivors. The crossing of the river and of two mountain ranges didn’t get them. No. What got them was the unusually cold winter of 218-217. All but one of the elephants died of the harsh cold. (It would be interesting to find out what one does with 36 frozen elephant corpses, but that’s just me looking at things from odd angles again.)

Interestingly, we know a bit about the one elephant that survived. It was an Indian elephant, while the rest were of a tiny North African species that no longer exists. The survivor was named Surus, and carried Hannibal himself. Personally, I think Surus’ name should be as famous as Hannibal’s.

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