Unsolved Mystery: Where did Hannibal get his War Elephants?
Hannibal Barca was a great Carthaginian general, known for fighting against Rome during the second Punic war. He lived from 247 to c. 182 BC. His name has been one used to incite fear over the centuries, and he remains well-known for his highly strategic military tactics. One of Hannibal’s most notable achievements occurred around 218 BC. In a quest to join up with anti-Roman allies, Hannibal led 100,000 troops and 40 elephants on a treacherous journey through the Alps. Many troops and animals were killed while crossing the Alps, and to this day, Hannibal’s completion of this journey is revered as one of the greatest military moments in history.
While the crossing of the Alps was an incredible journey that helped to seal Hannibal’s place as one of the greatest military leaders in history, there are many mysterious aspects of the journey that have been analyzed, but never solved. One of the greatest of those mysteries is where Hannibal got his pack of elephants. While war elephants have commonly been used historically, it is unclear how Hannibal obtained this enormous pack elephants. During Hannibal’s time, there were only two species of elephants in existence – Asian and African. Hannibal lived in Carthage, which is present-day Tunisia, located on the Mediterranean. This is quite a distance from Asia, and from the area south of the Sahara where African elephants are found.
Hannibal's Army Crossing the Rhone, Henri Paul Motte, 1878. (Wikipedia)
It has not been determined whether Hannibal used Asian elephants, African elephants, or a combination of the two. Looking at the characteristics of each type of elephant may provide insight into which species would have been preferable for Hannibal’s needs. It is believed that if given a choice, Hannibal would have chosen the Asian elephants. They are somewhat smaller in size than African elephants, and can be easier to train. Elephants used for military purposes would have to be well-trained, or else they would be more of a burden than a benefit. African elephants can be more difficult to control, which, added to their bigger size, would make them less suitable for military purposes, and certainly less desirable for a treacherous trek across the Alps.
Hannibal crossing the Alps with War Elephants (Source)
Some historians believe that the elephants came from a small forest subspecies of elephants located in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco and Algeria. These elephants were somewhat small, standing eight feet tall at the shoulders, and may not have been as useful for military purposes. Gavin de Beer, of the British Museum of Natural History wrote about these elephants, describing them as smelly and loud, and stating that they were highly dangerous when they charged. Some historians cite a coin from Hannibal’s time that depicts an African elephant. However, only a single elephant survived the trek across the Alps and the war, and it is believed that this was an Asian elephant. The beast’s name was Surus, which means “the Syrian,” and this was the elephant that Hannibal himself rode. Surus may have been a descendant of one of the elephants seized by the Ptolemies of Egypt during their campaigns in Syria, and brought back to Carthage. While this is cited as evidence that at least one of Hannibal’s elephants was Asian, it does not generally lead to a conclusion that all of his elephants were Asian. It may be that Hannibal collected his elephants from different areas.
It may never be known for sure exactly where Hannibal’s elephants came from. Being large creatures that need a great amount of sustenance, it is likely that any journey transporting elephants would have been complicated, and would require much advanced planning. It is likely that Hannibal was less concerned with exactly where his elephants came from, and instead he focused more on whether they would be an asset to his military forces during the second Punic war.
Featured image: Detail, Hannibal's Famous Crossing of the Alps with War Elephants (Public Domain)
The Mystery of Hannibals’ Elephants – The New York Times
War Elephant – Wikipedia
Hannibal’s Elephants: Myth and Reality – The History Herald
Hannibal’s Use of Elephants – Ancient Worlds
By M R Reese