War Pigs: A Flaming History of Nature’s Cutest Creations in Battle
Throughout human history, animals have been effectively domesticated and used as an extension of the territorial desires of human beings. While dogs and cattle became effective elements in the immediate domestic territory, elephants were one of the first animals to be trained and guided by humans for combat, called elephantry. Pigeons, dogs, horses, bears, camels, and even bees have been used in combat, in many cruel and unthinkable ways. War pigs were famously utilized by the ancient Romans to counter elephants, including setting them on fire!
Romans and Pigs: A Tactical Maneuver
Despite their massive size and power, Pliny the Elder said of the animals that never forget: “ elephants are scared by the smallest squeal of the hog”. Pigs appeared in written sources as tools of combat around 240 BC. Some histories said that the Roman legions would exploit the power of the squeal, by letting the pigs either run loose among the elephants, or hanging them from walls of retreating enemy buildings. It was alleged that just a mere squeak would cause the elephants to retreat.
This was supported by Roman author and instructor of rhetoric, Aelian, who wrote that the Romans were using these strategies as early as 275 BC in the Battle of Beneventum. He stated:
“The elephant has a terror of a horned ram and of the squealing of a pig. It was by these means, they say, that the Romans put to flight the elephants of Pyrrhus of Epirus, and that the Romans won a glorious victory.”
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Carthaginian war elephant. ( Lunstream / Adobe Stock)
The Romans exploited squealing pigs as a counter-measure against the war elephants of Pyrrhus. The strategy was hoping that the pigs would run uncontrollably into the ranks of the enemy, causing confusion and pandemonium. According to the Pseudo-Callisthenes or ‘A History of Alexander’, Alexander had first learned about the pig as a secret weapon against elephants from Porus.
Over time, elephants were trained to resist the squeal of the pig, notably after the Wars of Justinian, and in particular the siege of the Mesopotamian city of Edessa in 544 AD. The late antiquity historian Procopius was the one who chronicled the usage of pigs by the Byzantine or Eastern Roman armies.
Khusrau I, King of Persia, had besieged Edessa and overwhelmed the Roman forces there. It reached a stage where Khusrau’s forces had entered the town area. “But the Romans,” wrote Procopius, “by dangling a pig from the tower, escaped the peril. As the pig was hanging there, he naturally squealed, and this so irritated the elephant that it, stepping back little by little, withdrew.”
Over time, enemy forces learned to counter this tactic. Elephants were trained to not fear the pig’s squeal and engage in combat comfortably, by rearing elephants with baby pigs. This forced the Byzantines, the inheritors of the Roman legacy, to change their tactics, which they learned the hard way in their numerous battles with the Abbasids and the Umaiyadds.
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Flaming razorback pig. ( Анна Богатырева / Adobe Stock)
The Flaming Pigs of Megara: Incendiary War Weapon
The Romans were not alone in using pigs as weapons of war. Incendiary pigs, or flaming pigs, were used to counter a nearly lost battle in Megara by Antigonus II Gonatas in 266 BC. The Megarian locals doused pigs with a combustible pitch, either crude oil or resin, set them on fire, and drove them towards the enemy’s war elephants. The elephants, naturally, ran helter-skelter, trampling a great number of their own soldiers to an icky demise. This event was recorded by military writers Polyaenus and Aelian.
Writes Polyaenus, “Antigonus [Gonatus] brought his elephants into the attack, but the Megarians daubed some swine with pitch, set fire to it, and let them loose among the elephants. The pigs grunted and shrieked under the torture of the fire, and sprang forwards as hard as they could among the elephants, who broke their ranks in confusion and fright, and ran off in different directions. From this time onwards, Antigonus ordered the Indians, when they trained up their elephants, to bring up swine among them; so that the elephants might thus become accustomed to the sight of them, and to their noise.”
Startled elephants could rampage troops in battle. Battle of Zama, circa 1567-1578 ( Public Domain )
The practice was so commonly used that it was immortalized on a Roman coin from this time period, which depicted an elephant on one side, and a pig on the other.
Lucretius wrote in De Rerum Natura or ‘The Nature of Things’ (1st century BC) about these ‘flaming-pigs’:
“Since when heated with the promiscuous slaughter they ran wild, and proved to be useless. They threw the squadrons into confusion, friend and foe alike, on all sides shaking the frightful crests upon their heads, nor could the riders soothe the spirits of their horses terrified at the roaring, nor guide them towards the foe. The bulls tossed their own friends and trampled them underfoot, and laid bare flanks and bellies of horses, striking from below with their horns, and scored up the earth with threatening intent.”
Extinguishing the Flaming Pigs Tactic
Over time, the decline in the use of war pigs has correlated with the decline in elephantry. Many species of elephants were hunted and captured, dwindling their numbers significantly. By antiquity, habitat destruction of elephants had caused an overall decline in elephant populations.
The use of elephants in battle decreased, and accordingly, incendiary pigs were no longer used. These pigs had short life spans once set on fire, rendering them tactically ineffective beyond a point. Additionally, in many cases, ineffective training of pigs had resulted in self-defeats, when the pigs ran amok in their home camp, wreaking havoc.
There are some doubts about the veracity of some of these sources, as they were writing at least a couple of centuries after these battles occurred. For example, Polyaenus had a distinct interest in narrating fascinating or unusual battle techniques and tricks. Aelian like to collect ancient facts and beliefs about animals.
However, one can argue with certainty that as elephants were an extension of Hellenistic tradition, various measures and counter-measures had developed over the centuries in a bid to counter this force. It is likely that pigs or flaming pigs were one of many such measures.
Top image: Alexander driving off elephants with war pigs and musical instruments in a detail from a French illuminated manuscript from 1420’. Source: The British Library / CC BY 4.0 )
By Sahir Pandey
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