Alexander's Elephants

Luke Ueda-Sarson

(A print version of this article was published in Slingshot, 227 (March 2003), pages 19-22)

This page last modified: 25 October, 2002, save for the above citation


In this article I will describe how Alexander came to acquire his war elephants, and what became of them under his Successors. It is frequently stated that Alexander the Great did not use elephants, and that this arm was only introduced into the west by his Successors. Such a view can be found for instance in Gaebel's recent (2002) book "Greek Cavalry Operations". The main argument in favour of this view is the speech in Curtius' Alexandrian history, where he puts the following words into Alexander's mouth: "In fact, I had such a low opinion of these animals that I did not employ them against the enemy even when I had some myself, for I well knew that they pose a greater risk to their masters than to the enemy" (Curtius 9.2.21, Yardley's Penguin translation; the scene is an altercation with his troops immediately after the battle of Hydaspes). This is backed up with the complete absence of any mention of elephants in battle accounts fighting in Alexander's service.

However, there are many problems with this position. Before going on to the positive evidence in favour of Alexander using elephants, I will address the two above arguments. To take the last one first, the Alexandrian sources for the latter part of his reign are much more incomplete than those for the first part and so the absence of reports about elephants is not conclusive. In particular, we have many detailed battle descriptions before Alexander reaches India - and its elephants - but a striking absence of details about subsequent military activities; the battle of Hydaspes is the only relatively well described battle from the second half of his reign. If we were to take the argument of silence about elephants as authoritive, we could similarly conclude Alexander no longer employed Greek mercenaries in his forces, or Thracians, or many other such troops that receive scant mention in the sources. One of the reasons for this is that the sources concentrate on Alexander and his deeds, as opposed to those of his generals. Troops that he delegated others to lead are accordingly under reported. As I will describe below, Alexander's elephants fall perfectly into this gap in the sources.

To turn to the speech, one must first question how reliable it is (Arrian for instance, places the mutiny, and an equivalent speech, much later in the Indian campaign). Ancient speeches as related by historians are notoriously difficult to evaluate, but in this case, it is not even necessary to deny the historical existence of the speech to undermine the argument drawn from it. For Alexander essentially says in this speech that even though he possesses elephants, he did not use them. It is therefore improper to conclude from this speech that he never used elephants - this speech cannot be used as evidence for the future, the rest of his reign, as it relates specifically and strictly to the battle just fought. Indeed, the fact that Alexander admits to possessing elephants, but refrained from using them at that time might rather indicate that he had already made use of them at some point in that past. In this case it should come as no surprise that he might use them some time again in the future.

Furthermore, the context of the supposed speech must be considered. During the battle, the Macedonians suffered heavy casualties - precisely because of Poros' elephants. The soldiers were discontented that their leader was seeking ever more distant conquests while they wanted to go home and enjoy their loot. The prospect of facing yet more elephants, rumoured to be so much more numerous in the as-yet-unvisited neighbouring kingdoms, was the straw that broke the camel's back. The soldiers mutinied, refusing to go any further. Alexander had to convince them their fears were unfounded. He first of all deals with the question of the elephants, by denigrating them, saying they are not really as bad as they seem.

The parallel with Xenophon in the same situation facing Persian cavalry is striking - and Xenophon's account of the 10000 was something Alexander was quite familiar with if we are to believe our sources. Xenophon, a cavalryman let it be recalled, found himself in the position of having to convince a body of infantry that the great numbers of enemy cavalry facing them were no cause for concern. Accordingly, he exaggeratedly pointed out all the weaknesses of cavalry, while carefully not mentioning any of their strengths that he was all too familiar with. Indeed, as soon as the men were convinced by his words, he then went and raised his own small body of cavalry - proof that he knew what he had told his men was at best a half-truth.

Alexander was in an almost identical situation, and accordingly used the same tactic. The only difference was he had no need to raise a force of elephants immediately afterwards, as he already had his own force. But as I shall describe below, this didn't stop him immediately considerably expanding it in size. Alexander knew better than elephants were useless, and that was exactly why he was so keen on collecting as many as possible.

Why didn't he use them at Hydaspes then? Two reasons immediately spring to mind. The first is that he only had a small number of them, and they would have been overwhelmed by the greater numbers of his opponent. We may compare the situation with the battle of Magnesia, where we are told the Roman commander decided to keep his elephants in reserve because not only were they physically smaller than their opposite numbers, but because they were inferior in numbers than those fielded by Antiochos. Alexander did exactly the same thing - his elephants were kept in the reserve force under Krateros (Arrian, 5.15.4), which only joined in the battle in the closing phase, relieving Alexander's tired troops so as to more effectively carry out the pursuit (Arrian 5.18.1). The elephants probably didn't even do that, since pursuing a defeated foe was not a normal role for elephants.

A second reason he may not have used them at Hydaspes is due to a lack of practice time in which to get them into a state fit enough to fight within the well coordinated Macedonian army. The elephants that Alexander had with him at Hydaspes had all seemingly been obtained within the last year. Alexander had been promised 25 elephants in tribute by "Taxilas" in 327 BC, but they were seemingly not delivered at that time (Arrian, 4.22.6). Aside from the few mentioned in just one source as being present at Gaugamela (and which even in that one source, Arrian, take no discernable part in the battle), the first elephants Alexander encountered were amongst the Assakenian Indians in mountainous north Pakistan. They were said (Arrian 4.25.5) to possess 30 beasts in their army that Alexander was "expressly anxious to find out about" (Arrian 4.30.6); so much so that of the Indians who were elephant hunters, "Alexander took pains to have them among his attendants" (4.30.8). Two of the elephants were lost during the subsequent expedition to snatch them from their grazing grounds, but the rest were successfully captured.

When Alexander descended into the Indus basin, he received the elephants Taxilas had promised (Arrian 5.3.5, but apparently 30 in number rather than 25 originally promised); if we add these to those captured previously, presumably 28 animals, we get 58 beasts. This number has some credence, because Curtius has Taxilas present Alexander with 56 elephants at this point (8.12.11, Taxilas is called Omphis in Curtius' account; Taxilas seems to have been a title rather than a name). Nearly 60 elephants can only be described as a "few" in comparison to lowland Indian enemies fielding hundreds of animals. Pyrros managed to terrorize Rome with fewer elephants than this, and Hannibal, so famous in the popular imagination for his Alpine journey to Italy with elephants in tow, likewise had considerably fewer.

Although Alexander may not have had time to incorporate elephants into his own army by the time of the battle of Hydaspes, he already had plenty of experience with them. Arrian (5.11.4, Brunt's Loeb translation) has Alexander order Krateros to stay in reserve at the battle with the following words: "If however, Poros takes all his elephants with him against me, but leaves some part of his army behind at camp, cross with all dispatch; for it is only elephants which make it impracticable to disembark horses; the rest of the force will not trouble them", and Curtius records the Macedonian soldiers hamstringing the elephants during the battle thusly: "the Macedonians began to use axes - they had equipped themselves with such implements in advance - to hack off the elephants' feet" (8.14.28). The tactical strengths and weaknesses of the arm were already well understood, as is only to be expected with so many Indian allies serving in his army.

After Hydaspes, Alexander's elephant numbers were augmented considerably - for he captured all those of Poros that survived the battle (Arrian 5.18.2) and Abisares, Poros' ally who had arrived too late to take part in the battle, is said to have surrendered 40 more elephants to Alexander (Arrian 5.20.5). If these were not enough, once Alexander had moved on, Poros was then instructed to send any remaining elephants he had to Alexander when he crossed the Indus (Arrian 5.21.2), and later, Abisares' brother brought in yet more - about 30 animals (Arrian 5.29.4, although this may well be a duplicate of 5.20.5, because the elephants mentioned there were also conveyed by his brother).

No wonder then, that by the time Alexander was ready to proceed down the Indus towards the sea, his army was said to contain some 200 elephants (Arrian 6.2.2) under Hephaistion's command, marching by a different route to that which Alexander took. Later, the elephants were part of Krateros' detached corps (Arrian 6.5.5, Alexander's army was by now so huge that it would have been impossible to supply if it was kept all together on the march) and thus absent from the accounts of Alexander's actions against the Mallians and other Indians. Alexander then received more elephants in tribute from Musikanos (Arrian 6.15.6, numbers unstated), and yet more from Oxikanos by way of spoils of war, where he "handed over all the plunder to the army but took away the elephants for himself" (Arrian 6.16.2); another instance of his personal interest in procuring them wherever and whenever possible. Soon after, (Arrian 6.16.4) he appears to have received even more animals, since to buy Alexander off, "the relatives of Sambos counted out his treasure and went to meet Alexander with the elephants". Thus by the time Alexander had left India, he might well have had nearly 300 animals in his army.

Before leaving India, Alexander split his army in two, giving half to Krateros, including the elephants (Arrian 6.17.3) and the veterans he had decided to send home, and sent them off to march to Karmania. Thus the elephants do not figure in the accounts of Alexander's actions around Patala, nor in Gedrosia with its famous desert crossing, and are only mentioned again when Alexander and Krateros are reunited in Karmania (Arrian 6.27.3). Here however they were immediately transferred to Hephaistion's command (Arrian 6.29.7) for the direct return march to Persia, and were thus not with Alexander when he marched to Pasagardae. The army was reunited at Susa, but it was now late 324 BC, and Alexander had only time to undertake one more military expedition before his death the next year: against the Kossaian mountain dwellers, in a winter campaign. Thus it is hardly surprising then that there are no accounts of him using elephants in battle. During his march down the Indus, and the subsequent journey westwards, his elephants were elsewhere, in separate armies commanded by Krateros or Hephaistion; and his only campaign once he had reached Susa was in mountainous terrain in which elephants would have been useless. But that does not mean his army did not make use of elephants. As we have seen, Alexander went to great pains to collect over 200 of them, and who can doubt that military purposes were behind almost everything he did? Why collect these animals if not to use them in his armed forces?

When Alexander died, his body was conveyed westwards in a funeral vehicle whose appearance is recorded by Diodoros (18.27.1). Four sides of part of the vehicle showed Alexander's military forces. One side showed the king on a chariot, surrounded by his guards, both Persian "apple-bearers" and Macedonians, and in front of them, normal soldiers. One side showed warships. One side showed cavalry squadrons in battle formation. The other side "showed the elephants arrayed for war" which "carried Indian mahouts in front with Macedonians fully armed in their normal equipment behind". Whether this means just one Macedonian per elephant or more is unclear; and similarly if their "normal" equipment included the pike, the javelin, or a mixture of the two.

What is surely not in doubt is that this is clear evidence that Alexander had fully incorporated elephants into his army in his lifetime, since they are described as having a Macedonian fighting crew and are clearly depicted as one of four parts of his military arsenal - cavalry, infantry, elephants and warships. Furthermore, in the days immediately following his death, we have an account of these very elephants being used in action. The Macedonian infantry and cavalry fell out with each other regarding the royal succession, and civil war was in the offing. Curtius (10.19.3) records how the two sides squared off against each over, and how the newly proclaimed King Philip "had positioned himself, along with his cavalry and elephants, opposite the infantry commanded by Meleagros". A battle was only avoided by Pedikkas riding up to the infantry with a single squadron and arresting 300 men, whom "before the eyes of the entire army he threw to the elephants. All were trampled to death beneath the feet of the beasts and Philip neither stopped it nor sanctioned it" (Curtius 10.19.18).

Elephants are neither easily nor swiftly trained, and it is impossible that Alexander's could have been trained by his officers in the mere days following his death and this engagement. Clearly they had already been trained in his lifetime, precisely because Alexander saw in them the same potentially useful qualities his officers made use of following his death (or is some cases, failed to make use of!).

As regent in Babylon, Perdikkas had control of most of the royal armed forces, including all the elephants. He presumably used them in Kappadokia in his campaign against Ariarthes there, but our scant sources give no details. He certainly used them in his subsequent invasion of Egypt (321 BC). Diodoros (18.33.6) records they formed the van in the action against Ptolemy at 'Fort Camel', and where used to tear down the palisades (18.34.2); Ptolemy personally blinded one in both eyes by deft handling of his sarissa. Perdikkas then used his elephants to assist his army in fording part of the river Nile, breaking the current's flow upstream, but they stirred up so much sand that when the current swept it away, the river was substantially deepened, stranding his soldiers (Diodoros 18.35.1-4). Over 2000 men lost their lives, and in the ensuing recriminations, Perdikkas was done to death by his officers.

The royal army, sans regent, was then led north, and at the power division of Triparadeisos, it was split by the new regent Antipatros. The surviving elephants were apportioned between himself, to immediately return to Macedonia, and Antigonos, who would continue the fight in Asia against Perdikkas' remaining supporters, most notably Eumenes. The elderly Antipatros died soon after returning to Europe, handing over his power, and therefore his elephants, to the veteran Polyperchon. Their first use in Europe was against Kassandros, Antipatros' son, who thought his father should have given him the authority that Polyperchon now wielded. With a force including 65 elephants (Diodoros, 18.28.3) Polyperchon attacked Kassadros' allies, the Megalepolitans. Having used siege towers and sappers to bring down the city's walls, Polyperchon massed his elephants together to rush the breach. The result was a fiasco. A certain Damis, who had served in Asia under Alexander, and who "by experience knew the nature and use of these animals", had the Megalepolitans bury frames studded with spikes in the breach. The elephants' soft feet were tormented by the spikes, and this, when combined with the missiles the defenders shot from bolt-shooters or bows or hurled by hand, produced a stampede that trampled many of their own side to the rear (Diodoros 18.71.1-6).

Most of the animals seem to have survived this indignity, but did not stay in Polyperchon's service for long, as 'most' were soon captured by Kassandros in unexplained circumstances (Diodoros 19.35.7). Those he did not capture, Polyperchon had lent to Queen Olympias, and they all died of starvation in the siege of Pydna (Diodoros 19.49.3). Thus it seems that less than 50 of Antipatros' elephants made it into his eldest son's army. In the hilly areas of Greece they must have been somewhat of a logistical nightmare, and Kassandros is recorded having to construct special barges to transport them across the numerous straights (eg. Diodoros 19.54.3)

In his initial confrontations with Eumenes, Antigonos' elephants are not mentioned by Diodoros, but they are recorded in his actions against Alketas (18.45.1). Once his forces had been expanded after incorprating the remnants of Eumenes' initial force along with those of Alketas, Diodoros (18.50.3) records Antigonos having 30 elephants but there has clearly been an error recorded here, for when Antigonos resumed the war with Eumenes, he is stated to have had 65 elephants (Diodoros 19.27.2, 19.40.1). Indeed, Photios' Byzantine epitome of Arrian's lost work concerning the Successors records Antigonos receiving 70 elephants from Antipatros, not 30, saying that these were half the total, which implies that Antipatros also took 70 elephants from Triparadeisos, a figure that accords well with the 65 Polyperchon used at Megalepolis.

Antigonos' elephants figure prominently in the war against Eumenes, who also fielded elephants. Indeed, Eumenes had even more of them, fielding 114 animals (Diodoros 19.28.4, 19.40.4). These were not however derived from Alexander's herd. They were provided by Eudamos, who had been appointed a governor in India by Alexander, and who had slain Poros to get hold of them after Alexander's death (Diodoros, 19.14.8). After Eumenes' defeat, Antigonos appears to have enrolled Eumenes' surviving elephants in his own army along with the rest of his troops, further expanding his herd. This explains how he could later afford to give his famous son Demetrios a relatively small army to defend Hollow Syria (ie. Palestine) that still contained as many as 43 elephants (Diodoros 19.69.1).

It was standard Hellenistic practice to give elephants infantry escorts on the battlefield; Eumenes used Persian light infantry for the purpose when opposing Antigonos, and when Demetrios' elephants at were used at Gaza against Ptolemy, they were similarly provided with escorts (Diodoros 19.82.3), a practice stated as usual (19.82.4) and no doubt derived from the Indians that Alexander encountered. Poros for instance mixed infantry with his elephants (Curtius 8.13.14, Diodoros 17.87.4) although Arrian (5.15.7) says that although the infantry were in the intervals between the elephants, they were however also behind them in a second line. It seems that both may be correct, given elephants with their escorts were often deployed in front of the infantry phalanx by the Successors, as at Gaza, Paraitakeni and Gabene. Diodoros' wording (17.88.2) can be taken to distinguish between the main infantry force and those "stationed beside the elephants" against whom the Macedonians used their sarissai (pikes) to good effect, and Arrian describes the Indian infantry behind the elephants as being a phalanx.

The weakness of elephants, even those protected by infantry escorts such as Demetrios' were, was brilliantly exploited at Gaza by Ptolemy, who had none of his own. Ptolemy gave his light infantry spiked chains to be strewn in front of the charging elephants' path. As at Megalepolis, the elephants were brought to a standstill by the spikes, and then stampeded with missiles, routing Demetrios' cavalry in the process. The elephants were all captured (Diodoros, 19.84.4), and were presumably enrolled in the Ptolemaic army since later that year we are told that Antigonos had a larger number than Ptolemy, not that Ptolemy had none (Diodoros 19.93.6).

The loss of these elephants put a dent in Antigonos' herd, but in 306 BC, when he and Demetrios were back in the area, trying to finish off Ptolemy once and for all, his over-large army still contained some 83 elephants (Diodoros, 20.73.2). The campaign was a failure, but losses were not great, and five years later, there were still 75 elephants available for service in the great battle of Ipsos. Elephants have a long lifespan, comparable with a human, and losses each year from non-military causes would have been few. Even military-related casualties were usually slight, because while elephants are relatively easily panicked, this is only in relation to the great difficulty in actually killing them.

Demetrios escaped the wrack of Ipsos leaving his dead father, and his elephants, behind. No doubt many of the surviving beasts were incorporated into Lysimachos' army: his ally Seleukos had more than enough of his own and might have settled for purely territorial rewards. Another of his allies, Kassandros, was not present at the battle; but unlike the similarly absent Ptolemy, a large portion of his army was present, fighting under Lysimachos, and he could therefore expect some sort of reward (Diodoros 21.1.5). Included in this force was seemingly Kassandros' own herd, since a fragment of Diodoros (21.1.2, Loeb translation) records how "Lysimachos'" elephants fought against Antigonos' at the battle "as if nature had matched them equally in courage and strength"; hardly surprising given their origins!

When Kassandros died, his sons fell out with each other regarding the succession, allowing Demetrios to reenter and seize the kingdom. However, before long he was evicted after being simultaneously attacked by Lysimachos and Pyrros of Epiros, with his territories and possessions being divided between his two attackers. Thus Pyrros obtained the elephants with which he used to such devastating effect against the Romans. Plutarch records him transporting 20 to Italy, a considerable undertaking, although Justin records (17.2.14) in a typically jumbled manner that he had 50, and that they were leased from Ptolemy for a two-year period (seemingly confusing them with the force that Ptolemy had given him many years before when he was a young man intent on regaining Epiros). They saw service in Sicily as well as Italy, but they did not make it back to Greece when Pyrros evacuated Italy, taking with him just 500 horse and 8000 foot: this portion of Alexander's herd ended its days in the hands of the Romans.

As Pyrros had in 281 BC at the very least 20 of Demetrios' herd that had been split in 288 BC, the implication is that Lysimachos would also have obtained at least 20 beasts at the same time, implying Demetrios' herd was at the very least 40 animals strong then; since Kassandros had less than 50 animals in 316 BC, even given an elephant's long life-span, there is no way 28 years later it could have been the same size without a source of reinforcements. As elephants breed infrequently in captivity, it appears that Kassandros too had received a part of Antigonos' herd as a consequence of Ipsos.

Lysimachos had split Demetrios' possessions with Pyrros of Epiros, but soon forced him out of Macedon after which the Epirot embarked on his Italian venture. Lysimachos was thus free to try his hand against the other last remaining Successor, Seleukos (Ptolemy having died in the meantime). He lost his life as a result, but Seleukos too was killed before the year was out, murdered by one of Ptolemy's sons, Ptolemy "Keraunos" (the Thunderbolt). Seleukos had captured Lysimachos' army along with the Macedonian throne, and Keraunos was able to convince these men to elect him King of Macedon. Along with Lysimachos' Macedonian veterans he seems to have gotten hold of his elephants; they were soon involved in the desperate efforts to turn back the Gauls (termed Galatians in Greek sources) that were on the move southwards. Keraunos was defeated and killed, and a fragment of the historian Memnon of Heraklea records he fell off his elephant during the battle: seemingly a unique instance of a Hellenistic general being mounted on an elephant in combat as opposed to a parade. Demetrios' son Antigonos Gonatos managed to gather together remnants of the army, including the elephants (Justin 25.1.6) and destroyed the last remaining Galatian host in the area, upon which he was acclaimed king.

His position was far from secure however; when Pyrros returned to Macedon, most of Antigonos' army deserted to him, including, as Plutarch reports, his elephant contingent. Thus Pyrros was able to muster 24 elephants for his Peleponnesian expedition. By this date Hellenistic elephants were equipped with towers, and it was such an elephant that indirectly led to Pyrros' death. Embroiled in an attempt to secure Argos at the same time as Antigonos was, one of Pyrros' elephants got stuck in a gateway. In the confusion, a roof tile thrown by an Argive woman stunned Pyrros who was immediately beheaded by one of Antigonos' mercenaries. Thus Antigonos regained the few remaining elephants in Greece, after which old age seems to have carried them off: elephants were generally thought to be battleworthy only when mature, and 50 years had passed since Alexander first brought them westwards; true veterans by any measure.

Thanks to Duncan Head for digging up the Memnon of Heraklea fragment for me.

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