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How Elephant Armies Built the Ancient World

elephants elephant armies cold war alexandria

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#1    Still Waters

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Posted 19 March 2014 - 04:18 PM

Without elephants, the ancient Library of Alexandria might not have existed. Every war has, as a byproduct, cultural and technological innovation: in our world, the US Civil War led to medical advancements and the Cold War put us in space. In the classical era, it was the race to build elephant armies that changed the world.


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#2    Peter B

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Posted 20 March 2014 - 01:23 PM

An interesting article, but I think it was a bit of a stretch to say that it was a love of elephant armies which was responsible for things like the Library of Alexandria.

For one thing, it's worth considering that Ptolemaic Egypt's trade with India and Meroe could easily have flourished without a desire to acquire either elephants or mahouts. India was, after all, the source of expensive and exotic spices so loved in the Mediterranean world, and Meroe was a source of ivory even if the tusks weren't attached to live elephants.

Regarding the acquisition of elephants, Ptolemy I of Egypt (one of Alexander the Great's generals and the founder of the Ptolemaic dynasty) captured some elephants from a defeated invading army in 321BC, and they were theoretically available for use in battle until the death from old age of the last of them in about 280BC. It's likely the death of those elephants which prompted Ptolemy II's search for alternative replacements.

As for their use in battle, it was a tactical problem which Hellenistic generals never really nailed down. They were one of the few mounted troop types capable of frontally attacking the massed pikes of a Macedonian phalanx, and they made most cavalry horses uncontrollable. But they were vulnerable to dispersed swarms of skirmishers on foot or horseback who could snipe at the mahouts and at the elephants' vulnerable points like their eyes. As a result they were often deployed among a swarm of friendly foot skirmishers with the job of driving back enemy skirmishers to allow the elephants to attack the main enemy army. Ptolemy I himself used another technique against Demetrius at the Battle of Gaza in 312BC: spiked mats which could be thrown down in front of troops about to be attacked by elephants. And I've also mentioned in the rocket cat thread the trick used by the Romans against the elephants of Pyrrhus of Epirus - incendiary pigs.

Interestingly, the Egpytian use of African elephants probably inspired the Carthaginians to try the same trick - their use of elephants dates from around this time. It occasionally worked well against the Romans, but not for Hannibal when he invaded Italy: only a couple survived the jaunt across the Alps, and they were more use as recruiting propaganda among wavering Italians than deadly weapons of battle. Having said that, the Romans themselves occasionally used elephants in small numbers as late as Claudius's invasion of Britain in 43AD.

#3    PersonFromPorlock


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Posted 22 March 2014 - 06:50 PM

I recall a comment in a novel by L. Sprague DeCamp, to the effect that war elephants were inclined to panic and retreat back through the army host. DeCamp dryly noted "This leaves the host in an untidy state."

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