Wednesday, 15 February 2012

The War Elephant


Elephants in battle
War elephants were important, although not widespread, weapons in ancient military history. Their main use was in charges, to trample the enemy and/or break their ranks. War elephants were exclusively male animals, as they are faster and more aggressive.

War elephants were so important that they were frequently portrayed on
coins.

War elephants seem to have come to the West from India, via Alexander the Great and his successors. One of these Pyrrhus, invaded Italy using elephants - and the Romans were terrified of them. Polybius does mention that it was the Indoi (or Indians) that were riding these elephants.

The widespread use of elephants seems to died out after Hannibal.


Silver Double Shekel, Spain, c230 BC
British Museum
The beautiful coin above - dated around 230 BC and shown about twice its original size - was issued by the Barcas in Carthaginian Spain and was part of the Mogente Hoard found in Valencia.


The head is thought to represent the Punic (Carthaginian) god Melqart, portrayed as  resembling the Greek hero Herakles with a club over his shoulder. It may also resemble the current ruler - who would have been Hamilcar, Hannibal's father.

On the reverse is a very clear picture of a war elephant, as used by Hannibal in his great campaign against Rome. It is an African elephant and the driver or mahout is shown with a pointed tool used for controlling the creature. This picture does not show any 'tower' or other structure on the back of the elephant.

The elephants figured on the coins of Alexander, and the Seleucid kingdoms invariably exhibit the characteristics of the Indian type, whilst those on Punic and Roman medals can at once be identified as African, from the peculiarities of the convex forehead and expansive ears. However, there is some doubt as to whether African elephants were ever trained and used as war elephants.




The following example is a silver half shekel from in the Enna hoard and other Sicilian hoards indicating that this coin was struck in Carthage for use in the Sicilian campaign of 213 - 210 BC. Experts disagree on the identity of the portrait; many identifying it as the god Melquarth, others as Hannibal or his father, Hamilcar.  The elephant is clearly African.



On the following depiction of one of Pyrrhus' elephants, a howdah can be seen on the back of the elephant, housing two archers.

Epirus elephant dish

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