75mm Carthago War Elephant



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The Ptolemaic Kingdom and the Punics began acquiring African elephants for the same purpose, as did Numidia and the Kingdom of Kush. The animal used was the North African elephant (Loxodonta africana pharaohensis) which would become extinct from over exploitation. These animals were smaller, harder to tame, and could not swim deep rivers compared to the Asian elephants used by the Seleucid Empire on the east of the Mediterranean region, particularly Syrian elephants, which stood 2,5–3,5 meters at the shoulder. It is likely that at least some Syrian elephants were traded abroad. The favorite, and perhaps last surviving, elephant of Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps was an impressive animal named Surus (“The Syrian“), which may have been of Syrian stock, though the evidence remains ambiguous. Some allusions to turrets in ancient literature are certainly anachronistic or poetic invention, but other references are less easily discounted. There is explicit contemporary testimony that the army of Juba I of Numidia included turreted elephants in 46 BC. This is confirmed by the image of a turreted African elephant used on the coinage of Juba II. This also appears to be the case with Ptolemaic armies: Polybius reports that at the battle of Raphia in 217 BC the elephants of Ptolemy IV carried turrets. These elephants were significantly smaller than the Asian elephants fielded by the Seleucids and so presumably African forest elephants. There is also evidence that Carthaginian war elephants were furnished with turrets and howdahs in certain military contexts. Although the use of war elephants in the Mediterranean is most famously associated with the wars between Carthage and Roman Republic, the introduction of war elephants was primarily the result of the Greek kingdom of Epirus. Perhaps inspired by these victories, Carthage developed its own use of war elephants and deployed them extensively during the First and Second Punic Wars. The performance of the Carthaginian elephant corps was rather mixed, illustrating the need for proper tactics to take advantage of the elephant’s strength and cover its weaknesses. During the Second Punic War, Hannibal famously led an army of war elephants across the Alps, although many of them perished in the harsh conditions. The Romans eventually developed effective anti-elephant tactics, leading to Hannibal’s defeat at his final battle of Zama in 202 BC. His elephant charge, unlike the one at the battle of Tunis, was ineffective because the disciplined Roman maniples simply made way for them to pass.

Rome brought back many elephants at the end of the Punic Wars, and used them in its campaigns for many years afterwards. The conquest of Greece saw many battles in which the Romans deployed war elephants, like the in 197 BC, the battle of Thermopylae, and the battle of Magnesia in 190 BC, during which Antiochus III’s fifty-four elephants took on the Roman force of sixteen. In later years the Romans deployed twenty-two elephants at Pydna in 168 BC. The role of the elephant force at Cynoscephalae was particularly decisive, as their quick charge shattered the unformed Macedonian left wing, allowing the Romans to encircle and destroy the victorious Macedonian right. A similar event also transpired at Pydna. The Romans’ successful use of war elephants against the Macedonians might be considered ironic, given that it was Pyrrhus who first taught them the military potential of elephants.

The Seleucid king Antiochus V Eupator, whose father and he vied with Ptolemy VI over the control of Syria, invaded Judea in 161 BC used elephants some clad with armored breastplates, in an attempt to subdue the Jews who had sided with Ptolemy. Elephants also featured throughout the Roman campaign against the Lusitanians and Celtiberians in Hispania and against Gauls. Famously, the Romans used a war elephant in the invasion of Britain, one ancient writer recording that “Caesar had one large elephant, which was equipped with armor and carried archers and slingers in its tower. When this unknown creature entered the river, the Britons and their horses fled and the Roman army crossed over“. Although he may have confused this incident with the use of a similar war elephant in Claudius’ final conquest of Britain.

In the African campaign of the Roman civil war of 49–45 BC, the army of Metellus Scipio used elephants against Caesar’s army at the battle of Thapsus. Scipio trained his elephants before the battle by aligning the elephants in front of slingers that would throw rocks at them, and another line of slingers at the elephants’ rear to perform the same, in order to propel the elephants only in one direction and avoid they turning their backs because of frontal attack and charging against his own lines, but the author of De Bello Africano admits of the enormous effort and time required to accomplish this. By the time of Claudius however, such animals were being used by the Romans in single numbers only – the last significant use of war elephants in the Mediterranean was against the Romans at the battle of Thapsus, 46 BC, where Julius Caesar armed his fifth legion (Alaudae) with axes and commanded his legionaries to strike at the elephant’s legs. The legion withstood the charge, and the elephant became its symbol. Thapsus was the last significant use of elephants in the West. The remainder of the elephants seemed to have been thrown into panic by Caesar’s archers and slingers.

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