Pachydermophobia - Ammianus Marcellinus and his fear of elephants

In several passages of Ammianus Marcellinus’ Res Gestae, he mentions Sasanian war elephants. As a soldier in the east in the 350s and then accompanying Julian’s Persian campaign in 363, Ammianus had seen  Sasanian Persian war elephants in action first hand. Reading between Ammianus’ lines, it seems that he must have had a bad experience with them.

A statue of a war elephant with a tower on its back from Pompeii - Ammianus' description of the Persians' war elephants tells us not much had changed in their use (or effect) three hundred years later.

Statuette of a war elephant

Ammianus Marcellinus was born around 330 in the east, possibly in Antioch, although this view (once held as certain) has been challenged. He was from a wealthy family and served in the army of the emperor Constantius II as a protector domesticus, part of the guard cavalry of the emperor, from 353 (perhaps earlier) to 359. He tells us he was a Greek, a soldier, and a gentleman and the surviving books of his Res Gestae reveal several campaigns in which he was intimately involved; none are more dramatic than the siege of Amida in 359.

Ammianus retired from the army soon after Amida but accompanied the emperor Julian on his renewed campaigns against the Sasanian Persians in 363. Probably soon after the death of Julian in 363, Ammianus moved to Rome and there wrote his history, probably in the 370s and 380s (although we find him travelling in the 370s to Antioch and visiting the battlefield of Adrianople soon after it was fought in 378). In his thirty-one books, he continued the work of Tacitus, beginning with the accession of Nerva in 96 and continuing down to the battle of Adrianople in 378. Much of the early books must have covered events relatively quickly since the first thirteen books are lost but the last eighteen books (which survive) only cover the period from AD 353-378. The work seems to have been finished before 391 although we do not know when Ammianus died (it is usually placed before 400). He is the last great Latin historian of Rome.

Ammianus and the Persian Wars

In the summer of AD 359, the armies of the Sasanian Persian Shahanshah (“King of Kings”), Shapur II (r. 309-379), invaded (Roman) southern Armenia. This invasion was the latest manoeuvre in a long-cherished revenge for a humiliating peace imposed on the Persians sixty years earlier by the Roman emperors Galerius and Diocletian in 299. Shapur had fought previous campaigns between 337 and 350, but they had been inconclusive. Ammianus was an eyewitness to the most dramatic events of this war and his narrative in the Res Gestae at this point is therefore full of precise detail and evocative description.   

A bust of Shapur II now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

During the opening phase of the war of 359, Ammianus accompanied the field commander, Ursicinus, the magister equitum per Orientem. Events quickly unravelled and Ammianus, along with seven legions and other troops (some 120,000 people in total), found himself besieged in the small fortified frontier city of Amida (modern Diyarbakır, southeastern Turkey). The city was on a high plateau on the southern bank of the Tigris River. It would need to be taken if Shapur’s advance was to progress. Constantius, the emperor, was in the west, overseeing campaigns over the Danube against the Quadi and Sarmatians.

During the siege (I highly recommend reading Ammianus’ account!) one of the Persians’ allies, the Segestani, brought elephants up to assault the walls. Ammianus’ distaste for the animals is immediately apparent: “With them, making a lofty show, slowly marched the lines of elephants, frightful with their wrinkled bodies and loaded with armed men, a hideous spectacle, dreadful beyond every form of horror, as I have often declared” (19.1.3). Unfortunately, any mentions Ammianus had made of elephants before book 14 of his history have been lost to us.

As the siege drew to a close, elephants were  used again. Even though in this case they were turned back by being surrounded with fire brands so that they charged uncontrollably, Ammianus still couldn't stand the beasts: "the most sorrowful of days dawned upon us, showing as it did formidable bands of Persians along with troops of elephants, than whose noise and huge bodies the human mind can conceive nothing more terrible" (19.7.6). It is tempting to consider that Ammianus may have had close contact with a Persian elephant (at Amida or earlier) and so his dread reflected personal experience.

Elephants can be seen on the Arch of Galerius in Thessaloniki, Greece, commemorating Galerius and Diocletian's victory over the Sassanids in 299. 

With Julian on the campaign in 363, Ammianus once again came across elephants in the Persian array (24.6.8): “The Persians opposed to us serried bands of mail-called horsemen in such close order that the gleam of moving bodies covered with densely fitting plates of iron dazzled the eyes of those who looked upon them, while the whole throng of horse was protected by coverings of leather. The cavalry was backed up by companies of infantry, who, protected by oblong, curved shields covered with wickerwork and raw hides, advanced in very close order. Behind these were elephants, looking like walking hills, and, by the movements of their enormous bodies, they threatened destruction to all who came near them, dreaded as they were from past experience.”

The "past experience" may very well have been his own. On the march, Ammianus once again encountered the creatures he so much detested. Behind the enemy infantry could be seen “the gleaming elephants, with their awful figures and savage, gaping mouths could scarcely be endured by the faint-hearted; and their trumpeting, their odour, and their strange aspect alarmed the horses still more. Seated upon these, their drivers carried knives with handles bound to their right hands, remembering the disaster suffered at Nisibis; and if the strength of the driver proved no match for the excited brute, that he might not turn upon his own people (as happened then) and crush masses of them to the ground, he would with a mighty stroke cut through the vertebra which separates the head from the neck. For long ago Hasdrubal, brother of Hannibal, discovered that in that way brutes of this kind could quickly be killed. Although these sights caused no little fear, the emperor, guarded by troops of armed men and with his trustworthy generals, full of confidence, as the great and dangerous power of the enemy demanded, drew up his soldiers in the form of a crescent with curving wings to meet the enemy.”

What the disaster at Nisibis refers to is unclear – elephants make no appearance in any of Ammianus’ other mentions of the city. The accounts of the siege of the city by Shapur in AD 350 do, however, involve both elephants and disaster for the Persians (as detailed by the accounts in the Chronicon Paschale, Theophanes’ Chronographia, and Julian’s Oration 2). It may well have been there (and in a section of Ammianus’ history which does not survive), that his encounter with elephants occurred – he may have been on the receiving end of an out-of-control elephant and got so close that their smell, sounds and savage gaping mouths gave him nightmares. As a cavalryman, his mentioning the effect elephants had on horses is entirely understandable.

During the 350 siege, some of the elephants are described as drowning in the mud so their mahouts may well have taken the precaution thereafter of having a knife to cut themselves free or kill the beast before it turned on its own forces. It may also have been there that Ammianus experienced some kind of elephantine trauma first-hand. Our best account of the siege of 350 comes in the Second Oration of Julian where he tells us of the assault on the breached walls of the city using elephants. His account is, by and large, corroborated by the much more brief accounts in the Chronographia of Theophanes’ and the Chronicon Paschale; there, the elephants were defeated by catapults. The use of elephants is also corroborated by the eyewitness to the siege, Ephrem (or Ephraim) the Syrian who recounts aspects of it in his Carmina Nisibena (Nisibene Hymns). At 2.18 Ephrem tells us “When the wall was broken through, when the elephants pressed in, when the javelins showered.”

According to Julian, this assault by elephants occurred after the wall was surrounded by the diverted river; the floodwaters undermined the wall and caused its collapse. Julian tells us that the first Persian assault (without elephants) advanced on the breach in the wall confidently and then charged when the signal was given (Oration 2 64B). The defenders, however, “kept their phalanx unbroken at the gap in the wall, and on the portion of the wall that was still intact they posted all the non-combatants in the city, and distributed among them an equal number of soldiers” (65C). The Persians increased the speed of their charge recklessly, wanting to have their king see them perform heroic deeds. The mud and detritus disrupted the cavalry charge. When the cavalry were mired, a sally from the gap in the wall was launched and the men on the walls threw stones. Many of the cavalry were killed and the remainder turned and fled. Some men were unhorsed as their cavalry turned and so they too were killed. Julian continues that “the carnage that ensued has never yet been paralleled in any siege of the same kind” (65C). The elephants were sent in next, but the heavier elephants, burdened by towers and men, however, were severely hampered by the mud. The elephants came on, spaced widely with infantry between them. Julian assumes that this display was intended to overawe the defenders, but it failed. From the walls, engines hurled stones and arrows were fired. There must also have been another sally by troops from the breach (and it would have been in this action that Ammianus was involved and where he got up-close-and-personal with an elephant). The defenders also hurled insults and challenges at the Persians to come and fight them at the wall. The “naturally quick-tempered” (65D) Persians could not endure such insults and so charged the wall and had to suffer a continuous rain of missiles. Elephants went down and sank into the mud. This charge also ended in ignominious retreat.

When we first meet Ammianus in his own history, at least in the surviving portion (14.9.1), he was indeed at Nisibis (with Ursicinus) but summoned to Tyre to oversee a trial of the governor of the province. His account of the siege of Nisibis in 350 (the most likely context for his mentioning of the disaster at Nisibis) presumably came in book thirteen when he encountered elephants near the city and where the Persians had suffered a disaster of their animals running amok.

A bronze coin of the emperor Julian.

A bronze coin of the emperor Julian

Returning to the campaign of Julian in 363, the emperor rushed into the subsequent battle, rashly and without armour while the Parthians overcame the Roman left wing – what was the weapon which overcame them? Elephants: “since our men could hardly endure the smell and trumpeting of the elephants, they were trying to end the battle with pikes and volleys of arrows.” (25.3.4) Julian rescued the situation and the Romans hacked at the backs of the elephants’ legs. In this encounter, however, Julian was struck by a spear and died. This too was a disaster for Ammianus and his hatred of elephants may have come about (or been added to) from their role in Julian’s death. As Julian died, the Persians exulted and “Before them slowly marched the elephants, which with their huge size of body and horrifying crests, struck terror into horses and men” (25.3.12).

Detail of the fallen emperor Julian on the Taq-e Bostan reliefs in Kermanshah, Iran

Detail of a relief showing the fallen Julian

With Julian dead, the Romans withdrew from Persian territory, while under constant attack. Just as they were withdrawing, “the Persians attacked us, with the elephants in front. By the unapproachable and frightful stench of these brutes, horses and men were at first thrown into confusion. (25.6.2). Luckily, men of the legions, the Joviani and Herculani (legions named after Diocletian and Herculius) killed two of the beasts and saved the day. As the retreat continued and Jovian was made emperor, the Persian king Shapur “learned from the true accounts of scouts and deserters of the brave deeds of our men and the shameful defeats of his army, accompanied by a greater loss of elephants than he had ever known in his reign” (25.7.1). So at least (from Ammianus’ point of view), some kind of revenge was taken on his least favourite foe by the losses they endured.

The coronation of Ardashir II, brother of Shapur II. Shapur is on the right and the god Mithra (god of light, oaths and treaties, justice, and the sun) sanctions the investiture on the left with upraised barsom. The two kings stand on a fallen foe (most likely representing Julian and so the culmination of revenge over the humiliating treaty of 299 made by their grandfather, Narseh - this relief celebrates that great victory almost twenty years later).

And that is the last mention of elephants in Ammianus. There is not really enough material in the extant books of the Res Gestae to adequately explain his irrational dislike of the animals although there are tantalising suggestions as to where (in the lost books) he may have experienced his elephantine trauma; one which he would continue to make reference to in the remainder of his history.

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