Size of ancient war elephants
War elephants have proven to be a popular topic over the years. In Ancient Warfare issue IX.4, for example, we featured a reenactment group that uses an elephant and also had an article on these ‘behemoths of the battlefield’, written by Seán Hußmann.
War elephants were common in Hellenistic armies, especially in the third century BC, when every self-respecting Hellenistic monarch seemed to field a contingent of elephants. Most armies relied on the Indian elephant. These animals are relatively easy to train, even though it remains difficult to coax these generally peaceful creatures into battle.
The Carthaginians may have imported some Indian elephants, but they also captured animals that once roamed in North-Africa, especially near the Atlas Mountains. These elephants have been extinct for a couple of millennia, but they are believed to have been related to the African forest elephant, which is smaller than the African savannah elephant, itself the largest of the three extant species of elephant.
There is one battle in which African elephants are pitted against Indian ones: the Battle of Raphia, fought in 217 BC between the armies of Ptolemy IV and Antiochus III. Polybius’ description of the encounter suggests that Ptolemy’s elephants were scared by Antiochus’ animals on account of their odour and great size. This has puzzled modern commentators for generations, since African savannah elephants, at least, are typically larger than Indian elephants.
Did Ptolemy use the smaller type of African elephants that the Carthaginians also used? The answer is no. From texts, we know that Ptolemy used elephants taken from the Gash-Barka region in modern Eritrea, where a small population of elephants can still be found. Relatively recent DNA research has shown that these elephants are African savannah elephants, with no genetic ties to either Indian elephants or the smaller African forest elephants. Polybius, writing decades after the battle, probably got his facts wrong.
In an interesting blog post discussing the research in further detail, John McKay notes that there was a population of Asian elephants in Syria that were larger than regular Indian elephants and which could, potentially, have been used by Antiochus III. These elephants would have matched the ones fielded by Ptolemy, but are unlikely to have been larger.