Elephants

This page is devoted to elephants
. . . just for fun.



Among the aspects of Roman warfare the use of elephants has to be one of the hardest to understand. There is ample evidence that they were used both against the Romans and also by them. There is some evidence that they were effective in some instances, but there are more examples in which trained soldiers fought against elephants quite effectively. My favorite quotation regarding the use of elephants comes from Delbruck at the end of his first volume, Warfare in Antiquity, page 562: "The best testimony for their [elephants] usefulness in combat still remains, however, the fact that even the great commanders always used them again and again, especially Hannibal and also Caesar. . . . If we consider the entire experience of the military history of antiquity, we may say that the usefulness and the actual use of elephants for battle may under any circumstances not be rated too highly. Against peoples who were still not at all familiar with them and against cavalry and sharpshooters they had some successes, which were, however, as in the case of the battles against Pyrrhus, for example, very greatly exaggerated by the losers in order to find an excuse for their defeat. Troops who are familiar with them and do not fear them, who know how to avoid them and how to attack them properly, are able to deal with them . . . by skillful use of their weapons. . . . The elephant is not at all invulnerable but even has a rather sensitive hide, and even if spears and arrows do not kill him outright, they still penetrate so deeply that they remain imbedded in his body, and the pain makes the animals uncontrollable and causes them to shy away. It is reported often enough that they then penetrate into the ranks of their own troops, throw them into confusion, and bring about defeats. . . As the ultimate means of dealing with such cases, the mahouts ... each had a sharp steel wedge which they drove with a hammer into the animal's neck in order to kill him and render him harmless."

A page on elephants is included, therefore, not because they were an important aspect of Roman fighting, but merely because they are interesting.


Connolly and Warry's books both mention elephants. They note that the ancients used both Indian elephants and smaller African forest elephants. Connolly cites 3.5 meters in height for an African bush elephant, 3 meters for a large Indian bull and 2.5 meters for the African forest elephant. The illustration at the right shows an Indian elephant above and a smaller African with large ears on the bottom. The mahouts are armed with a shield and javelin. Following Warry's illustration, one soldier is armed with a long lance.


The Indian elephant is 13 feet from head to tail and would stand 3 meters tall. As drawn it is 20 feet from the tip of his tusks to the tip of his tail. The African elephant is 10' and stands 2.5 meters tall.

The illustrations above and below are shown at the same scale.






Aside from the animal itself, a significant factor would have been the height it gave to the archers. The illustration at the left give some idea of just what an advantage this would have been on the battlefield. (The tower that would have enclosed the archer is not shown to make the height factor more visible.)


The archer's head is about 15 feet off the ground. His height would not only increase the effective range of his arrows, but the downward trajectory would increase the velocity. Plus he would have a better angle to shoot from.














When modeling elephants an important factor is to estimate their speed. This proved more difficult than I had first anticipated. It turns out that there is actually a raging controversy going on among the elephant-cognosci about just how fast an elephant can travel. Most references give a walking speed of 4 to 5 miles per hour, but the top speed is quite variable. Elephants cannot run (get all four feet off the ground at the same time) but they can walk very fast -- called ambling.

Most standard references (encyclopedias, zoos, etc.) give a top speed of about 25 miles per hour. A group of dinosaur experts appears to have concluded that speeds over 11 miles per hour are incorrect. Yet studies by experts show that a speed of 22 mph for the African elephant and 16 mph for the Asian elephant are achievable. One expert stated that African elephants could even reach speeds of up to 30 mph for short distances.


Elephant races are held in various parts of the world. Reports from those races are just as varied. One race of 450 meters was reported as averaging just 6 miles per hour, another of 300 meters was completed in "about a minute," putting the speed at closer to 18 miles per hour. Another timing of an Asian bull that won its race gave a speed of 12 miles per hour. Similar studies on African elephants yield a similar result, a speed of around 12 to 15 miles per hour.

For the purpose of creating a model an charging speed for the Asian elephant of 15 mph will be used.

Everyone seems to agree that elephants cannot sustain that speed for any great distance, but since races appear to be run in the 300 to 500 meter range, it would surely seem that they can move at speed for those distances. For the purpose of modeling an attack, 300 yards is sufficient.

The illustration below shows the distances covered in 5 seconds by elephants walking 5 mph and ambling 15 mph. Also shown are comparable distances for horses and men. The speeds used in the calculations are those described previously for cavalry and for infantry.

The elephant is shown at the distances it traveled at a 5 mph walking pace and at a 15 mph ambling pace.
The horse is shown at a walking, trotting and easy galloping distances. The fastest charging distance is not shown.
Three men are shown, a legionary marching, a legionary running and a skirmisher running.

This illustration is simply meant to give a general idea of how fast each can move. At 15 mph Elephants could clearly outrun any soldier on the battlefield. The elephant's ambling speed of 15 miles per hour is the equivalent of the famous 4-minute-mile -- a feat not reached by the best sprinters until the 20th century. In general, elephants could have moved around on the battlefield at about the same speed as the cavalry, except that the top speed of the horses would have exceeded that of the elephants and horses may have had more endurance.

Delbruck, in his description of the Battle of Zama makes a few relevant remarks, page 371: "According to the Roman reports, Hannibal had, in addition to his cavalry, 80 elephants, and since we know that elephants are used most effectively against cavalry, we could perhaps imagine that Hannibal might very well have sought to counterbalance the Roman superiority by combining his cavalry with the elephants. But he did not do this; perhaps the number of elephants was much smaller than the Romans stated, but at any rate it was too small for Hannibal to have based his hopes on them. . . . we know that elephants accomplish nothing against good infantry in close formation, and when wounded, make wild, and pushed back, could become dangerous for their own infantry. "

Warry, page 95: "Thus a chain of elephants at 20-50m intervals could effectively block a cavalry advance."

Since elephants, though sometimes used against infantry, were most effective against cavalry, only that use will be modeled. The illustration below is the 4 legion and cavalry illustration used previously. 21 elephants have been added in front of the red cavalry on the right as the viewer sees the drawing.

The next drawing is a close up of the wing with the elephants. They can be seen spaced 65 feet apart, at the low end of Warry's 20 to 50 yard intervals. At that spacing they cover a front of 1,430 feet.


The next illustration is a closer view showing the 30 man cavalry unit with the elephants in front.


Warry says that elephants at 20 to 50 yards would be impenetrable to cavalry. These are 65 feet, about 20 meters, apart. 40 meters would be the distance between every other elephant.

At the closer spacing the problem cavalry would face is obvious. This illustration shows what would happen if cavalry were to try to force its way between elephants 20 meters apart. The horses are shown keeping 20 feet away from the elephants, which would seem to be the minimum to allow for a frightened horse. Even at this minimal clearance distance, the horses would jam up trying to get through the gap.



The illustration does not take into account the effect of archery fire. As illustrated, there would be four archers covering a fairly narrow gap from a high vantage point. Their effective range would easily exceed the 25 meters needed to close Warry's 50 meter maximum gap.

The conclusion is that Warry's number seem plausible. Elephants spaced as much as 50 meters apart could well present an impenetrable barrier to cavalry whose mounts were frightened by them.






Battlefield maneuvers with elephants are not in this model because elephants were only a small part of ancient warfare. Furthermore, the elephant could maneuver at approximately the same speed as the horses, certainly they could keep up with trotting horses. Much of the cavalry model depended on the premise that one side broke and ran before contact was ever made. Elephants would merely ensure this result.

Although it might be interesting to try to illustrate elephants against the infantry, it would be pure speculation. All we really know is that elephants were terrifying to troops who met them for the first time but could be defeated by troops who were familiar with them.





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© 2003, Gary Brueggeman. All rights reserved world wide. No part of this work may be reproduced in part or whole, in any form or by any means, without permission from the author.